Posted on: December 4th, 2023 Why run? (Derek Olsen, Discipline, & Contemplation)

In the afterword to his thoughtful (and highly recommended) book Inwardly Digest: the Prayer Book as a Guide to a Spiritual Life, Derek Olsen returns to one of the most common themes that runs through the entire book: running.

Olsen, you see, is committed to the activity of long-distance running. This is a commitment to which I deeply relate, as a 51-year old, life-long runner myself.

And yet, Olsen’s description of his practice of running differs slightly (though crucially) from my own.

Olsen says that his “big picture goal” is “to enjoy good health with his family for as long as he can.”

To many ears, this will sound like a laudable goal, and yet for me it rings hollow, or shallow.

For some deep reason I will not delve into now, neither health nor family strike me as profound enough. They are not profound enough a reason to meditate.

Oh, wait: I forgot to say that for me, running is a form of meditation. I think of it as “praying with my body.” It’s an occasion for me to listen deeply to my breathing, to observe the different hues of the light based on (among other factors) the position of the sun in the sky, to ponder fragments of Scripture, to confront my limits, to be present to my feelings (“good” or “bad,” pleasurable or painful).  

Yet, while meditation is all of these things, it is more than just those. In a long tradition of spiritual thought and practice, I believe that meditation is the activity—the activity par excellence—of becoming divine. In the Orthodox tradition this is called deification or theosis, and it goes all the way back at least to Aristotle.

Aristotle who wrote in both the Nicomachean Ethics and the Metaphysics that contemplation is that unique, human activity which promotes and nurtures the divinity that is within us. Why is contemplation unique and (in an important sense) superior? For Aristotle it has to do with its connection to final causality, or purpose. What is the purpose of contemplation? Not anything external. This activity is performed for no external reason/end/goal/purpose, but always and only for its own sake.

My running, then, is connected to my attempt to practice contemplation or meditation. This activity, which is also a longing for communion with God, is vastly superior to family or health.

For me, running is not done primarily for family or heath (though these penultimate reasons are good, and sometimes do show up in my motivation).

First and foremost it is an opportunity to pray, to long for God, to touch ultimate reality deep down inside myself.

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