The trilling of birds fills the Sunday morning air, a gentle reminder that we once lived in a society scaled more for pause and reflection, rather than one constantly driven by the passing billow and grind of work-a-day commerce.
On any such Sunday morning across the country we seekers and sufferers alike gather by the tens of thousands, congregants all, and embark on a journey of spiritual awakening, discovery and self-fulfillment. We represent every race and religious denomination, every creed and every faith, and by our simple garb make it impossible to distinguish between the wealthy and the poor among us. We, then, are America’s runners, observers who enter no church as such, rather attend what amount to services at speed at marathons and road races nationwide.
Ours is a movement now firmly within the American mainstream, though we only began in earnest in the 1970s. Then, a combination of age and cynicism began to erode once dewy ideals which were bent toward altering a society of convention waging an immoral war in a foreign land. Back then, a few iconoclasts sought refuge from the collective entanglement, and began to run on a path of self-discovery and personal well-being.
Today, our discipline transcends all boundaries and conventions, and has swollen into the millions across the globe. But even as our new collective has clogged city streets – and in doing so filled charity coffers – we have met resistance. Resistance not for what we believe, i.e. the restorative and redemptive power of a distance run, for that is a universal set tied to men like Thoreau and Emerson. Instead, the resistance has come due to that which we require to fulfill our quests. For in our need for open roads on which to celebrate fitness and health, we have called upon the graces of other, more traditional congregants whose path to their own places of worship have been blocked in the process.
The scheduling of marathons on Sunday mornings has thus become a thorny issue throughout the country. It cropped up a few years ago in Los Angeles, California after the city’s 21st annual marathon in 2006. The old L.A. course, like so many major marathons, wound through the city’s neighborhoods blocking streets, and at times disrupting church services, in L.A.’s case as many as 500 churches. But in thinking about the churches / marathon dilemma it struck me how narrowly us-versus-them that argument had become.
One man who has had to deal with this issue over the years is Jack Staph, executive director of the Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon. Staph has overseen three or four major course changes in his 35 years at the helm of Cleveland’s preeminent running event. Over that time he has found it necessary to interact with Cleveland’s church leaders on numerous occasions.
“It’s about diplomacy, letting them know you care,” said Staph, himself a former Jesuit seminarian. “The race has to take the initiative to make peace, because you have to presume you’re invading their right to worship. So you have to be humble and understanding. You listen to their problems, then craft a solution that fits both needs.”
Rather than taking a combative stance and waving city permits, Staph would begin months out taking ministers and priests to dinner, meeting with church groups, printing flyers that alert congregations to the race date and road closings, even offering assistance to older parishioners. In the best cases, the churches were assimilated into the event itself.
“When we changed the course eight years ago, we got a call from a minister at the First Methodist Church of Cleveland,” says Staph. “I met with him, and he became enthusiastic about the opportunity the marathon offered. He changed the time of the church services for that day so he could have his congregation meet at the race and man a water stop. He even had a special choir that came and sang. We sent out coffee and donuts, and everybody won.”
The rector of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral at the old start-finish line on Euclid Avenue downtown used to conduct a prayer breakfast before the race. Then her youth group helped work the finish line chute system. And for two years the church hosted the pasta dinner.
“You can’t ignore them, or dismiss them,” says Staph of the churches. “These are good people out there to do good. You just have to reach out to them.”
Beyond mere accommodation, Cleveland’s First Methodist and Trinity Cathedral captured what church services and marathon running had in common. For what is the purpose of a church itself, the edifice, that is?
With its stained-glass windows, candlelight, chiming bells, and arching choir voices, a church is a place that casts those who enter into a totally different environment than that of everyday life. It is a place that provides a nurturing environment for worship, religious exploration, and spirituality where communion with God can take place. That’s what the stained glass, candles, bells, and smells all produce, a transcendent atmosphere.
The marathon differs only in degree and intent, not outcome. With the removal of cars from city streets, the arc or banners that demark start and finish, the changing into a simple uniform, and the rhythmic sound of those thousands of footfalls over 26 miles, the marathon, too, casts its entrants into an environment beyond the prosaic, and brings them together into communion with something greater than themselves, what Bobbi Gibb, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1966, referred to as “a mutual expression of our belief in what it means to be human”.
In Tony Hendra’s 2004 memoir Father Joe he wrote of visiting his Benedictine friend and learning that the Benedictine order was the first to claim that work, in itself, was a sacred act.
“Work, in the Benedictine tradition,” Hendra wrote, “enjoyable or not, exalted or humble, is in no conflict with the spiritual. Indeed, it too is prayer, a principle best expressed in the classic Benedictine dictum “laborare est orare”, to work is to pray. There is no separation between work in the sense of the secular, non-spiritual toil and the spiritual in the sense of uplifting relief from its tedium.”
And thus can we make the case that currere est orare – to run is to pray – as we jog, run, or race through our cathedrals of trees, down our transepts of concrete. But so, too, does the concept of congruere – to run together – lend a congregational connotation to the event and its proceedings.
Having church congregations man aid stations along the marathon routes of the nation allows them to commune with the runners in a shared experience of effort and sacrifice. It creates a great synergy of expression where two groups, each embracing a spiritual quest, simply acknowledges that for one the altar is not fixed to a particular space, but, instead, resides within. For as anyone who runs distance knows, the marathon is most certainly a spiritual journey. When considered in this light, how could we not join together in the gentle air of Sunday mornings?