Gasping for God

This is a guest post by Sarah Otto.

Earlier this month I celebrated my 32nd birthday. I woke up early that morning to run my birthday mile, a ritual I’ve practiced for many years now. My birthday mile is a way for me to get a pulse, both literally and figuratively, on how well I’ve cared for myself in the past year. My physical well being is so intricately connected to my spiritual well being, so my birthday mile is also a good indicator of how my relationship with God has been over the past year. I’m not necessarily looking for a direct correlation – that a fast, easy mile from a fit body means my spiritual health is also in top-notch shape. Life’s too messy for that kind of direct correlation. In fact, the times in my life I’ve been in the best shape have been the result of serving “another master” of sorts – prioritizing my outward appearance over my inner state. Instead, what I look for in my birthday mile is a healthy balance. I want to feel comfortable in my body, no matter what it’s been through in the past year, and yet still be challenged as I push myself physically – reminding myself to gasp for God like I gasp for air.

I was a little nervous before my run this year. Though I had walked a lot, I could count on one hand the amount of times I had run in the past year. My body had gone through a tremendous amount of change: the incomprehensible growth during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy, the trauma of childbirth, the painful introduction to breastfeeding, the overall slow and bloody process of recovery. My spiritual life had been all over the place as well. Pregnancy was a euphoric time – nine months of a continuous prayer of gratitude. I was brimming with hope and anticipation. Labor, on the other hand, was the darkest and loneliest experience of my life – during the four and a half hours of unsuccessful pushing, my only prayer was the first line of Psalm 22, which I repeated over and over in my head: My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? And in the first few weeks of my daughter’s life, I experienced a full range of emotions – anger, gratitude, joy, and resentment.

God is the Source
As I began my run I thought of all of this. I thought about how my body will never be the same because of the last year, but my heart will never be either. And that’s why running is such a good indicator of my overall health – it allows my heart to be at the center, reminding me that not only is it the source of the oxygen I need to survive, it is the spiritual source of the empathy and passion and love that runs through my veins as well. And God is the source of it all – God is the reason my heart beats and my soul speaks. And although a fit body does not necessarily correlate to a spiritual life in good shape, if I have not invested time in the care of my body over the year, that is often an indicator that I have also struggled to find passion and purpose in other parts of my life.

This year, despite the limited times I had run over the past year, I finished my birthday mile feeling strong. It made me realize that I had tended to my body in other ways – resting when it needed it, walking when running felt too much. But it also made me realize that God’s grace and not my own effort had been the thing to sustain me physically through the exhaustion of sleepless nights with a newborn baby. Throughout my run, I was amazed at what my body could endure, it’s capacity to grow and sustain life. My pace quickened throughout the laps as I thought about my baby girl I had left at home, who would soon be emerging from her sleep and hungering for my milk. I was in awe of what my heart could hold, it’s capacity to love a little person so deeply.

What kind of shape is your body in right now? And how does that reflect your spiritual health? What parts of your life need a little more oxygen, a bit more life and passion? Whatever state your body is in, be gentle on yourself. Allow God to speak through your body and really listen to what it tells you. You do not need to run a mile. If simply getting out of bed and walking the few steps to the bathroom are all the physical energy you can exert right now, let those steps prompt a prayer.

Help me gasp for you, O God of life, as I gasp for the air I breathe.

Sarah Otto grew up in the desert of Phoenix, Arizona. She earned her Masters of Divinity at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry and is currently the Ignatian Enrichment Programs Coordinator at Ignatius House Jesuit Retreat Center in Atlanta, GA where she lives with her husband Andy and daughter Eva.

Categories: Essays

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8 replies

  1. I could write a book on this. Physically, 5 lbs. over where I want to be, but stronger than I have ever been. I can do 10 real push-ups! But, spiritually struggling to find my place. That stuffy feeling when nothing is clear. I battled kidney stones for a lot of last year. I was so sad that in the midst of the awful pain all I could pray was O God, O God. Could not offer it up, just couldn’t get around it. Made me wonder about the faithful person I thought I was. Still tryimg to do 10 spiritual push-ups.

  2. Peggy, there are times when we don’t know how to pray or what to say. Paul writes about this in Romans 8:26 “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes[q] with sighs too deep for words.” God doesn’t expect fancy words but only asks us to rest in God. It sounds to me that you can let go and just rest in God knowing that this is where you need to be. I do hope you don’t mind me responding to your comment but it touched me as I think we have all been in the place where we think we need to try harder when all we need to do is surrender. Blessings to you!

  3. wow Sarah, it is clear why you and Andy are together. Reading your entry touched me on so many different levels. I am a 71 year old mother of 4, grandmother of 8. You brought me back to my young mother days. Actually to my birth and early parenting experience and I can see clearly how my Great God of Mystery was always there for me, even when I was MOST oblivious. I love your take on the correlation between spiritual and physical health.I most love the thought of two such gifted and aware people sharing the creating and parenting of your lucky child, Eva. Thank you, Kathy

  4. What a great reminder that we all need to care for ourselves spiritually as well as physically! Beautifully said.

  5. Beautiful thoughts. Reminded me exactly of my 30s when my baby girl was born. Today at 64 I can walk one mile. A few short years ago before being diagnosed with Sceledorma I did the Camino in Spain twice with my daughter. From my 20s I loved the freedom of physical exercise and hard work equalling spiritual reading reflection and prayer. My body is Strong although limited by the illness. My Spirit is very strong. I am so grateful for all the possibilities that are unfolding in my new life of no work and living alone. Thank God for His Word from which I learned early in my 20s that if I put God first in my life He will give me everything I need. I also learned and I believe that ‘all things work together for good for those who love God’. I can face every day with a smile including the days that just getting out of bed is a struggle.

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