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Run and feel the Lord’s pleasure

A testimonial by Clark Berge SSF


Clark on one of his runs during the First Order Chapter 2011

I am a reformed couch potato.  Eight years ago I was on retreat, stretched out on a bed eating chocolate chip cookies, reading a book about connecting body, mind and spirit.  Suddenly, I had a stomach ache.  I realized all the theory in the world wasn’t going to get me any closer to feeling the freedom, joy and integration I longed for.  I would have to get off the bed and move, if I ever hoped to integrate body, mind and spirit.

I chose running because it is absolutely free.  I believed it was consistent with my vow of poverty and also I wouldn’t have to ask permission for a gym membership, thus inviting fraternal jokes and unsought advice and interest.  I wasn’t sure how long I’d keep this up.  The only expense was shoes, and here common sense was important. I took advice and aimed for “good enough”: too cheap and I risked hurting myself, too expensive and I was told I’d be wasting my money.

However, regardless of the shoe, running required real effort, and my first efforts nearly did me in.  One quarter mile and I was gasping frantically, heaving gobs of phlegm.  I quickly realized my desire to integrate body, mind and spirit would be vanquished by premature fantasies of running a marathon.  I adopted strict standards, running only short distances.  “Gentle” was my watch word.  At the first sign of any alarming twinge of pain, I walked.  Within a year I could run a mile.  But once that benchmark was achieved, it seemed it was only a matter of months before I could run six miles.  The furthest I’ve ever run is fourteen miles; I normally prefer five to six.  My goal is still the gold standard integration of body, mind and spirit, not a gold medal.

Running has helped me physically.  I’ve lost some extra weight and lowered my blood pressure.  I have more energy and stamina for the physical challenges of my life, and within a few months chronic lower back pain disappeared as I grew stronger.  The endorphins released by the exercise only make the days brighter and the joy of living keener.

Regular exercise has proved a great stress reliever.  One doesn’t imagine the life of a friar being stressful, but it can be.  The stress I experienced stemmed from perfectionism, and a desire to please everybody.  I felt responsible for everything while at the same time longing for relief.  Today, I experience stress from juggling travel schedules, jumping around from country to country, time zone to time zone.  Before I took up running I found relief in alcohol but that quickly turned into a nightmare.  Giving up alcohol, I was still faced with my life’s problems and the need to live better.  My mind, as other recovering drinkers have noted, was like a prison.  Changing my mind about my options and abilities made it possible for me to live more freely.

The first mental hurdle was to find time to run.  I harboured the belief I was too busy already; how could I ever squeeze more time out of a day?  A friend recommended keeping a daily chart of how I spent my time during the course of a day.  I did this for several days and realized I had time for whatever I wanted to do.  How badly did I want to run?  I cut out some internet time; it gave me 45 minutes without sacrificing much in the way of communication.

The next mental hurdle was self-consciousness.  I was convinced everybody was laughing at me – a middle aged man galumphing along the road.  I learned that most people didn’t even give me a second thought; those who did were astonished but encouraging.  I wasn’t as much at the centre of others’ lives as I feared and hoped.

It is the spiritual connection that keeps me running.  My Franciscan spirituality is deeply nourished by the regular contact with the sun and the wind, the rain and the cold.  Nothing beats the smell of the damp earth or the salty tang of the air along the beach.  I have had wonderful encounters with people all over the world – a naked child standing along the road at Maravovo in the Solomon Islands shouting delightedly “Maniswere!” Whiteman! “Hallo!”  In Lesotho I looked around after passing a school yard to find a dozen children, appearing to be about six or seven years old, pounding along behind me, book bags bouncing on their backs. “Run! Run!” they laughed.  I have running “friends” – solitary figures I pass frequent-ly.  Although we never break stride to get acquainted I count on seeing them.  I meet up with friary neighbours all over the world, often stopping to pet their dogs or comment on the weather.  I feel I belong to the scene, that I am connected to the people and the environment, my “Brother Sun” and “Mother Earth.”  As St. Francis taught, it all points to God “in whom we live and move and have our being.”

Meditation literature often talks about different kinds of meditation: walking meditation on a labyrinth, kundalini meditation (which I experience as a joyful jigging up and down – with apologies to practitioners), tai chi, Qigong – so why not running meditation?  Combining the rhythms of running with breath control and mental focus I find healing in the exercise.  This is especially true of anger.  I run sprints until I’m limp.  By then I am ready to surrender my will to God and ask that the log of self-righteous-ness be removed from my eyes.  There is something about admitting “I can’t go any further” on the road that helps me let go and rest myself in God’s merciful presence.  While running, scriptural passages surface which I repeat as mantras, drawing encouragement on the steep climbs or joyful release as I go downhill: “Alleluia!”

The great benefit of prayer is the sense of connection with God.  Along with this, prayer helps me to feel awareness of myself and others, and the discovery of a spiritual life that nourishes humility, and the hope, idealism and tenacity to work for peace, justice and reconciliation, healing the environment.  Running is a kind of prayer for me.  f