"There is a state of mind, known to religious men, but to no others, in which the will to assert ourselves and hold our own has been displaced by a willingness to close our mouths and be as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God. In this state of mind, what we most dreaded has become the habitation of our safety, and the hour of our moral death has turned into our spiritual birthday. The time for tension in the soul is over, and that of happy relaxation, of calm deep breathing, of an eternal present, with no discordant future to be anxious about, has arrived. Fear is not held in abeyance as it is by mere morality, it is positively expunged and washed away."
-- William James, "Circumscription of the [Religious] Topic"
Last Wednesday, around 6:15pm at Rose Park track, as the long shadows of the afternoon had just faded into the half-light of evening, I had a religious experience.
Or at least I think I did.
The Rose Park track is a brand new state of the art red mondo rubber track. In the middle of the track is a soccer field that I suppose some material engineers also figured out how to make out of rubber. As far as I can tell, it's all the same thing. The green "grass" and black "dirt" are basically different colors and shapes of rubber.
The track was built by the city of Nashville and is also Belmont University's home track. The surrounding neighborhood is rough and centered on public housing. It lies about a kilometer from the university of Cornelius Vanderbilt (the 2nd or 3rd wealthiest person in American history), where I work and which now sports a 3.4 billion dollar endowment and in addition to educating their students, funding the research of academics, and fielding mediocre football teams is also in the process of building some high rise dormitories that look like something out of a Peter Jackson movie.
Rose Park, in short, is a strange type of place. It is glitteringly new in a neighborhood that is decidedly run down. Even though it is open to the public, you still feel like you are trespassing when you go there, as if something that nice must be owned by someone very wealthy. But it's not. It's owned by us. You kinda feel like one of those kids who doesn't want to play with a new toy on Christmas morning because he knows that it won't be new for long. The general decay of the surrounding neighborhood is a constant reminder that someday Rose Park track like all earthly things will be old and used up.
But last Wednesday, under late autumn skies, Rose Park track sat on the top of its hill as it has for the last year in its full and fragile rubber splendor. The Nashville skyline rising below it, rolling down to the Cumberland River.
When we started the workout, it was early evening. Soccer players were scattered across the infield, passing the ball around before their game. We warmed up, jogging loose laps clockwise (the wrong way). It had been a long day at work, and I was happy to be outside in the open air. The workout was the classic runner's workout -- mile repeats. None of us were training for anything in particular, just training. We would do six of them, jog a lap for recovery. The agreed on pace was 5:20, 80 second laps.
I led the first 800m of the first interval, then Ted came swinging by and I settled in behind him for the last half. The first one is always rougher than you expect, as it takes a little while to get warm. But I could tell that Ted was feeling good, as he wasn't really breathing hard when we crossed the line. Our other partner Hunter had gotten a little out of shape, and he dropped at the 1200 and would just try to hang in on the rest.
We jogged the first 400 pretty quick, getting around before 2:00 even, and were into the second. I let Ted lead the first half, then came up beside him and asked if he wanted me to lead. He said he would take it, and so I just tucked in, knowing that that he liked to lead when he felt good. Night was falling quickly, and as we swung around the back curve on the track, the sunset over the city skyline glowed a dull red.
Somewhere in the middle of the second mile, I realized that it was going to be a good one. It's odd how you just know, but you just do. The body feels light, the legs feel quick, the breathing controlled and relaxed. You know. When you feel this way, you can go one of two ways. You can choose to run faster than the plan -- a choice I probably make too often for training purposes -- or you can choose to settle into that feeling, to flow with it, to kinda cultivate that feeling. This is the choice I made, and it's what opened the door to what I still think that I want to call a religious experience.
In the passage up there at the top, James contrasts religious experience with moral experience. He explains that moral experience is draining effort. The moral realm is a struggle -- to be good, to be better, to conquer our fears. It is ultimately tiring. Religious experience on the contrary is "a willingness to close our mouths and be as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God." It is "happy relaxation," "calm breathing," an "eternal present." As I ran along, tucked behind my running partner, feeling the intertwined rhythms of footfalls, the circling scenery, the deep breaths, the gently building fatigue, the sweet stretches of recovery, watching the evening light spill away into dark, I felt simultaneously present and removed. My daily worries and fear simply vanished--not because I fought them off but because I felt at peace.
That's when I thought: this is almost religious.
I say "almost" for two reasons. First, it didn't feel like it was about God. It just felt like being alive and taking pleasure in being alive. I mean, maybe it was about God, if God simply means something like "the direct pleasure of life," but I guess that definition of God just seems like a stretch to me. Second, it didn't really feel transcendental. I didn't feel like I was touching a great truth or uncovering the essence of anything. It didn't feel like Truth -- if anything it felt like Art. I just felt like I was blown away by experience, while actually being in experience. As if the entirety of that particular moment were the finished product of undoubted genius.
This awareness lasted for probably the last 4 mile repeats. By the last one, I felt so relaxed that I just took off on the last lap and ran a 70 for the last quarter like it was nothing.
After the workout, we stripped off our flats and jogged a lap or two. Ted ribbed me gently for tucking in and using him, then running away from him. Turns out he was suffering the last couple of repeats while I had been spinning off on my little trip. It was totally dark out now, and the soccer players were huddled in clumps. I looked over at Ted and grinned and said the only thing I knew to say: "That was a good workout."
In that instant, the stadium lights flickered on, bright and fluorescent. The muted night lit up like a truck station bathroom stall, and the soccer players let out a cheer. The spell was broken. Ted and Hunter trotted off to their cars. I had parked on the other side. I collected my shirt and walked down the hill, feeling the familiar ache of hard effort in my legs.
For a moment, I just sat there in the car. What happened up there? Did I see God while doing mile repeats as the sun went down?
It's hard to remember exactly. But it's also hard to forget.