A Project of Patient Endurance
In The Genesee Diary, his 1981 account of a seven-month stay at a Trappist monastery in upstate New York, Dutch Catholic priest Henri Nouwen receives this bit of advice from then-abbot John Eudes: “Focus on the nonpassionate part of yourself and realize God’s presence there. Let that part grow in you and make your decisions from there. You will be surprised to see how powers that seem invincible shrivel away.” At the time of reading this, I was feeling torn along many of the same lines Nouwen elucidates in his book: between action and contemplation, solitude and community, the silence of prayer and the writer’s impulse to transform and transmit experience through the medium of language.
Eudes’s approach spoke to me immediately as a means of integrating a rifted self. If I studied those things I did with less emotional investment and began to apply them to the more “serious” questions of my life, perhaps I could quiet the competing elements of my personality and discern a clearer calling.
This begged the question of what the “nonpassionate part” of myself was. I knew that dispassion, cousin to the Buddhist teaching of nonattachment, had an important place in the spiritual program of many Eastern Orthodox monastic fathers. To Nikitas Stithatos, an eleventh-century Byzantine monk, the dispassionate intellect “is neither subject to bouts of depression nor ebullient with high spirits, but is joyful in afflictions, restrained when cheerful, and temperate in all things.” Closer to our time, the twentieth-century Greek Orthodox writer Constantine Cavarnos speaks of passionlessness, or apatheia, as “freedom from anger, hatred, bitterness, and other negative emotions.” It is not a cheap happiness or a willful ignorance of the world’s problems, but an acceptance of our limitations and imperfections (or impermanence, in the Buddhist formulation) and a concomitant refusal to judge or condemn. Bearing this in mind, I realized that the nonpassionate part of myself wasn’t located in the spaces of the day I had self-consciously “sanctified”—spiritual reading, writing, evening prayers—but in a place I hadn’t even thought to look: running.
For several years, in all seasons and weathers, a run had been a fixture of my afternoon. It was not something I did with any hope of reward beyond the most general health benefits. Much as I was ashamed to admit it, the same could not be said for when I read, wrote, or prayed; those actions were hemmed in by expectations of knowledge, connection, and illumination, respectively. But with running it was different. With running I pursued the act itself instead of the fruits of the act. If I had it in me to run fast, I ran fast, but I didn’t sweat it if it was only in me to run slow. That lack of attachment to results made it easier to want to push myself to get better, faster, stronger. Unlike my other daily practices, which constantly invited comparison between who I was and who I felt I should be, running’s steady biomechanical rhythms and insistent forward motion left no room to conjure alternate futures: the future was the next footfall, no further. Yet within that narrow range opened a whole realm of experience, as I was able to attend to two aspects of my physiology—pulse and breath—with a focus unobtainable during other parts of the day.
Both of these bodily processes are essential to the Orthodox prayer tradition of hesychasm, from the Greek hesychia, or “stillness.” In Orthodoxy’s conception of the human person, the heart is the place where the physical and the spiritual unite. Not only is it the engine of our embodied lives, but also the innermost enclave of our thoughts, desires, knowledge, and inspiration. Through contemplative prayer, especially repetition of the “Jesus Prayer” or “prayer of the heart” (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”), the hesychast—one who practices hesychasm—seeks to gather the scattered intellect back into the inner sanctum of the heart, where it can find its true life as united with the Holy Spirit.
While I had read a good deal of hesychastic literature, particularly the treasury of texts assembled in the eighteenth century by saints Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain and Makarios of Corinth as the Philokalia, running was the medium through which it came alive for me. Praying alone in my room, my mind seemed to wander, as if in compensation for a static body; but outside, among the elements, body and mind united in the project of patient endurance. It wasn’t that my mind went blank, or that I instantly experienced the “runner’s high” on the first stride, but that thoughts pertaining to the detritus of the day gradually revealed themselves in their flimsiness. As I entered into my “target heart rate” (a beautiful phrase, implying as it does the three qualities of a cohesive undertaking: aim, action, and pace), the million anxieties, doubts, and petty self-pityings dropped off like ill-trained runners in a race. With each one silenced, the louder I could hear myself living. The inflow and outflow of waves against the rocks at the mouth of the Hudson River synched with a cycle of blood cresting and receding between my heart and my ears. All was one pulse: within and without, I listened to the one story continually retold of contraction and expansion, systole and diastole.
Governing this as gravity governs the tides, the breath—through the body yet somehow not of it, I could hear and feel its movement in front of my face, leading me on like the melodic counterpart to the ground bass of the pulse. Where that drove ahead along a horizontal axis, beating rhythm in time with each landed stride, respiration aligned itself vertically. I inhaled through my nose, threading the breath up in an S-curve from the depths of my stomach around the back of my heart. I exhaled, the breath’s descent an inverse S around the front of the heart, winding return to its source. Like this I proceeded, the cycles of ascending and descending breaths creating figure eights from the seat of my navel to the pulsing perimeter of a heart softening like wind erodes the stone. I sequenced each S-shaped breath temporally to fit between heartbeats. I began to apply words to each breath. On a first rise I said internally, Lord Jesus Christ; on a successive fall, Son of God; on a second rise, have mercy on me; on a second fall, a sinner. Breaths and words alike enjoined, so motion mirrored meaning: The aspirational address of the first three words carried up on my inhalation; the cosmic descent of the incarnation named in the second three I felt in freefall with my exhalation. The second inhalation drew the plea for mercy through to crest with its reception somewhere above the heart, from which point it passed into exhalation and, with it, the great letting-go of sinfulness stored in the final two words of self-identification.
In this way the act of running became my teacher in prayer. When I returned to my room, I now had a means through which to plunge deeper into my spiritual life, and a framework for a more structured hesychastic practice. Conscious of experiencing breath rather than merely breathing, I became aware of breath’s “borrowedness”—of how, in the words of contemporary hesychast monk Archimandrite Zacharias, “God has spread out the air for us to breathe.” That awareness channeled directly into gratitude, as Zacharias’s claim dovetailed with the injunction of fourth-century Patriarch of Constantinople Gregory of Nazianzus to “remember God more often than you breathe.” My attempts to pray the Jesus Prayer before had often dissolved into mindless repetition. But slowly, with running reinforcing the linkage between physical breath, thanksgiving, and memory of the Divine Name, I felt words on my lips become a prayer incorporated into my body. The more secure the prayer was within my heart, the more spontaneously it began to issue forth. I saw of the act of drawing it into the heart as following Christ’s command to persevere in prayer—“Knock, and it will be opened for you” (Matt. 7:7)—and the issuing-forth as heeding God’s voice in Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come to him.” My prayer was infused with this image of God and man, each knocking, each answering, on opposite sides of the door of the heart. The ultimate aim, I realized, was for prayer to remove the door so that it could pass freely in wordless correspondence.
With running, other extracts from my daily reading also had new context for understanding. Nicodemos’s description of man as “a greater world within the small one” recalled my experiences at the mouth of the Hudson, when I felt myself to both contain and be contained by the livingness of my surroundings. The fourteenth-century saint and noted proponent of hesychasm Gregory Palamas’s definition of the heart as “the innermost body within the body” spoke directly to those moments on a run when my being became concentrated in my heart and I could distance myself from the “outer body,” as it were, sending it forth like smoke from a censer in an expression of spontaneous praise. Meditating on Palamas’s “innermost body” as situated at the center of Nicodemos’s “greater world,” it made sense that the wall between micro- and macrocosm should crumble by thrum of a heartbeat. Even the words of modern artists and poets, from Adrienne Rich’s line “your spirit’s gaze informing your body” to Marcel Duchamp’s response when asked late in life how he defined himself—“Je suis un respirateur” (“I am a breather”)—were enriched with meaning.
For all these reasons—the way it cultivates dispassion through repetition, builds up the physical and spiritual heart, and fosters attentiveness to body and mind—running can be seen as another in the lineage of ascetical disciplines used to strengthen the life of prayer. It is worth noting that the word asceticism comes from askesis, Greek for “training” or “exercise.” The early Christian ascetics of fourth- and fifth-century Egypt saw themselves not so much as religious figures as “spiritual athletes,” struggling daily against the passions. Exercises such as prostrations—a sort of devotional or repentant push-up, in which the athlete kneels, touches her head to the ground, rises, and repeats—only had value if they increased mindfulness of God and resoluteness of will to “shun evil and do good” (Ps. 34:14). Saint Paul addresses this directly in an oft-cited passage of First Corinthians:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we [to receive] an imperishable (1 Cor. 9:24–27).
Here, the “imperishable wreath” is the “prize” of the athlete’s salvation; the “race” is not an end in itself, but a journey of reforming the interior man. Another early Christian father, Saint Ignatius of Antioch, advises in his letter to Polycarp: “Stand firm as a hammered anvil. Great athletes are battered, but yet they win. Especially for God’s sake must we endure everything so that he may put up with us.” The only way to become more spiritually assiduous is to practice, knowing that such assiduousness can never be perfected, only honed: “What would become of my inner vision, if I were to stop training it with prayer?” twentieth-century Serbian saint Nikolai Velimirovich asks ruefully in his Prayers by the Lake. If, like Velimirovich, we wish our souls to “run after truth,” we must stay fit for the race by remaining in perpetual motion.
And yet, as we encounter time and again in the sayings of the monastic fathers, asceticism undertaken without love is no virtue but a vice that swells a person with pride and closes him upon himself. The fruits of a solitary asceticism must be made manifest in community, through a purified heart that is capable of loving one’s neighbor as oneself. Even the hermit nun who incorporates fasting into her ascetical regime does so not merely as an act of penance; knowing herself as one member of the body of Christ, she is conscious of consuming less that there might be more for others.
Running can put us in the mind of asceticism’s social dimension when we enter Saint Paul’s metaphor through an actual, organized race. Here, thousands of solitudes are united in a single destination. I remember being caught up with a clutch of other runners at mile 20 of a marathon: all of us spent, the sound of our strides in lockstep pounding, breath patterns so similar as to mark each other’s time. The stillness felt more profound for being shared. In moments like these, knowledge of our common humanity transcends the level of platitude and becomes something experiential. Physically and emotionally drained, we are invited to leave behind our preoccupation with competition—against both self and others—and use our ascetical act as a vehicle for agape, or selfless love. The moment when we feel we have nothing left to give, when we have reduced ourselves to the bare minimum, is the moment we are our most impassible and our most alive. We can turn to the runner beside us and smile at a pain that binds, transformed by self-denial that drives us toward the finish.