Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Allegory of the Marathon

Many of you may be familiar with the Allegory of the Cave created by the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato. For those who aren't, Plato's allegory likens the work of a philosopher to that of a man who frees prisoners from a Cave, in which they have been imprisoned their entire lives. The prisoners' view of reality is completely distorted by their captors, who force them to look only at a wall, on which they cast shadows using various costumes and props. Once released from the Cave, the prisoners finally experience reality as it really is, by seeing actual objects in the light of the sun, instead of mere shadows by the dim light of a fire. To Plato, the work of a philosopher was one of liberation, which is why his Cave allegory is so fitting and so famous.

I would now like to offer a different allegory: the Allegory of the Marathon. During and after the experience of my first marathon in Springfield, Illinois last weekend, I realized that there are some striking parallels between running a marathon and the Christian spiritual life. Some of these parallels are more obvious, and others more subtle. I do not claim to have any original theological insights or concepts to offer. Rather, I simply thought my recent experience could perhaps shed some light on certain aspects of Christianity, instead of only burning a few thousand calories and leaving my legs really, really, sore. . . . really.

A marathon is a 26.2 mile foot race. Most marathon training plans have you begin 18 weeks prior to the race (assuming that you already able to run at least 4 miles without walking). For most runners, the race itself takes them over 4 hours––it took me 4 hours, 24 minutes, and 57 seconds, which is a relatively modest pace of just over 10 minutes per mile, and just shy of my goal of 10 minutes/mile flat. Obviously, running a marathon seems either too difficult or not worthwhile to most people, evidenced by the fact that only about 0.5% of the U.S. population has ever completed one. Apart from simply being difficult, there are several other deeper parallels between marathon running and Christianity that I will now attempt to relate.

The Need for Inspiration
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us (Heb 12:1).
When the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes "cloud of witnesses," he's referring to those who have gone before us and excelled in the faith, those who lived lives of heroic charity, as well as those who gave the ultimate witness to the faith in martyrdom. This is the communion of saints, who not only inspire and motivate us by the example of their holy lives, but who also constantly intercede for us in the presence of God by their prayers. In an similar way, there are almost always people who inspire and motivate us to run a marathon. When we see other people like ourselves accomplishing something difficult or reaching some goal, it is easier for us to visualize ourselves achieving those same things. Personally, while I've been a fan of distance running for several years, I definitely wouldn't have considered running the marathon in Springfield this year if it weren't for the example and encouragement of my bishop, Bishop Thomas John Paprocki. Last weekend's marathon was his 21st marathon in 21 years. His dedication to and love for running, especially for it's contribution to his spiritual life, is very inspiring to me.

Bishop Paprocki at the finish line, still able to produce a huge smile.
Counting the Cost
"For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, 'This man began to build, and was not able to finish.'" (Lk 14:28-30).
Jesus tells us that if we want to be his disciples, we must first "count the cost" and understand just how much following him is going to require of us (SPOILER ALERT: It's literally everything). While a marathon does not ask "everything" of us the way Jesus does, it does require a great deal of commitment, discipline, and fortitude. Both becoming a faithful disciple of Christ and a marathon finisher involve taking the task seriously––you cannot become either of them by accident or by half-heartedly drifting into them. It takes a conscious and deliberate choice, followed by a continued commitment. There will be days when you don't feel like going to Mass, or praying, or reading your Bible. Likewise, there are training days when you don't feel like skipping a fun social activity to run 10 miles. However, in both cases you have to remember your commitment, and that you're not "in it" simply for a feeling, but for something far deeper and more enduring, even if you can't fully understand that something yet. Remaining faithful to your training, whether in the faith or in running, is the key to bearing fruit when the time comes to actually "run the race."

Training for Body and Soul
Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Cor 9:25-27).
Many people, when they see someone displaying some impressive skill or achieving a praiseworthy goal, will say something along the lines of, "Well, I could do that too if I practiced/trained x hours a day." The problem with this attitude is that practicing or training is an essential part of doing anything well––not some handicap needed by a less-talented minority. We don't praise the skill of an accomplished violinist because we're under the false impression that he or she never had to practice the instrument. Rather, we marvel even more at the person's skill because of all the practice we imagine it must have taken to acquire. To offer a faith-related example: We don't admire Mother Teresa because being holy and living a heroic life of service to the poorest of the poor in Calcutta was easy for her––we do so because that was extraordinarily difficult for her at times! The training needed for both a healthy body and a healthy soul isn't some unique and separate set of exercises. It simply involves starting to do the thing you want to do well, and starting to act like the person you want to be. You can start training for a marathon by running one mile, and you can start becoming a saint by doing one seemingly insignificant act of kindness. After all, "He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much" (Lk 16:10).

The Purification of Motivation
[F]or a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Pet 1:6-7).
The reasons for which we first embark on our journey of faith are usually not the reasons which sustain us later in life. Many Christians, especially when they are younger, maintain their faith primarily because they were raised that way, because they haven't encountered reasons to consider alternatives, because they enjoy the social experience of their faith community, or for other reasons. There isn't anything intrinsically wrong with holding on to your faith for such reasons; in the absence of any serious trials or difficulties, it is easy for us to feel comfortable with the current state of our prayer life, our level of personal holiness and virtue, and the overall quality of our relationship with God. This comfort, however, can be dangerous because it can prevent us from having the sense of seriousness and urgency that we need in order to really grow in our faith. If God did not allow trials and suffering to enter our life, we would almost inevitably remain in this comfort zone, and never reach the greatness that He calls each of us to. Fortunately, while God loves us the way we are, He loves us too much to leave us that way, and so He does permit trials and suffering to enter our lives. When we begin to not only reluctantly accept these trials, but willingly enter into them and even in a sense choose them, we learn to align our will with the will of God, and become capable of enduring more and therefore loving more. In the process of achieving this endurance by perseverance, we begin to see our motivations transform. Until we reach the point when we truly love God above everything and everyone else, we will continue to need this process of purification. I personally experienced a profound insight into the need for this purification during the marathon, especially while running miles 22 through 25, which were by far the most difficult for me. The dead cliché "put one foot in front of the other" took on new life and for a time was almost my mantra.

Suffering + God = Hope

The triumph of the will over the senses, of the soul of the body, was so immediate and clear to me near the end of the race that it almost seemed as though I was outside of or over my body, commanding it the way a jockey commands a horse. At that point, my body and mind were both so exhausted that I had completely forgotten my original reasons for signing up for the marathon. I discovered that wanting a "personal challenge" or a "reason to get in better shape" offer no motivation or consolation whatsoever when you've been running for four hours. Had I not managed to replace these slogans with something far deeper and more enduring, then I would have found myself walking (or more realistically, limping) those last few miles. For me, the only thought which survived the hammer and anvil of the marathon was the conviction that the testing of my will in during the race was in some way connected to my spiritual commitment to God. Of course, not finishing the race would not have been be an actual spiritual failure or sin on my part. However, in my mind, I became convinced that by enduring the physical trial of the marathon I could prove to myself that, with God's help, I could endure great spiritual trials in the future as well. Therefore, when I did finally finish the race, I was infused with a heavy dose of hope in the future, and in my reflection was reminded of Saint Paul's words:
[W]e rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Rom 5:2-5).
While every Christian obviously cannot complete a marathon for a variety of valid reasons, everyone can do something that seems far beyond their capacity, and that tests their will to the breaking point. I am convinced that this has tremendous spiritual benefit, and so I highly recommend that every Christian take on some challenge that achieves this purpose. You will become a more virtuous person and more aware of your dependence on God as a result. Thank you for reading, and may God bless you and inspire you to grow in every way possible! In the words of Pope Francis during his homily at the Mass in Washington, D.C., "¡Siempre adelante!" (Always forward!).

I have yet to master the art of not blinking for pictures!
Under the Mercy,
Chris Trummer


The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version: Catholic Edition.