Running opens up my head and my heart to prayer. Long easy runs let me talk to God and enter into prayer in a way that I cannot find sitting still.
It’s the idea that leads people on prayer walks, it’s the idea of motion and conversation coming together. I suppose cooks in kitchens, workers in fields, and anyone who has ever put their hand to work alongside another human being know this inherently. Working hard together with another person can even move the conversation beyond words, and there can be a satisfaction of simple presence with one’s coworker.
Perhaps it’s that satisfaction of simple presence that overwhelms me the most when I am running. The conversation sometimes lets me throw out ideas or prepare for sermons or think about any number of problems, but when I get to the point that words cease, the lack opens up my awareness of God in the very air I breath and scenes that I come across. It’s a runner’s high and a prayer’s high in the same moment.
This labor of prayer puts out a different attitude towards prayer than we normally conceive. Most people imagine prayer as yielding with a bowed head and hands pressed together, but that is only one way to practice one part of prayer. Origen puts it well in a quote I recently encountered in a book by Hans Urs von Blathasar:
“To pray without ceasing, is to join one’s prayer with one’s daily work and to unite suitable actions to one’s prayer; for even good works or the fulfilling of God’s commandments are to be included as a part of prayer. We can only accept commands to “pray without ceasing” as practicable if we conceive of the whole of the life of the believer as one great unbroken prayer; of which great prayer, what we are accustomed to call prayer is a part.”
Origen steadily reminds us that all labor is in connection with God, and each part can bring us into a greater sense of enjoyment. The foundation of prayer is delight and enjoyment of God. To say it another way, when we pray we enter into the enjoyment of the presence of God.
It’s this type of prayer that I encounter when running and swimming, but this is not where I began. When I started running it was a hated chore that I did to discipline myself. Each day I would run and focus on the presence of God hating each step, but over time, it became a delight. I still find myself in times of running that are not prayerful, as my heart rate climbs or I work harder, I have to focus more to experience God in the very breathlessness of the labor. The reward is well worth the effort.