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.