The point of running in any race is to finish first. A track runner toes the starting line with the intention of beating the competition. Without this purpose, why bother?
Running, strange as it may seem, offers itself as a good analogy for the spiritual life. Indeed, even St. Paul compares the life of faith in Jesus Christ to the perseverance and work of a runner (1 Corinthians 9:25). To become a successful athlete requires many hours of work and dedication. A distance runner works day after day, year after year to become stronger, both physically and mentally. Often, the work seems to go unrewarded. The improvements that were expected are slow to come, and the endless miles just seem to pass by. Yet, there are moments—a great workout or race—that make it all worth it. These moments reveal that every minute of suffering, pain, and disappointment was worth the effort, and the runner can look back over his log-book, realizing that every single step has paid off.
So, too, in the spiritual life: progress in the life of faith is often imperceptible. As Dominicans, we come to the chapel many times throughout the day, and each day we follow the same routine of prayer. We spend time with God, and sometimes it seems to be unfruitful: we may not feel anything, we may not hear anything, we are distracted. But we know that when we put ourselves before God and open our hearts to him, we are changed. In the certitude of faith, we know that God is always working in our lives, and when we see this, when we have moments of insight and awareness of His grace, we realize that time spent with God is never fruitless. We can look back and see how God’s providence has been working in our lives, suaviter et fortiter, gently and firmly, as Scripture says (Wisdom 8:1).
Runners often experience frustration. Sometimes things just don’t come together and the race isn’t won. But, good runners know that they must trust their training, their coaches, and the work put in. In a word, they must have faith to persevere.
Unsurpassable perfection is not for this life: we fall short each day in our relationship with Christ. Yes, each of us is called to holiness, to be a saint and nothing less, but we do fall. Like the runner we have hope, although with an important difference: it’s not a matter of trusting in the work we put in, but a matter of trusting in Him for whom we run the race. Each day we beg God for the grace of perseverance, an unmerited gift from God, in hope of something infinitely more beautiful and exhilarating than winning a race: eternal life in paradise. By praying for God’s gift of perseverance, and by giving ourselves each day to Christ Jesus, we run so as to win the unfading crown of glory.
Image: Steve Prefontaine running the 1969 NCAA Cross Country Championship