Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Redeeming Moments

If you leave a thing alone, you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone, it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white, you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post, you must have a new white post  -G.K. Chesterton (1)

WE EACH have activities we believe will make us better, if only we had more time: reading, prayer, exercise, watching the Mets.  In most cases, the activity requires finding time alone (2) .

While affirming their importance, we lament that there just isn't time for these things.  ("Who reads anymore?" is commonly asked.)

The other night I just couldn't get to sleep.  I laid there, thinking over and over, to the beat of a pounding chest, about the things that I'm told good Christians don't worry about: the opinions, approval and disapproval of people; failure; the strange phantom niggles along my hip and holy cow this kid thinks I have a clue!

Also, I was thirsty.

As often happens when I'm bothered or otherwise worked up, a passage from somewhere will find its way to the surface. That night, it was from Duel in the Sun, an engaging account of arguably the best American marathon of all time. It centers on Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley, the two guys who fought for the wreath:
As he settled in for the 3-hour flight, Alberto fingered his rosary beads. He calculated he'd be able to work through the rosary several times during the trip out. People always complained that there was no time to pray, but Salazar, among the busiest of men, found plenty of time: the fluid, spectral, netherworld moments waiting to fall asleep at night; the stark pit-of-the-night hours when sleep wouldn't come; commuting on the freeway to the Nike campus in Beaverton; sitting on airplanes. So many empty hours could be redeemed, he maintained, if people only set their minds to the task, if they opened themselves toward grace (3). 

I fumbled through the dark and found a little book known to Coptic Christians as The Agpeya (The Hours). It's mainly psalms and short prayers. Stepping out in the living room, I opened it and began to read, noting that the pages were marked by thumbprints.  I also noted, with a twinge of regret, that the those marks were laid mostly by a younger and better me, one who wasn't yet old enough to contrive the shallow excuses which adulthood lavishly affords. Quietly reciting the handful of psalms was like speaking a language I once knew well, but that was no less my own. Surprisingly, I still knew some by heart.

I think this is essentially why Jesus called his followers to become like little children (4). It is not because children are nice or sweet. God knows they're not, as did Augustine (5). Some have understood the Bible's words as a call to be infantile.  Far from it (6).

Rather, the idea is to return to my essential "self," to the person I really am, and to embrace him and live with him. He is there, underneath all the years of subtle and overt conniving efforts to avoid him. God loves him, why shouldn't I?  Jeff Edmonds writes,
It strikes me that the task of self-improvement in the age of technological analysis, feedback, and control has very little to do with managing the self that we already recognize. The great challenge of self-care is having the courage and the patience to make encounters with the parts of ourselves that--for whatever reason--we have kept hidden from ourselves and might not even recognize as ourselves at all.
I think we all have practices which we know will make us better, things with which we could fill those precious gaps.  And these things are ideal for little pockets of time, since we aren't ready to devote huge chunks of time to them, anyway.

For Salazar and me (See what I did there?), it may be prayer, being with God and among his saints. That time we spend alone in prayer is tied to the other things we're awkwardly trying to do when we aren't praying.  For me, it is indispensable for figuring out the what and the how of life.

Salazar, long-retired from competitive running, is perhaps the most "successful" running coach in the U.S. today. He recently told Runner's World.
I don’t think that God plans out our lives exactly for us. He leaves it to us to find our own purpose. At one point in my life, I might have thought my main purpose was to run fast. Then I had a family, and of course that is tremendously important. Then I became a coach, and had the chance to help others.
After my heart attack, I don’t think God gave me a second chance in life just to focus on my health and my family. I think he wanted more. For me, I think coaching is where I can make the best use of my gifts. I want to do more for my athletes than just help them get faster...

I have this hope that some day Galen Rupp’s parents might come up to me and say, “We’re so happy that you came into our son’s life. Not because you made him a better runner, but because you made him a better person.”

That’s my mission. I don’t have all the answers. But I’d like to help my athletes become better runners and better people, too.

(1) Chesterton, G.K., Orthodoxy, ch. 7, "The Eternal Revolution"

(2) On the surface watching baseball does not require that no one be around, but, with watching the Mets, it normally works out that way.

(3) Brant, John. Duel in the Sun, ch. 19

(4) Matthew 18:33

(5) To express my wishes to those who could satisfy them...I flung about at random limbs and voice, making the few signs I could, and such as I could...And when I was not presently obeyed (my wishes being hurtful or unintelligible), then I was indignant with my elders for not submitting to me, with those owing me no service, for not serving me; and avenged myself on them by tears... (Confessions, Book 1)

(6) Heb. 5:12-14

(7) Thanks to Pete Sleman for photo of fence and quotation from Chesterton


Terzah said...

This was lovely. Prayer and meditation are two practices I rarely make time for but should. I like the idea of the small spaces, which I like everyone have for them.

NaderAlfie said...

Thanks very much, Terzah.

Jeff Edmonds said...

I agree with Terzah. I imagine that you are a great mentor precisely because you don't have it all figured out -- that's the only way you can let people into the process of figuring it out.

You are also an excellent writer.

NaderAlfie said...

That's trendously kind, Jeff. Thanks for the encouragement.

Anonymous said...

agree with Terzah. isabel marant sneakers are perfect for activities.