Ryan's Day with Nature (or why I'm not a Franciscan)

I took my first steps toward being a runner last September. I began by running 3-mile stretch of Fordham road once or twice a week. Over time I managed to increase the number of miles. This led me, back in January, to begin training for a marathon, a feat I accomplished back in May.

I have found that running has been one of the better practices I have adopted as an aide to my spiritual life. Running, like prayer, takes discipline. Just as one must "settle into" prayer, so one must "settle into" a run: you stretch, take in some water, and perhaps eat something before embarking on your course. Some days prayer, like running, is very easy and it is a great delight to be out there. Other days it's far more difficult and one is tempted to give up. And yet we know that prayer, like running, is good for us so we persevere. Such disciplines, or ascetic practices, are ways in which we become literal "athletes for Christ."

I arose early this morning - around six - and stretched. I drank my water, had some coffee (I seldom do anything without a cup of coffee in the morning) and ate a whole-grain English muffin. At around 6:45, I stepped out of the house, turned on my iPod, and started to run.

It was a glorious morning. The sun shone brightly, there were few cars on the road, and the recent rains seem to have cleaned both the streets and the air. I relished the cool breeze that swept past me and I gave a silent prayer of thanksgiving to God for such a beautiful morning and this opportunity to participate in creation. My prayer, though, was interrupted by the shaking of a bush. Out from behind a low-growing shrub came a beautiful golden-white dog. While I'm normally skittish around dogs, I felt deeply consoled by this one. A friendly beast, the dog ran along side of me for about 3 blocks before he turned and returned to his place of origin.

Again, I gave thanks: the beauty of the morning and the loveliness of one of God's creatures. I silenced my iPod for a few moments and allowed myself to relish the morning's glory.

Today's course is nearly four miles longer than the one I've been doing these past few weeks. But I ran easily and felt very strong as I rounded the corner on the last long stretch that would lead me back to John Carroll University. And, as I ran down Fairmount Blvd, what should I see but two gorgeous deer crossing the street. They stood in the median strip of the boulevard and I chuckled inwardly at how human they seemed: it seemed as though they looked left, right, and then left again before proceeding to cross the street. I watched as they ambled up onto the tree lawn, crossed the sidewalk, and proceeded into a yard.

And then they stopped. Having maintained my pace as I marveled at them, it caught me off guard when they turned to stare at me. Big doe eyes. Dark. Black. Potentially malevolent. So I froze. It suddenly occurred to me that these animals could well perceive my efforts at exercise as my chasing after them. This caused images of "Animals Gone Wild" to flash through my mind and I was seized with fear that these animals might take a notion to attack me. SO I did what any reasonable person would do when faced with a potentially dangerous animal: I thrust out my hands, palms toward the deer, and spoke in a loud voice that I meant it no harm. Maintaining what I felt to be a reasonable distance, I edged my way around them, assuring and re-assuring them that I meant them no harm. Their enormous eyes followed me the entire time, glaring at me, until I made it past them. I was somewhat afraid to turn my back on them, fearing a hoof-and-run attack, but I took my chances and pushed a little bit harder to put some distance between me and the deer.

Again, I thanked God, but this time for not having been mauled by angry deer. I even thought of how the Cleveland Plain Dealer could have run the story had the deer actually attacked and killed me: "Deer God: Seminarian's Last Words as he is Mauled by Two Doe."

At nearly 45-minutes into my run, I was 1 for 1 in my dealings with nature.

As I entered into the last mile of my run, I really focused on pushing myself hard. I resumed listening to my iPod - I think, at this point, I had on Linkin Park's new single - and kept my eyes on the road ahead. That is, of course, until my eyes were distracted by a bluebird that appeared to be heading straight for me. My reaction time was a bit slow, to be sure, but I watched this bird doing what seemed like a swoop-and-dive straight toward me. I flinched, awaiting impact.

And then it dropped out of they sky. Just dropped straight down at my feet. I stopped for a moment and looked at it: it was, quite obviously, dead. Like a doornail. Ryan and Nature: 1 for 2. (I wonder if I had begun giving an anti-animal aura off or whether at this point in the run I had begun to smell so bad that my odor was potent enough to kill)

So I kept running and finished my exercise in relative peace.

Now I'm in something of a quandary. I'm supposed to go over to my parents' house for 4th of July celebrations, but I am actually terrified of going out to the car: following the trajectory of my day, there's probably a bear sitting behind the wheel. And even if I do make it over to my parents, what it is to guarantee that I won't go into the kitchen to get a beer only to find a Chupacabra drinking tea.

I recount this for my readers, firstly, because I find the story sort of humorous. It's so strange that I've deemed it blog-worthy. Second, as an extrovert, I have had the experience that "quiet prayer" can be somewhat draining on a day-to-day basis. For this reason, I have found it helpful to do something physical while praying. Many nights I'll go out for a walk and pray the rosary or, as I did this morning, relish the chance to bask in the glory of creation (that is, of course, when I wasn't pleading with or apparently killing it). This is not to say that quiet prayer is bad, or should be avoided: it is an important way of "being with" the Lord, to be sure! But there's no reason not to add variety to one's prayer life and, strange encounters with nature aside, I have certainly found running to help cultivate a profound attitude of gratitude for God's work in creation.





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