Recently, behind his Mom and Dad (who is also very fit), their six-year-old finished in the top ten over all at one of these events, which, if you know this kid, is rather hilarious, but not surprising. He's not only an endearing little boy, but also some hybrid of tank and steam engine, and it's no stretch to imagine him, head down, face red, plowing full speed ahead to the finish--sort of like his mom.
When we were growing up, my sister was so head and shoulders above other runners in the county, it never seemed like she was working very hard to win, but when she moved into more competitive fields I began to see just how much work went into running how she did. I saw for the first time, in my sister, and in her competitors, running to exhaustion.
I remember going to watch my sister at one of the state meets, where the girl who was favored to win, I think her name was Jenny, ran the first two miles well ahead of the pack, then not one hundred feet from the finish line, clenched up. Her jaw went tight, her legs stiffened. You could see her force a few steps before she fell down. There was nothing to do for her but cry, and sometimes I still do when I think about her. People passed her, my sister among them, and the gal finally finished the race on all fours.
It seems like I was just getting into competitive running at about that time, and I never was very competitive, because I was very precious to myself and concerned about the onset of pain. Sometimes, when running, I'd start to get a little tight, and think about Jenny and pull back--because her crawling across the finish line seemed like one of the greatest tragedies that could befall anyone. And of course it's not, I now know, but back then I only knew one kind of glory--and that was staying comfortable. Also…winning, if the two could be combined.
It wasn't until I had kids that I received my first hint of what my sister gleaned from her endurance--that there's a point between fatigue and falling down that's quite lovely, an out-of-body experience. Close your eyes, keep going, and the body just does what it needs to do with the tacit prompt of mind. I've felt it in childbirth during transition, and every so often, when I think I have no energy left for putting kids to bed and whatnot, somehow it just gets done.
This weekend we put in the garden. I've abandoned a large garden way out back that's so far away from the house that I forget about it, so my husband made frames for three raised beds right outside the kitchen. In the course of the weekend, we turned over a lot of dirt, loaded and unloaded long boards, several old railroad ties that are heavy as hell, and forty pound bags of topsoil. I've felt a little beat up, with scratches on my ankles and forearms from hard to handle boards, sore back, and restless leg syndrome at night. And none of this is complaint, but rather exultation. I got tired, but I kept working--like people who have babies, run long distance, write novels, or become saints.
Back in the days when I tried to write poetry, I wrote down a phrase in my little notebook, "I want to give glory to God without fear." I kept thinking something would occur to me to follow that line, but over the years as I've looked at it here and again, I can't think of anything with which to chase it. It's still a concern of mine, but it's more of a singular concern rather than one impression among many. I want to give glory to God without fear.
In so many of my endeavors (having babies, running, writing, trying to become a saint), I still hold myself very dear.
I keep the stethoscope on my heart for the first murmur of discord, yearning, or unease. I hunt for obstacles and seize on retractions, just in case I need them when my jaw starts clenching, and I stop often just short of that beautiful, out-of-body moment in prayer, in work, and in love. That's fear: self-preservation.
Yet, I've never been left for dead. No one has abandoned me. Should I fall down so close to the finish, I could crawl too, couldn't I? And failing the ability to crawl, my guess is some official there on the sideline would pick me up, give me some gatorade, and take care of the body that succumbed to the pavement. It's only a self, after all. It has a habit of regeneration.
It's not an original thought, but to give glory to God without fear, I do picture the unselfconsciousness of a child in work, my nephew, head down, face red, sparing nothing but the thought of taking the next step towards the finish line. The unselfconsciousness of a child in prayer, putting aside "distraction from the wonder." * The unselfconsciousness of a child in love, to "let your longing relentlessly beat upon the cloud of unknowing that lies between you and your God."**
* "It is distracting, and not for five minutes will I be distracted from the wonder."--(Walker Percy, "The Moviegoer" p.42)
** "Let your longing relentlessly beat upon the cloud of unknowing that lies between you and your God. Pierce that cloud with the keen shaft of your love, spurn the thought of anything less than God, and do not give up this work for anything. For the contemplative work of love by itself will eventually heal you of all the roots of sin."-- (The Cloud of Unknowing p.64)