“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” – 2 Timothy 4:7
I was reading an article in the Running Room Magazine the other day. Now I’m not much of a runner, but I’ve really been enjoying getting outside in the mornings during these beautiful summer days. I was hoping to find some info to help me make the most of the experience. The article was called “Feeling Good at 5:30 a.m.” Although that sounded like a bit of an oxymoron to me, I kept reading.
Sheryl Maik wrote, “My mom is now 71 years young, and it has been 21 years since she started running at 5:30 a.m. She has never competed in a race, done drills or run for speed. She probably thinks a fartlek is something crude.” A fartlek??? I surreptitiously glanced around the table at my daughter and her friend – both of who haves lots of running experience. I was trying to gauge how humiliating it might be to have to admit that I didn’t know what a fartlek was. I tried to adopt a casual tone. “So, do you guys know what a fartlek is?” Their blank faces made me feel a little better. Relieved that I hadn’t been written off as a complete dinosaur, I decided to do a little digging.
‘Fartlek’ is a Swedish word that means ‘speed play’. It’s a form of interval or speed training that’s supposed to help you improve your speed and endurance. The idea is to vary your pace throughout your run, alternating between fast segments and slow jogs. It’s less structured than traditional run/walk interval training where, for example, you might run for 15 seconds and then walk for 45. In fartlek training, your work-rest intervals are based on how your body feels. Best of all, you can do it anywhere – on roads, trails, and even hills.
The usefulness of this idea isn’t just limited to physical workouts. I wish I had known about fartlek training when I first decided that I needed to get more serious about my faith. I was so excited about the prospect of drawing closer to our Lord that I dived right in, taking on a multitude of practices that I was sure would get me to where I wanted to be. I spent hours each day praying and meditating, going to Mass and sitting in the Chapel. Things fell by the way at home, but I wasn’t too worried. After all, shouldn’t my spiritual life take priority? But it didn’t take long before I began to wear myself out. You see, God calls each one of us to holiness, but the way He chose for me was as a wife and mother, not as a contemplative nun. Instead of living my faith in the circumstances of my daily life, I had started to try to live my life in a way that God hadn’t asked of me. And without His grace, I didn’t stand a chance. I didn’t last more than a couple of weeks before I crashed and burned.
Thankfully, I didn’t give up. I figured if Jesus said, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30), He wouldn’t have made it impossible for me to become holy. But I first had to accept that though I’d been looking for God in my spiritual devotions, I had actually found myself instead. I had come up with my own idea of what it meant to be ‘holy’ – and that idea had nothing to do with what God wanted, or with His love for me. Today, I’d like to share a couple of things with you that I learned from that experience.
1. Friendship with God – just like it would be with anyone else – is a two-way street. In the beginning, I never bothered to ask God how we could be better friends. Instead, I pre-empted the entire process by coming up with my own idea of who I thought God wanted me to be and what my friendship with Him was going to look like. But if we are going to go the distance – to become like God – it will be through His grace, through us responding to His idea of what holiness should be in our lives.
2. I figured if an ascetic life was good enough for the saints, it was good enough for me. But there is no “one-size-fits-all-cookie-cutter” plan for growing in holiness. God created us as individuals, and He uses different ways – uniquely suited to our temperaments and stations in life – to help us draw closer to Him. He knows us better than we know ourselves – and we can ask Him for the grace to reveal how He wants to work in and through us. Asceticism has an important place in the spiritual life – but we need to let God lead the way.1
3. Be patient! You won’t become holy in a day. Although God can transform us in an instant, normally it takes time to grow in your spiritual life. The saints became who they were only after years of living in union with God.
So what can we do as we start down the path of drawing closer to our Lord? Remember those principles of fartlek training? We need to pay attention to how we feel spiritually – to what God is saying to us. At first, we shouldn’t try to ‘run’ too far or too fast – to do too much at once. After all, our spiritual devotions are supposed to nourish us, not overwhelm us. Holiness is not something ‘extra’ to do, something that is extracurricular to our lives. Holiness is about how we live every day – about our attitudes, our habits, and especially about the depth of our love. As Pope Francis reminds us, “Holiness does not mean performing extraordinary things but carrying out daily things in an extraordinary way – that is, with love, joy and faith.”
But in order to live that kind of a life, we need to train – just as we would for a marathon. After all, we’re going to be in this for the long haul – for all of eternity. Gradually building more and more time into our days for prayer, setting aside time for meditation, and uniting ourselves to Jesus in the sacraments is exactly what we need to build the speed and endurance that will see us through to the end. But as with any training, we need to be consistent – to spend time with Jesus every day. Happily, we can do this anywhere: at home, at church, out on the roads and trails … and even on hills.
– Sharon van der Sloot
1 Asceticism refers to the doctrine that a person can attain to a high spiritual and moral state through the practice of self-denial, self-mortification etc.