Prayer, running, and slow transformation


“When I called, you answered me;
you built up strength within me.” (Psalm 138:3)

Last spring, I took up running as recreation, which was as much a surprise to me as to anyone else. Back in high school, I despised those days in phys ed class where we had to go run a mile by doing loops around the soccer field. Running in circles over and over again for fun? Nope, not for me. After the final run senior year, I was delighted I’d never have to do it again, though I continued to play plenty of other sports.

Then, last spring, while watching my son and his friends compete in track meets, I decided this potentially looked like a lot of fun, although I was out of shape from a long winter. Why not try?

The first month of training was awful, horrible. I couldn’t run any real distance and had to stop to walk every few minutes, panting and out of breath and very aware that of being in my 40s and not my 20s. I kept wanting to will my body to do things it could not yet do, as if I could suddenly get my heart and muscles into better condition just by trying harder. But the only way one’s body adapts to running is to keep on doing it, day after day, week after week, and month after month, until the body gets conditioned (e.g., not only muscle growth but things like growing new capillaries). I’m still not a particularly fast runner, and not even close to being a marathoner, but I regularly run a few times a week, around 3 miles, and I have recently been working up to 4 or 5 mile runs. In June I’ll run a 5K for the second time and meanwhile, wondered aloud to my husband whether a 10K would not be too crazy to try some day. I remarked to him what a funny thing it is that my identity has shifted from being someone who hated running to being a runner.

The line from Psalm 138 above reminded me that prayer is rather like the strength building that comes with running—the fruits of prayer come from its daily practice, day after day, week after week, month after month. Although we often can think about prayer as petitionary (requesting God to do something in particular for us), for me the heart of prayer is about building relationship with God. Like any relationship, love is built up through the many small actions between both persons that accumulate over much time and trust. As we stay in relationship with God, our own identities also shift and move in new directions.

As I’ve moved more into contemplative prayer and being with God in silence, I have discovered that those movements that slowly arise (with a lot less fanfare than in more active forms of prayer) are even more deeply transformative, if sometimes invisible to me. God’s action transforms us slowly and patiently, and it helps to have patience with ourselves as well. There is a mystery in God’s action in us in contemplation, and if we put in that everyday  time with God, we allow that slow transformation to unfold.