This is the great moment, when you see, however distant, the goal of your wandering.
The thing wich has been living in
your imagination suddenly becomes a part of the tangible world.
In a few weeks time, thousands of people from all over the world will gather outside of Boston’s city-skirts. Individuals committed to a cause, a question, a challenge, with hundreds of miles of distance carried in their limbs, will congregate, and celebrate, in this community. Lithe, strong bodies will arise before the sun to lace up shoes and participate in the consummation of months-yes, even years-of training for The Boston Marathon.
While it is no Delphi, to argue that this notable race isn’t a sacred shrine would be to miss the enormous effort and journey it has taken everyone to get there. The rewards of participating in this race are immediate and life-altering, as are the hours of sacrifice it took to reach the point of being able to simply look at the starting line. And while the last 26.2 miles may seem to others the beginning and end of a great race, this really is the final stage of a pilgrimage that one was called to long ago. For one doesn’t enter into the rigorous training and sacrificial lifestyle of marathon-preparation without carrying a deep and heavy question about something in their life. And the pilgrim-runner inevitably carries this question or concern with them every single training mile and all the way to the starting line. The race itself sets the stage for the soul-stirring vision and provides the sacred encounter, which can replenish the runner’s life.
In what feels like another life-time ago, I had the great opportunity to participate in Boston’s 100th marathon. It wasn’t necessarily something that I set after, per se. As it often is with the great seasons of life, it calls to and names us, even before we are significantly aware. I had started running with a bit more focus while living abroad in Sweden. After a handful of minor successes at small neighborhood races, I was encouraged (by my mother) to consider training for the Stockholm Marathon. With youth and unfettered responsibilities on my side, I was able to train and prepare well for this race. I wanted to participate in something that would give me a real, temporal perspective of the Apostle Paul’s words to the church in Corinth: Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever (I Corinthians 9:24-15). When an athlete decides to run a marathon, he or she commits to serious training. Why would it be any different with my spiritual life? I was reminded of the many stories in my faith tradition that involved transformational journeys, all of which included a road of some sorts and an encounter with the Almighty. I wanted this training to transform me. I wanted to be touched by God and be changed in return. I wanted the milage put in on the road to be full of meaning.
I crossed the Stockholm Marathon’s finish line with a time that qualified me for Boston’s heralded race. I shook my head in both confusion and surprise as my father this time, nodded his head emphatically: You’ve got to run Boston, I recall him saying, This is a chance of a lifetime! What I thought was the end of my running race, that which I imagined was the source of divine inspiration for me, turned out to be just the beginning of a greater pilgrimage towards knowing myself and subsequently, knowing God.
Drizzled, fog-filled back-country roads became my training ground. I found mountain’s foothills and ran repeats up and down their curves to ready myself for notorious aspects of Boston’s course. My dad would drive me 20 miles east into the North Cascade mountain range, drop me off, and meet me at home. I ran in the mornings. I ran in the afternoons. I read articles about running. I studied maps of Boston. And I dreamt of my finisher’s jacket. My time, my energy, my life was focused and centered on preparing well for this event, and I believe I truly did what I could to make ready the road.
The morning of Boston’s finest race had sparkled with diamond dew and turquoise skies. My strategies to gain ground had worked, my stamina was strong and I was on the clock to PR this race and qualify again for the following year. I was doing great by mile 20. The almost half mile ascent up the infamous Heartbreak Hill began. My feet kept a steady pace, my heart and spirit felt strong and determined: this is what I had trained for all those miles up and down Northwest woodland roads. I crested the mighty climb! The rest of the race was downhill; the finish line was almost palpable! Soon enough I would be drinking beers and eating an amazing pasta dinner somewhere in the city with my family-I could almost taste the joy of that delicious finish line!
But then, at the high descent point, blew a wind so strong, that even my down-hill pace was slowed and swayed by its force. And this easterly gust, being channeled by narrow streets, carried with it a chill for which I could never have prepared myself. My once wet head, a mixture of both hot sweat and hastily poured road-side water, was quickly drying and taking with it my body’s crucial temperature and energy reserves. I didn’t have additional layers and I was getting so cold. Soon enough, I recall not being able to feel my hands and feet; that sensation moved through my extremities as I began to navigate the tunnel my vision was presenting me. I was staggering. And suddenly, alongside me came an upholding embrace and a warm, gentle voice offered me their top long-sleeve layer and gloves. Somehow, while still running, I was helped into these items, and this loving arm stayed around my side until my vision began to steady and open up again. When I turned to thank this benevolent fellow runner, there was no one there. I mean, yes, there were thousands around me, running past me, not seeing me, but there was no one who had just just stopped and gambled away their race time on ministering to me.
Bewildered and blessed, I tried to keep running and just finish the race. My personal record was shot, as was my chance to run Boston again the following year, but I knew I still must cross the finish line. As I did, my state must’ve been like a siren, as medics immediately brought me to the first aid tent. I had hypothermia and had I not had these great layers and gloves, I could’ve been very badly off, I was told. My body lay wrapped in emergency blankets for what felt like hours processing this experience. My heart was warmed by the memory of whomever-or whatever-it was that covered and comforted me on the road. My spirit was stirred by that service; I knew that God had brought me through the race and I now began the work of pondering the wisdom of the finish line.
That ultimate sense of wonder within the experience is what drives so many people to engage in these rigorous trials. Father Stephen Canny, an Irish priest who leads a parish in Santa Rosa, California, believes strongly in the effectiveness of pilgrimage. He has climbed Croagh Patrick, a popular pilgrimage site and storied mountain in Ireland, three times himself and has seen it work wonders on the devoted. “You are more alive after you have overcome something difficult,” he says. “You’re changed by the mountain and the fact that you have confirmed your faith. It’s a remarkably effective way to answer the question, What is my purpose?”
Tomorrow, Palm Sunday, marks the beginning of Holy Week for Christians around the world. In the accounts of the four Gospels, Jesus road into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, whilst the gathered crowd waved the branches of palm branches and laid them on the ground before the mounted Christ. An incredible journey had brought Jesus to this point, this final stretch of dusty road. His riding into the sacred city proclaimed his purpose, and people blessed him with shouts of Hosannah. His entire life time–nay, all of time–had led him to this pivotal point in the Greatest Story ever told. He would climb the most important hill in humanity’s history in the upcoming week. And it would be a heart breaking hill.
But because of this great ascent, and the cross at the crest, we have the potential of knowing our uniquely created purpose in ways that only can occur through a cosmic lens!
This week, as we move through the last leg of our Lenten journey, reflect on these questions as a means of bringing you to your place of pilgrimage, your Easter-place:
What sacrifices have you made to get this far?
What has the inward experience been for you while you have traveled the outward road?
What are your recollections of images of humbleness on your journey?
The call that has brought you thus far was the call to pay attention to the sacred source in your life. What is your response?