“You’ve got a thing for threes……”

16 12 2009

Yesterday I was chatting about a paper I was finishing with a Jesuit friend of mine and we started talking about the Trinity (yes, these are typical conversations in graduate school). I started packing up my bag as we were talking and my swimsuit fell out, prompting to my friend to ask where the beach  party was in this drizzly 50 degree weather. When I reminded him it was training season for the triathlon, he shook his head and said, “You’ve got a thing for threes, you know that?”

It got me thinking…

Endurance racing has become more than just a hobby for me. It’s also become a sacred place. Sometimes it is easiest for me to talk to God when I’m doing laps in the pool. As I let my tightly wound mind spin out like my bike tires, I find it easier to focus on things outside of myself.  Not surprisingly, its easier to listen to for what Jesus is trying to say to me in the Gospel readings at mass when I’ve sorted through my own garbage during training.

But my experiences with triathlons are more than just a different way to pray. They have transformed my life and the way I see the world and my faith. Just like another day of training, I see small opportunities to live my faith as helping me build the “virtue muscles” to make the tougher decisions or follow Jesus more closely. It has also given me a window into the Trinity. Believe it or not, my free time spent in spandex has actually helped me relate to a theological mystery. Three Persons in one God. Three disciplines in one sport.

God & Swimming

It is the feeling of weightlessness that I absolutely love about swimming. While I am floating in the water, I feel so small and so free all at the same time. Swimming helps me realize that the world doesn’t revolve with me at its center – I’m just a drop in the expanse of the pool. I love feeling held up on all sides and knowing I can move in any direction I want and still feel the same way.

When I talk to folks about doing endurance sports it’s the swimming that scares them the most. That senses of not have a wall – nothing to hold on to – terrifies them most. We don’t like not knowing where our support is in any area of our lives, let alone one that is so crucial to our survival.

But isn’t that what faith is – stepping away from the safe and into the unknown? Taking a chance, being vulnerable without any completely concrete guarantee of success or reward is so much of what believing in God is.  That moment where you can feel simultaneously weightless and utterly unsupported is the thrilling and terrifying experience of God.

The tiniest adjustments in swimming make all the difference. Rotating a wrist, stretching from the hip –  sometimes it’s the small adjustments in my life that impact my relationship with the Creator the most. Changing my perspective on a situation or trying to see something from a different angle.

Jesus & Biking

Biking has come to mean different things to me over time. When I was six, there was nothing I wanted more than to learn how to ride my bike without training wheels. There was little joy as pure or as easy as my pink and purple Huffy’s streamers rippling in the wind as I rode in circles in my neighborhood. When I was teenager, I saw biking as something that was silly. I wanted a car, I wanted my freedom. I wanted to be able to do what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it.

As I got older, I’ve come back to biking again. Not only is my bike my main form of transportation, but I have also made the adult choice to invest time and resources into it. I recognize that my precious purple Huffy can’t get me up the Berkeley hills and although I still miss the handlebar streamers, I am much happier with my Cannondale. It’s a bike that I’ve taken the effort to fit to me personally, but it’s also one that I know I have a responsibility to maintain. If I don’t inflate the tires and grease the chains, rides are harder than they have to be.

Just like my bike, my relationship with Jesus has changed over the years. The man I imagined giving the best hugs in Sunday school is now someone I consider a challenging role model and teacher as well as a friend. As I’ve gotten older, I have sorted through different images of Jesus that I picked up along the way from movies, Sunday school and pastors. Prayer, reading scripture and studying some theology have helped me arrive at a picture of Jesus that both makes sense to me and also seems faithful to our tradition. He plays a different role in my life than he did when I was six, but just like I still giggle when I go down a hill fast, I still sometimes wish I could get one of those hugs.

The Holy Spirit & Running

Some runs are good and some runs are just plain bad. I’m not built like a runner – the same “powerful” (read: large) leg muscles that make me such a terror on the bike also cripple in me in the run. When my long workouts on weekends are just running, I will get a pit in my stomach all day. I don’t want to do it. It always seems like I’m scared before a run – even the three milers. Yet when I start, something kicks in. Sure sometimes it doesn’t kick in before the fourth mile. Some days it doesn’t kick in until 30 seconds after I stop running. But regardless, I always walk away from my runs knowing I’m better for having done them. If I’m lucky, some days I’m even happier and more joyful.

My experience of the Holy Spirit is similar. There are so many situations that my faith calls me to that make me nervous or scared. Whether its confronting a friend about a racist joke or making choices not to find my security in things I buy, I get that pit in my stomach. But whether I feel it or not, I know that the Holy Spirit is with me every step of the way. Sometimes She comforts me, other times She pushes me to give a little more or take a bigger chance. And there are also those harder times when I only realize the Spirit was at work in a situation after it was over. One particularly heart shattering breakup left me reeling and wondering if God cared at all that I was crying myself to sleep every night. It was only after some time passed, that I realized the Holy Spirit was with me as I moved out of a relationship that was ultimately unhealthy.

Three Persons in one loving God. Three disciplines in one sport. The power of the sport is all three disciplines coming together, shaping and forming people. The fastest of runners often remains humble because of their struggles in the water. The overweight woman who can barely run for a sustained mile is a greased lightning on the bike. There have been days when the idea of God creating people capable of such great evil has left me cold, while at the same time I see the Spirit at work in the smallest of my interactions.

It’s focusing on the pieces that help us get the whole. Moving forward for 70.3 or 140.6 miles in one days seems impossible. But I tell myself things like “I can swim for 45 minutes” or “I can bike for three hours” and somehow I finish the race. I will never understand the fullness of God, but my relationship with each person of the Trinity is a window into the divine mystery that shapes me into a better Christian.

~~Susan Haarman, Athletic Co-ordinator and Triathlete~~~

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