Today, Rozann Carter talks about the spiritual aspect of training for a marathon, especially in light of C.S. Lewis' "Law of Undulation," which explains how the hidden emotional troughs and peaks inherent in commitment affect our ability to act upon a rational good.
Last Monday night in Chicago was treacherous. The snow fell Monday morning, and as the day progressed, the temperatures increased enough to allow for a quick transformation back to rain, and then dropped back below freezing. The roads and sidewalks were a mess of black ice, and the body contortions that the sidewalk-walkers pulled off to keep themselves from falling would have earned high marks on Dancing With the Stars.
It. Was. Crazy.
But, the real ridiculousness was waiting on a random street corner in Evanston, as 5 reflective-gear-clad runners with spelunking flashlights attached to their foreheads-- outfitted with enough layers to either stay warm on an arctic expedition or to single-handedly advertise every race they had ever completed -- gathered for the Evanston Running Club regular Monday-night-run.
I only know this because I was there.
Why? For heaven’s sake, why? Well, it all started this past October when I ran the Chicago Marathon. (Aside: In an effort to incorporate my work here at Word on Fire with my participation in the marathon, I had a shirt printed for the big race with the WOF logo and the words: “Running for an end to Atheism: If this girl can run a marathon, there must be a God.” Evangelism at its best-- like the dri-fit version of a sandwich board, except that I was going to have a lot of atheists laughing and pointing fingers if I dropped out at mile 16. Mid-race, I was questioning my bold humor—something like Peter taking a step out of the boat wearing a screen printed cloak: “Who needs swimming lessons when your best friend is the Messiah?” Test the Lord your God, anyone?) Then, in November, after having mysteriously blocked out any memory of the previous month, I signed up for another marathon. So, long story short, last Monday I had an appointment to keep: one training run among many on the road to 26.2.
Well-acquainted with the comments, “I get tired driving that far!” and “I wouldn’t run that far if someone was chasing me!” I understand that marathoning is not viewed as the product of a common-sense-informed thought process. I am aware that it is not for everyone, nor are the long-term health benefits conclusive. However, in spite of all of its seeming “extremism,” for me, marathon running has been utterly sacramental. I’m convinced that the physical embodiment of spiritual truths that present themselves in a whole range of marathon-related experiences are a microcosm of the entire spiritual journey. This physical-revelation-of-the-spiritual is yet another indication of the utter necessity of the Incarnation: divine Truth in fleshly existence as the means by which our embodied souls encounter and progress toward Divinity. However, the experience of training for a marathon also helps to “make real” participating truths-- truths regarding our nature as communal beings, the dynamics of a healthy prayer life, and the value of suffering in light of a greater good and even as a means to offer up one’s own physical well-being to relieve the sufferings of another (i.e. running for a cause). But, what strikes me the most about marathon training is the way that it relates to what C.S. Lewis termed “the Law of Undulation” in his classic work, The Screwtape Letters.
In this book, C.S. Lewis chronicles the correspondence between a “master” demon and his “apprentice,” the first coaching the second in the art of snatching a soul from the Enemy (God). Screwtape writes to Wormwood, schooling him on undulation: “… while [humans’] spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation—the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks…” Screwtape advocates ignorance of this undulation on the part of the patient. He goes on to speak of the way in which decisions are often made at one emotional level, and when that level fades, doubt and questioning ensue. The devil uses this questioning to his advantage, enticing his patients to believe that the entire decision was mistaken—the lowest emotional experience (or the utter lack of emotion) being perceived as the reality. For example, in the case of conversion to Christianity, Screwtape uses the dynamics of undulation in order to attack the patient’s mind, making the recent convert, after having encountered the first trough period, “doubt whether the first days of Christianity were not, perhaps, a little excessive.”
In the spiritual life, as in marathoning, it seems that true progress on the journey is greatly inhibited by ignorance of the law of undulation. We somehow believe that trough experiences are indications that we are on the wrong path; we made the wrong decision. We abandon our direction and give up on our commitment. The real heart of the matter is in being aware of and prepared for radically shifting peaks and troughs, and in the midst of this human reality, understanding that experience of the troughs does not negate the truth that informed the decision in the peaks. It is in realizing that the willful decision to seek the truth may be accompanied by dryness, but it is still the right decision; that the conscious choice to commit to pray diligently might produce little or no emotional response, but it will pay immeasurable dividends; that the determined resolution to lace up your running shoes on a Monday evening in January might be the last thing you want to do, but it is the only way you will get to the finish line.
Oddly enough, while I don’t always employ the mailman mantra (rain or sleet or snow!) that characterized that Monday night run, I never regret when I do. No matter how awful the weather or how enticing the alternative, I have never completed a run which I wish I had not started. Why, then, is it always so difficult to start? Paul offers his well-known answer: “For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not.” (Romans 7:18) Where do we go from there? Screwtape, in the close of his letter to Wormwood, says, “Our cause is never more in danger, than when a human, no longer desiring, but intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” The relationship between our physical reality and our divine destiny is demonstrated in this daily decision. The whole spiritual life subsists in the continual attempt to allow the sometimes arid knowledge of the glorious promise of the finish line to immediately and continually inform our willful decision to take the first step.
Rozann Carter is an Administrative Assistant at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.