Spirituality of Marathon Running

by Msgr. Robert Panke

Paul says, “May the Lord rule your hearts in the love of God.”  Does the Lord rule our hearts?  And if not, how can we enable the Lord to sincerely rule our hearts.  It doesn’t just happen.  How did the Maccabee brothers have the strength and courage to endure such suffering for the lord of God?  I believe some of the steps we must take are analogous to what might be involved in running a marathon.  You have the training period, the actual race, and the finish line.

First, the training period; here you have to have the desire, discipline, a plan and commitment in trial.  A lot of people think running a marathon borders on the insane (as I did at one point in my life).  So, one must first have the desire to do such a thing.  Otherwise it is not even in the realm of possibilities.  But desire alone will not give you the strength to finish a marathon.  You have to put your shoes on and start running.  It is an act of the will, it takes a lot of discipline.  In other words, if I am going to be a marathon runner, I better start running.  To train, the next thing we need is a plan.  You have to figure out how much your want to run and when you are going to run, and all the other things you should do (weights, diet, etc.).  And you need to be committed to that schedule or plan, even in the midst of ups and downs.  When you are training, some days are great (you had a great run in beautiful weather) and some days really stink (you have no time for this, you’re exhausted and you wonder why the heck you are doing this).  There may be doubts whether you can actually do this – but somehow you do.  How is all this training like the spiritual life?

In order to develop a deep spiritual life, the desire must be there first, and many would argue that the life of a committed Catholic borders on the insane.  Since the Lord is the source of this desire, we begin our journey of faith by praying for this desire to increase and flourish in our heart, but we have to pray for this desire everyday!  It is a grace that God will gladly grant.  Likewise, if we want to develop an honest relationship with the Lord, we have to do some work.  The work, the training of the spiritual life, is consistent prayer, mass, confession, letting go of sin, fidelity to Church teaching, and works of Charity.  We have to have the whole package, and we are fooling ourselves if we think we can be holy if we are not willing to put in some time and effort.  It involves an awful lot of sacrifice and will power.  It takes leading a disciplined life, a life based on virtue.

So, one needs to have a plan for their spiritual life.  For example, I will go to Sunday Mass every week and daily Mass on these days; I will pray at this time during the day;  I will go to confession on the first Friday of the month.  I will do this and put it into my schedule, or else it will not happen.  It must be specific—December 8th is a holy day.  Is it in my calendar?  It is amazing how much one can do if you are organized and dedicated.  It is true of exercising and true of leading a spiritual life.

There are also ups and downs in the spiritual life—expect it.  It’s not for wimps.  Like running a marathon, it also takes great commitment.  There are good days when you really feel you are progressing and your life is changing, and there are bad days when you wonder if you have any idea what it really means to be a Christian or why.  But you stick in there.  I speak from experience.  There was a time in my life when I was very far from God.  God gave me a grace, the desire to change my life.  That change was hard, but through a lot of grace and a lot of discipline I was led to the greatest joy in my life – becoming a Catholic priest.  Desire, discipline, commitment, dedication – it sounds like and advertisement for the Marines – but it’s not.  It is the reality of the Way of Christ.

The second part of this homily – there is the Race, and it is very cool.  A few days before the actual marathon you go to pick up your registration packet, and there are all these people there and this big expo. You get a really excellent t-shirt, and you start to get the sense that maybe all this work really was worth it.  Then there is race day.  You arrive and there are thousands of people all doing the same thing, so naturally there is a lot of bonding going on.  I struck up a conversation before the race—I was actually in line for the restroom—and this guy asked what I did for a living.  When I told him I was a Catholic priest, everyone around said, “Wow, that is totally cool.” He said, “They let you guys off on Sunday?”  I told him “Actually, no.  This is the line for confession.”  During the race you have thousands of people lining the streets cheering you on.  I must admit, it’s a charge.  It is a great experience to share with others, and it is much more fun to train and run with someone (which I did with two parishioners).

It’s a long race though, and what frequently happens is a runner will hit a “wall.”  Which means you pretty much run out of fuel.  This happened to me about mile 22.  And physically, it was the most challenging thing I have ever gone through (I have been an athlete all my life).  All you want to do is to stop.  But you don’t, because you’ve made a commitment to finish this race without stopping – and that’s very hard.

In our life of faith, after we set a foundation and are consistent with those practices for a while, we enter a new stage – the race stage so to speak, and it is very cool.  Here all that work starts to ay off a bit.  You find your life being immersed in, and directed by, Christ.  Your life changes and you begin encountering all sorts of people who hold the same belief and support you in this life.  And you begin thinking “I really like myself this way.  There is a lot of joy in my life.  The Jesus thing is good.  I feel I am becoming a good Catholic and this is the way I want to live my life – all for God.”  It is totally worth all the work.  To do this with others (which is why we have families and parishes) is the best way.

But be forewarned, we may hit the wall.  There may come a time when we are greatly challenged to continue this path.  It may come in the form of tragedies where we question the goodness of the Lord.  Perhaps it will be a sin that we commit that causes such shame that we cannot face God in prayer.  It may be a dryness in prayer where we don’t experience the influx of joy we once did.  We have all gone through this in some fashion, but it is often more severe for those with strong faith.  Here we have to keep pushing on.  The Lord is actually giving us opportunities to mature in our faith, to have a more mature relationship, and to love him even when things don’t go the way we want.  We can be pretty selfish when it comes to God.  He may give us millions of gifts, and when one thing goes wrong, instead of turning to him, we run away – how ungrateful and untrusting.  So we persevere.  It is worth it because it brings us so much closer to our finish line.

Third, we have the finish line in our race.  Crossing that finish line was another brand new experience for me.  It was such a mix of emotions – relief, pain, joy, nausea, a great sense of accomplishment.  Words cannot do it justice, but it was definitely worth all the work and time and pain.  It was a unique experience and a unique reward.

But that is nothing compared to what awaits us when we cross our final heavenly finish line.  The joy is unimaginable.  Some of the saints have tasted what heaven is like while they were here on earth.  After that experience, they hate being here.  Why?  Because they so desperately want to be back with the Lord.  There have been great examples of men and women who have been willing, not only to lead a committed life in Christ and run the race to the best of their ability, but were willing to die, in order to cross that finish line.  Let’s make sure we make use of our time so we may say with Saint Paul, “I have run the good race, I have fought the good fight, and now the Lord truly rules my heart.”