Running as Prayer
"Prayer is religion in act; that is, prayer is real religion. ... Religion is nothing if it not be the vital act by which the entire mind seeks to save itself by clinging to the principle from which it draws its life. This act is prayer, by which term I understand no vain exercise of words, no mere repetition of certain sacred formulae, but the very movement itself of the soul, putting itself in a personal relation of contact with the mysterious power of which it feels the presence,--it may be even before it has the name by which to call it. Wherever this interior prayer is lacking, there is no religion; wherever, on the other hand, this prayer rises and stirs the soul, even in the absence of forms or of doctrines, we have living religion." --Auguste Sabathier (quoted from W. James' The Varieties of Religious Experience)
It is difficult and probably dangerous to speak positively of religion in the Bible belt during the war on terror (remember, we are at war? I keep forgetting that.) The word "religion" is equivocal in its meaning. Its reference can be to fundamentalism and dogmatism, to a certain historical tradition, to a cluster of texts, to a moral code, to a view about the after-life, to a set of social-political beliefs, to a community, to a set of ritualized practices, etc. and so forth. When I talk about religion, I open myself up to all of these possible equivocations. It is highly likely that I will be misread. This blog post will attempt to define religion in a certain way that is not meant to exclude the way in which you understand religion, but could also challenge it or offer an alternative to it.
Sabathier is right, I believe, when he says that real religion is prayer. It is in the moment of prayer that religion has its effects--the vital act through which the mind in moments of fear or despair seeks to quiet itself and to find a principle on which it can rest. As I was running this morning, it occurred to me that my runs are prayers, in every sense that Sabathier defines prayer. I recount an ordinary run from the other day as evidence of this.
I left the door in a state which is too common for me. A kind of bleary fatigue that is my reaction to stress. The world washed out and devoid of detail. The mind torpid and slow, retreating into vapid and recurrent ruminations. I know what to do in these situations. I kneel, lace my shoes, and stumble my way out the door. The force that moves me out is blind habit, perhaps not unlike the force that sends people to church on Sunday mornings.
There is nothing religious about the first mile. It is all ritual, and it is empty. I stared out at the road in front of me and it seemed long and stone-cold. My body/mind awkward and reticent. Is this how Christians feel when the church service starts up? Or when they repeat, once again, the Lord's Prayer? Everything seems alien and cold, yes, ritualistic and meaningless.
Something happens, though, most all of the time. Some days it happens sooner, but usually it takes two or three miles. My heavy mind opens and becomes light. The body relaxes and stops fighting itself. Life seems less like an enemy and more a source of meaning. Is this prayer? The putting of myself into relation with the mysterious power that gives me life? There are no better words that can describe the feeling: an intimate encounter with vitality and power. Simultaneously the body and the mind slough off their torpor and I am a beast and a philosopher, a body and a mind, a soul once more animated.
Life is hard: don't let the smiling masks fool you. None of us bargained for it. Its challenges find us bewildered, uncertain, and unprepared. Life was not created for us, and it is mostly indifferent. In the face of these facts, the function of religion--its only honest function--is to save the soul. The living soul is threatened by life, and we need religious practices to give us the strength to live. Prayer names the act of regenerating the soul, of making it friendly once more to life: "wherever ... prayer rises and stirs the soul, even in the absence of forms or of doctrines, we have living religion."
Running shares many qualities with other types of religious practice. It is regular and repetitious. It is an exploration of the limits of human capacity. It involves a community of friends. It seems strange and sometimes even life-denying to the uninitiated. Its greatest reveries are often produced in isolation and are incommunicable. Running involves meditation and invokes vague and inarticulate feelings. There are communities devoted to abstruse hermeneutics of the running experience, complete with sages, saints, and wise council. It even invokes a sense of duty and righteousness. We must earn our running through sacrifice. Finally, it is absurd. It begins where it ends, and it ends where it begins.
This absurdity appropriates the indifference of life for the purposes of life. As runners, we choose the absurd. We choose indifference. We choose difficulty. We choose the lonely road. This choosing revalues all of the difficulties that life presents, making them activities that infuse the soul with energy rather than powers that threaten to destroy it or wash it out. Running allows me to be an active soul. If the function of religion--its highest calling--is to save souls, and if prayer is the means through which the soul is saved, then ah that hour a day is religious practice, absolutely.