I didn’t always love to run. In my younger years, even my first couple of years of high school, I abhorred anything within a stone’s throw of sports or P.E. I wasn’t very good at any of them, just didn’t have the hang of things like running or jumping or kicking or throwing or catching, things most of the other kids seemed to be able to do naturally, and I figured: why waste my time on something hard, like sports, when all it would get me was the other kids’ laughing at me? “Practice makes perfect,” I had always heard, but in my mind, it was better to stick to the things I knew I was good at, safe from ridicule, than to practice what I wasn’t and risk drawing attention to the fact that I wasn’t perfect!
It’s one of the earliest concrete manifestations of pride I can point to in my life. It was also one of the first and longest-lasting manifestations of shame, feeling like I wasn’t up to scratch and hiding that part of myself away, locking it up in a dark place of my heart. A pattern which would repeat itself in many areas of my life for years to come.
As I reread my poetry from this time of my life tonight—poetry, I have to admit, even I had dismissed as stereotypical high school angst—the despair I felt then comes back to me, like the shadow of a nightmare in stark contrast to the light at noon. I remember the loneliness, and the sense that everything was really meaningless, that if you peeled off all the layers there was nothing underneath it all; the deep-down-certainty of my own inferiority, the deep and unspoken and terrible sense that every way in which I seemed to differ from other people, I was wrong and broken and everyone else right and whole, that I could never, never be like they were—the hopeless pride I built up on those shifting sands, that if I was not like everyone else, then I surely would not try to be, like Satan spitting his petulant “non serviam” in the face of God.
Indeed, to that last point, I’m surprised to find some of my poetry shows a bitterness toward “religion” acerbic enough to have made Sartre or Voltaire nod in approval:
“Even in the warm light of the day
We are frightened, and we seek deliverance,
Flocking like sheep to religion to pray
But finding only more false idols and images—
And at nightfall, they torment us, these images.
Saviors become nightmares and get in the way
Of life, demanding devotion and homage,
Promising eternity, but ne’er even a day
Of salvation can be found, and we seek deliverance
From religion itself, that greatest evil – and I pray.
Not for salvation, but for our lives I pray.
Ruled by religion, by idols and images,
Haunted by cloaked visions night and day,
At the feet of statues paying homage—
This is how it has always been. This is the way.
So I pray, but not for deliverance,
For salvation and deliverance
Are but traps and mirages; no, I pray
To break free, to cast aside these images,
To forge a new path, shun the old ways,
And to no idols will I offer homage.”
Pretty strong anti-Catholic imagery for a kid who had never set foot in a Catholic church, and whose Methodist church, as far as I recall, didn’t boast a single statue to which we could ‘pay homage’ even if we had wanted to.
I guess you could say I was God-haunted, as a teenager. I have often described my conversion to Catholicism as the climax and the culmination of a search for meaning, a journey which began when we stopped attending the Methodist church of my childhood. This is true, as far as it goes, but I certainly wasn’t conducting some unbiased search for meaning, comparing logical proofs for God against arguments for atheism, or weighing the objective merits of Christianity against Buddhism. I was fleeing the Christianity of my childhood. I was deeply suspicious of its claims (after all, “saviors become nightmares and get in the way … salvation and deliverance / are but traps and mirages,” as I spat along with Richard Dawkins)—and indeed, I was suspicious of any claims to “meaning” or “truth”:
“Printed pages filling my notebook say
I should, I will, I must, but never pay
some slight attention to my question: ‘Why?’
‘Solve these problems,’ they say, but they’re not mine
to solve – or perhaps my favorite, ‘draw this line!’
when clear-cut lines themselves are but a lie.”
I wonder where I got that. I remember my Methodist Sunday school lessons as being heavy on the coloring pages, light on objective philosophy. I certainly didn’t have a rational conception of God as absolute Truth (or Love, or Beauty, for that matter), yet somehow, it seems, I knew. Knowledge of our Creator is ingrained on our hearts. When we flee Him, we flee Him in all his aspects.
Earlier I said this poetry could be dismissed as the product of teenage angst. Maybe it’s important to point out now that the word “Angst” in German means “fear”. I was afraid of God, afraid of Truth, afraid of Love, afraid of Beauty—on a level deeper, I think, than I could even acknowledge. I felt betrayed by Him.
We stopped going to church, after all, once my mom had her first seizure. I remember waking up in the middle of the night; my dad’s tense, level voice as he told me to get dressed, knowing he was barely holding it together himself; the living room full of EMTs; my mom wheeled out of the front door on a stretcher—wondering, as much as I tried to stuff it down and lock it away, whether I would ever see her again.
I remember praying in the waiting room.
I remember, when I was very young, riding in the back of my parents’ car and the way I used to pray, talking to Him like he was sitting right next to me. I didn’t have any fear of Him then. Mostly, I would try to make deals with Him. “God, I’ll memorize the whole Lord’s Prayer if you just…”
And I remember writing this poem, the subject of which I’m not even sure I knew, or admitted to myself, at the time:
“Our one great fear has never been death
But to lose the ones we love, and
So we hide in our warm beds
From the cold and rain above.
Awakening, we glance above
To lightning lighting up the sky,
And we mutter to the ones we love
About how we don’t want to die.
We never think we’re going to die
While the world is lit by dawn’s bright strain,
But when darkness fills the sky—
We see our lives reflected in the rain.”
I was searching, after we left our church, but I forgot who or what I was searching for. It wasn’t anything so grand as meaning or truth. I already felt a horrible certainty that there was no such thing. I think I was looking for comfort, something that would make it all right, even in light of the senselessness of it all. And I drifted into a kind of syncretist New Age Taoism, the main tenet of which, for me, was “go with the flow”—but not out of any conviction that everything had a purpose or would work out in the end. More that life was like a river and it would be a wash in the end, so there was no use fighting the current. I was taken in, too, by neo-pagan ideas of “ancient rites” which would give you power over the universe, online articles about psionics and witchcraft, and worse.
But of course, the further I drifted from God, the less my heart was satisfied. Or as I concluded a fairly cynical poem on the subject of how the poet manipulates his readers’ emotions:
“Indeed, the sole power I cannot command
is closure, for my heart, by my own hand.”
The beautiful thing, looking back, is how God was leading me through all this. Like any good father, he knew his son was angry, and hurting, and scared. And like any good father, he would not force himself into my life. A father knows to give his son space. But His hand was guiding me imperceptibly through all that Angst. I had to pass through the crucible of those years of confusion, of loneliness, hopelessness, senselessness, of pain suppressed because I thought there was no relief nor meaning to it, of cynicism in the face of any claims to truth or beauty or love … I had to know emptiness, I had to know the desert and the night, so that when he first introduced Himself again to me, I would be shocked at the wonder of Him.
Eventually, I fell in love with running, too, but not until after I fell in love with God. I was required to take a personal fitness class at the beginning of my senior year of high school—a year and a half since I first stumbled to Mass, and just a few months after my confirmation—and though I dreaded it, I was in the class with some great friends who I had made during that previous year, and I found for the first time that I wasn’t afraid to make a fool of myself. I found that I really loved pushing myself to my limits. My favorite days were when we would go out into the neighborhood near the high school and run up and down the quiet streets. I would pray to God for strength, running there with my friends in my youth group T-shirt, and I would make the sign of the cross when I felt like my lungs were going to explode, and I remember how exhilarated I felt the first time I made it through the whole morning running without once stopping to walk.
Since then, I have always linked running with the spiritual life. It’s about perseverance. The more you practice, the faster and farther you can go, but what matters most is not in your legs or your lungs. It’s that drive to make it to the end. The spiritual life is like that, too. God’s grace is always there—that’s the strength you need to make it through. The conditions in which we find ourselves might be better or worse from day to day or place to place. But what matters is our response to His grace and His call.
If you think I’m going to tie this mess of retrospection and theological reflection up neatly, you must not know me very well yet.
I’ll just say this—the event which prompted me to write this post at all tonight (though I had no idea how long it would end up being) was that we had a speaker come to the seminary tonight for our Monday night conference, and she told us about her experience of sexual abuse as a child at the hands of a priest.
Her journey back to the love and mercy of God took her entire life, from the age of 7 until her mid-60’s. I was bent over praying through her whole talk. She shared poems she had written which sent chills down my spine, but the worst was when she said, “The hands of a priest are anointed to do God’s work. And yet—my wounds were by those very hands.”
Afterwards, I thanked her so much for sharing and gave her a hug. She was radiant, a saint, such a testament to the mercy of God and the power of His grace to heal even the deepest wounds in an open heart. Then I went to pray before the Blessed Sacrament upstairs in the abbey church, vast and dark and quiet. I wanted to praise Him for his goodness, but my heart was in turmoil. For the first time, I was confronted with not just the fact, but the personal reality that a priest, a priest of Jesus Christ, had inflicted such wounds on an innocent girl. It took her almost sixty years to trust God again. A whole lifetime spent apart from His love.
For the first time, I really understood how someone could hate the Church. I felt enraged. I felt a revulsion and a hatred toward that priest which I tried to give over into His hands, but it wouldn’t leave me. I cried. I prayed God to fill me up completely, take everything I had and make me an instrument of His healing in His broken body on earth.
And when I could pray no more I went for a run, because I knew that as much as I tried and tried to give myself over, I was feeling too much. I had to physically spend myself. So I ran down the hill and through the town in the freezing rain, and as I slogged through puddles and clenched and unclenched my hands to maintain feeling in my fingers, I told God this was my offering for everyone who had ever been hurt at the hands of a priest, an alter Christus, a representative of Holy Mother Church, and I wouldn’t stop, I swore through clenched teeth, unless I fell down and could not go on.
After about a mile, I realized with a jolt that I understood this woman’s experience, awful though it was, because my own experience, back in high school, fleeing God, was a microcosm of the same—that sense of betrayal and that fear of Him—the first time I had seen my life in that light.
About two miles in, I was able to let go of that visceral, jaw-clenching hatred that had seeped into my soul for the priests who had done this and offered my sacrifice for them, too, because in sin everyone suffers and everyone needs mercy.
Finally, as I ran back up the hill, I was praying “Jesus—“ on every shallow breath, and each time I breathed out: “—mercy,” “—power,” “—victory,” “—love.”
I came back and stood in the shower, under the hot water, feeling heat prickling back into the parts of my body that had gone numb, and kept praying. “Jesus, all goodness. Jesus, all warmth. Jesus, my strength… Jesus, sunny winter days. Jesus, long drives in the rain. Jesus, friendship. Jesus, desire of the everlasting hills…”
And then something unexpected happened, because I felt—I can’t say heard another voice—but the litany changed.
“Matthew, my beloved. Matthew, my created one. Matthew, my tabernacle. Matthew, light of my face. Matthew, who run the race to the end.”
In God alone is our peace and our hope. Or as St. Augustine put it so hauntingly, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.”
I have nothing more to say tonight, I think, but a prayer. May God bring the good work he has begun in all of us to fulfillment. May our hearts be open to His grace, that He may heal all our wounds, fill our loneliness, satisfy our longings… and may He find in each of us willing instruments to bear His love and healing to the world.
And together let us say: Amen.