I’ve learned some things while running — and specifically while doing Couch to 5K — that apply to both physical fitness and our spiritual lives.
- Everybody can be a runner; you don’t have to be a special kind of person to do it.
- Beginning steps are baby steps, and that’s okay.
- Progress is slow, and sometimes you backslide.
- You need a plan so you know where you’re going.
- Sometimes you can push yourself, and then you learn that you’re capable of more than you knew.
- Having someone help you along the way is crucial.
I’ve been thinking about these things, and even how they apply to my life as a Catholic, for a while. When I talked to Jennifer Fulwiler yesterday, I did touch on a couple of these things, but I feel like I want to delve into them a little more.
Everybody can be a runner; you don’t have to be a special kind of person to do it. I came to realize this when I was watching people cross the finish line at the Richmond Marathon in 2013. And just last year, there was a woman who proved that same point, finishing that same marathon more than an hour after the cutoff time. For her, it was a major victory, and she proved that anyone can be a runner.
Likewise, you don’t need to be any special kind of person to live a holy life or to become a saint. Young people like Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati have lived holy lives even when few people around them seemed to care for the Church. Venerable Pierre Toussaint was a slave. Saint Thomas More was a lawyer and government official who wound up giving up all titles and their benefits to live his faith when everyone around him seemed to be abandoning the Church. Saint Louis remained king and still lived out his faith in a heroic manner. Saint Rita felt called to religious life, was forced to marry, lost her husband and sons, and finally got her wish to enter an Augustinian monastery in her mid-30s. Saint Augustine was a playboy with an illegitimate child who wound up becoming a bishop before he died. There’s no one kind of runner, and there’s no one kind of saint. Runners are people who go out and run, and saints are people who go out and strive for holiness. Those are the only prerequisites.
Beginning steps are baby steps, and that’s okay. Each week on Couch to 5K, there are incremental steps towards being able to go out and run 3.1 miles. During the first week, the longest you run is 1 minute. In week 2, you have running intervals of 1 1/2 minutes. In week 3, you have some 3 minute intervals mixed in. Every week you go a little bit longer, and while it might be a stretch on the first of the three days in the program, by the end of the week, it’s easier to do. Eventually, you’re out running a couple of miles without stopping, still in wonder that two months before that you were needing your Power Song on Nike+ to get through a 3 minute run.
As Jen mentioned on her show yesterday, this is a lot like our spiritual growth. It all comes in baby steps, not in leaps and bounds. I remember trying to do All the Holy Things during Lent and failing miserably. Another time, I confessed to my priest that I was not keeping up all the things I had promised to do for God. While my Dominican promises are not under pain of sin, I felt like my spiritual sloth was preventing me from doing everything I ought to be doing. “God doesn’t expect you to perfect your spiritual life all at once,” the priest told me. “He wants baby steps, and as long as you’re taking them, you’re doing well.” You can’t go from Zero to Hero all at once.
Progress is slow, and sometimes you backslide. There are times when I’m making great progress on my running. My endurance is up, my pace is down, I’m hitting new PRs for 1K and 1 mile, and I feel amazing! Then comes the day (or week!) when running is awful, my legs feel like lead, my joints all hurt, I hate being outside, and I can’t get through a mile without stopping to walk for a while. But, as Nathan told me when he started training for his marathon, sometimes you just have a bad run. It happens to everyone. What I’ve learned is that all you have to do is follow the advice of Dory and Just Keep Running.
Spiritual growth is the same. As a Lay Dominican, I am supposed to be praying Morning and Evening Prayer, a daily Rosary, and daily Mass. None are under pain of sin, and if my primary vocation keeps me away from Mass or I get caught up and miss Lauds or Vespers, it’s okay. (On the other hand, I personally take a look at whether or not I’m just being lazy and take that into account, as well.) There are times when I’m firing on all cylinders, and that’s when I feel like I could run a spiritual marathon! Look out, Satan! I’ve been to Confession, Adoration, and Mass, plus a Rosary and Lauds. You can’t stop me!
And then I’ll hit a spiritual wall where I feel disconnected from prayer, I can’t seem to budget my time properly and I miss all the Liturgy of the Hours for the day, my Rosary was said along with the CD while I folded laundry and my mind wandered to thinking about the next Marvel movie, and then I yell at my kids for basically nothing. I feel like a total loser. But just like when I need to Just Keep Running, I also need to Just Keep Praying. God’s not expecting me to be perfect in this life. He’s expecting me to try — to give it my best, to be sure — but He’s not expecting me to get it right every time. Honestly, if I’m declared a saint, I’ll be patroness of people who can’t get it right for two weeks in a row.
You need a plan so you know where you’re going. When I started running, I used the Couch to 5K app. Because it gives me a plan to follow, I’m not randomly running, which would only result in me stopping much sooner than I ought to. I wouldn’t have known how to ramp up my running schedule, and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to run 5K after nine weeks. Knowing how you want to proceed goes along with just about any goal you set. High schoolers have to have a general plan to get through school with all of the proper classes, and college students do the same thing. My husband is working on training people across the country to use a new in-store system, and they’re developing a plan and schedule for where and when each area of the country will get training and start using the system. Without that kind of plan, mayhem ensues and no one gets what they need at the time they need it.
Why would it be any different with our spiritual lives? I’ve been Catholic my whole life, but it was teaching my kids for homeschool religion that really started me learning about the Faith. The Catechism can be your guide. You can look to online courses and podcasts to help you read the Bible, find textbooks that help you learn about the faith. For me, being a Lay Dominican has helped me focus my learning and pushed me to strive for holiness in new ways. A framework can help you develop a plan to deepen your faith and grow closer to God. Without any plan, it’s too easy to become distracted and unfocused. With a plan, you can see where you’re going and how to get there. Consider it a road map to Heaven!
Sometimes you can push yourself, and then you learn that you’re capable of more than you knew. When I was first running the Couch to 5K two years ago, I didn’t know how or when to push myself. Before that, if I was tired, I would just stop, and that made it harder to start running again and keep moving. But because I knew that I would be able to rest for a minute if I ran for a minute, I would push myself to finish the interval I was running. When the intervals became longer, I knew I could push a little bit more than before, and I learned how to read my body’s signals to differentiate between wanting to stop and needing to stop. I also learned that sometimes I wanted to stop, but if I pushed a little bit more, I would get past that and not feel that desire for a long while. I remember the first time I had to run for three minutes in a row. I was petrified. I was sure I wasn’t gong to make it. I was still thinking about that week 9 workout that I wasn’t even close to doing, and I wondered if I’d be able to keep my legs moving for the entire workout.
When I actually did it, I felt like the biggest badass in the world. I could do more than I imagined possible, and that amazement at my own abilities continued with each passing week. When I finished the very last workout, I walked in the house and burst into tears. I had done the whole thing, and I had gone more than 3.1 miles in that 45:00 workout. Nine weeks before that moment, I had no idea how I would ever accomplish that goal. I had no idea that I could accomplish that goal.
In our spiritual lives, if we focus too much on the end goal (becoming a saint), it can be overwhelming. If we’re in the habit of reading some of the too-sanitized versions of saints’ biographies, we can get the idea that it’s just not possible for us to achieve Heaven or sainthood. But that is simply untrue. Sure, we can’t become saints by Sunday, but each Sunday should bring us just a little bit closer. Remember the baby steps and the backsliding? Those never go away. No matter how long you’ve been running, you’ll still have a bad running day once in a while. No matter how long you’ve been Catholic, you’ll still have a week where you wonder how you can even call yourself Catholic any more.
There are plenty of saints whose struggles for holiness lasted their entire lives. Venerable Matt Talbot is the perfect example of this. Matt was an alcoholic by the time he was 13, but had a conversion experience that caused him to decide to “take the pledge” and quit drinking. He gave himself three months, each day making the decision not to drink. He gradually began to replace his alcoholic habit with other habits (daily Mass, prayer, etc.) and stretched the “impossible” three months into more than 40 years. But his decision not to drink (even when he was still hanging around his old drinking buddies) was a daily one. So, too, are our spiritual goals. Each day we must decide to start again. Each day we decide to grow a little bit more. Eventually, we will look back on our “former lives” and see how far we’ve come.
Having someone help you along the way is crucial. When I was starting out running, my husband was my running buddy. He would go out with me and encourage me along the way, sometimes quite literally. Early in my Couch to 5K training, he would run slightly ahead of me on the Greenway, saying things like, “Just get to that fencepost! Okay, now let’s get to those trees over there! You’re doing great! Now we’re going to run to the bridge over there! You can do it!” Every goal was a little one. Every step was just one more closer to the end. And I appreciated his encouragement and help. (Well, most of the time. One day, I’d had enough and wanted to tell him to stop. So I said something, which I thought was, “Stop please!” It turns out that what I actually said was, “Shut up!” Oops. He still went running with me after that, though, so I guess he’s forgiven me.) When I finished Couch to 5K the first time, I was a pretty good match for him as a runner, and we could encourage each other. When his strength was flagging, I was able to encourage him — and vice-versa. Each of us pushed the other when we were out. We’re still running buddies to this day.
In our spiritual lives, having someone help us along the way is also crucial. Most resources recommend a spiritual director. Being involved in a study group is great. Being involved with a Third Order is another way to have someone go along with you and guide you along the way. Having someone help you is a way to keep going when you feel burned out. If you feel like giving up, that person is the one who helps you see that you don’t need to give up. They help you find the strength to go just a little bit further while you are searching for the strength to keep saying “yes” to the plan God is laying out for you. As Catholics, we’re called to be a community for each other. This isn’t some hokey, hippy thing — it’s something necessary. We’re supposed to worship together, learn together, and help each other out along the way. In Acts, we read about how the early Church formed communities to help each other in any and every way possible. Why do we expect that we can do things differently? Find a study group or a mentor. Investigate the various Third Orders near you. Work your plan for holiness together, and you’ll be able to encourage each other in moments when one is feeling weak and tired.
Running is more like our spiritual lives than we often think. But remember, Saint Paul even compared living a holy life to running when he said:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. (2 Timothy 4:7)
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. (1 Corinthians 9:24)
Run your race, both on the running trails and in your spiritual life!