Preparing for Both the Run and the Prayer
Roger Joslin is an episcopal priest in Bentonville, Arkansas. He is the author of Running the Spiritual Path.
ROGER JOSLIN: My name is Roger Joslin. I’m 64 years old. And I’m from Austin, Texas.
I think my most vivid early memories of running were when I played football in junior high and high school. And running was used to get us in shape, and as punishment. Most any infraction, we were called on to run wind sprints until we puked our guts out. And in preparation for football season, I would train on the country roads near our house, running sprints and then running distances so that I would show up in some sort of reasonable physical condition when two-a-days started. And so I didn’t take to running right away. I’d always viewed running as something very unpleasant ‘til about my mid-20s. Then I began to appreciate running for itself.
I was going through a very troubled period of my life where I had faced a bankruptcy and divorce and was separated from my family. I wouldn’t see my kids as much as I’d been accustomed to. I was working out of town in San Antonio, Texas. And I started to run there after I got off work.
And I ran, and I ran, and I ran, simply because I found that it was a distraction from the pain I was feeling. I could punish my body a bit, and hurt in different places. I think I approached it the same way maybe somebody who was better at drinking whiskey than I was might have. I ran to feel different than I was feeling, just to escape from the pain.
And I’d noticed that — I’d been meditating for a number of years, not terribly successfully. And I began to notice that my running life and my meditating life were beginning to merge. And many of the experiences that I’d known in meditating became apparent to me when I ran, as well.
Northern New Mexico, the Pecos Wilderness area has been a spiritual homeland of mine for a long time. It’s a good ways from Austin, Texas, my home, but I take frequent journeys out there. And I had always passed the Pecos Monastery on the way to the Pecos Wilderness area and had been curious about it and thought that for sure I needed to go stay there. And, as I do on all my vacations, I ran while I was there.
And one afternoon I headed out the monastery door, and had on my shoes and headed out to cross the creek and headed up these trails. But at one point, I began to wonder if, I might not be able to find my way back.
So I decided I should mark the trail. So I took two sticks and at every intersection, I’d pick up two sticks and point them toward the direction I needed to head to get back to the monastery.
The whole run was mystical. At one point, I encountered a mountain lion, a very large female mountain lion. She was just a few feet in front of me. And I stopped in my tracks, as you might imagine I would.
And she just turned and looked at me, and then crossed the trail and went on about her business. And on the way back, when I came to the first intersection, which I had marked the trail, I realized that what I’d actually done is place a cross on the intersection. And I came to the next intersection, and it’s the same way. I thought I was putting arrows, but what I really was putting was crosses.
It was quite literally that the cross had guided me back home. And I don’t think that that kind of experience — that I would have been receptive to it, that I would have heard it and seen it had I not been so seriously engaged in my running life.
That kind of deliberate practice of listening, and hearing, and smelling, paying attention to the run in general brought me to a place where I was receptive to what God, what the universe, had in store for me and it changed me.
One day I came across an article about Thomas Merton in which Thomas Merton was quoted as saying that “Prayer is the desire to pray.” And I didn’t really know about prayer as equating it with meditation.
And I certainly didn’t know how prayer could be conceived of as simply as a desire for something. And so my notion of what prayer is about began to expand. And the place that I arrived, at least for a good while, is that prayer is being fully present to the moment. Because I imagine that God is most fully present with us at this moment. And to the extent of which you can find yourself in the present moment then you’re finding yourself in prayer. So it worked quite naturally with running with me to begin to find ways of running that brought me into the present.
I imagined how a priest might put on his vestments before going to celebrate the Eucharist, doing it very mindfully. So I’ve approached running the same way, if I put on my shorts and T-shirt, and then pulling my socks and make sure that there’s no creases in them, smooth them out, and pull them up just right. And examine my shoes to make sure there’s not any pebbles or dirt inside. And lace up the shoelaces very carefully and double-knot them. And simply just pay attention to what I’m doing. And so, to the extent to which I can prepare my mind and my body to receive, then I think I’ve prepared myself for both the run and for the prayer.