by Joyce Tompkins
Joyce Tompkins is the Religious Advisor to the Campus Protestant Community. Other Spiritual Reflections are available on the Religious Advisor's page.
You can write to Joyce at firstname.lastname@example.org
I am a runner. I started running in college and I've been running regularly ever since - except for a few months off each time I was pregnant. I am not an intense or heroic runner. I have never run a marathon. I have never run more than eight miles. What I am, as a runner, is regular. Faithful. Even disciplined. And now, in my fifties, I am seeing the rewards of more than thirty years of this faithful practice.
But my running life did not begin auspiciously or easily. It began as something I forced myself to do, in order to get in shape for a specific goal. I was a college freshman, and I wanted to try out for the women's crew. I had never participated in any sports or athletics before. The first time I ran, I made it halfway around the block, gasping for breath. But as I kept trying, I learned to pace my breathing, and developed some new muscles. I never made the crew - I was about 10 inches too short and fifty pounds too light. But by then, I had been running for six months. It was becoming a habit, so I kept it up. I found that even though I did not have to do it any more, I wanted to do it. Then, over the next few years, I realized I needed to do it to feel like myself. Eventually, over many years, running became something I no longer think about doing. I simply do it. I am no longer someone who runs; I am a runner.
Everyone knows that vigorous exercise increases your metabolism. You run a few miles, you burn some calories. Not many calories, actually. If you work out on one of those horrible machines in the gym with the little calorie counter attached, you will find that after 30 intense, sweaty, painful minutes, you have burned something like 250 calories. That's not even one donut. Why bother? Because, if you continue to do this regularly, something transformational happens. After a while, your metabolism doesn't just go up while you are exercising; it stays up. It goes up permanently. So for a habitual runner like me, you burn off more calories than a more sedentary person all the time - even when you are sitting still. More donuts for me!
This same principle holds true in the spiritual life. Many of us struggle to create some regular practice of prayer in much the way that we struggle with an exercise program. At first, perhaps, like weekend warriors, we only do it when some crisis has reminded us of our need for God. Then we attempt to correct long years of negligence by forcing ourselves into a regular prayer program: reading the bible daily, or using a particular prayer, or meditating. It can feel very difficult, painful, or boring at first, and we may not even make it halfway around the block. But if we stick with it for awhile, a change begins to take place. We find one day that we are not dreading our regular prayer time, but looking forward to it. Then, on another day, we see that we actually need that time to feel like ourselves. And after a long time we come to know that prayer is not something we do at particular times of the day. Prayer is who we are.
A spiritual practice like prayer has all kinds of benefits while we are doing it. It lowers the blood pressure. It puts problems in perspective. It encourages creative thought and problem-solving. It brings us close to the heart of God. It brings us peace. And it increases our spiritual metabolism. Not only while we practice it, but, with time, all the time. It becomes at last that greatest of gifts, the practice of the presence of God.