The Key to a More Contemplative Advent

I’ve always wanted to be a runner. Despite my lack of skill or experience, the romance of a morning run appealed to me: simple, solitary, and powerful. I wanted to emulate that.

When I finally started running, it was hard – harder than I expected. It still is sometimes. In my enthusiasm, I start out too fast and end up gasping for breath with stitches in my sides. I start races feeling strong, only to cross the finish line walking. I push too hard. I use up what energy I have quickly, without regard for what’s to come.

Several months ago, I discovered just how powerful it can be to slow down. After a long hiatus from running due to a high-risk pregnancy, I found myself opening up the Nike Plus Run App. I had heard about guided runs with Coach Bennett, and I was curious. I expected weeks of pain and struggle to get back to my former level of conditioning and run at a steady pace again.

Twenty minutes later, I was floored. It was my first run back after a year of zero exercise, and yet I completed this run without stopping – a milestone it had always taken many weeks to achieve after long pauses in my running routine. Now, I sat stretching, spent but joyful, reveling in the newfound secret it had taken me so many years to discover. For me, the key to keep running is this: slow down.

The more I listen to Coach Bennett, the more I realize that this isn’t just a lesson about running. For me, this is a lesson in how I live my life. I always start too fast. Once I learned to slow down, I ran better. My enjoyment of it deepened. This is the call of the spiritual life as well. Jesus asks us to slow down, to be present, to live in Him.

At times, we are called to acute periods of struggle and suffering. But this isn’t the pace at which we are to live our lives. Instead, Jesus invites us to rest in him: “Come to me, all you who are weary…my yoke is easy and my burden is light,” (Matt. 11:28-30). He doesn’t expect us to live life at a pace that leaves us exhausted and breathless. Yes, life has struggles and running can teach us a lot about how we persevere through them. More often, we are called to live at a pace that brings joy, allows for contemplation, and restores us for the moments that push us.

In this Advent season, it is so easy to rush. It feel almost compulsory. We rush through stapling lights, navigating shopping malls, wrapping, decorating, cookie baking. At times, we forget that all this preparing is meant to be just that: preparing. This isn’t the main show – not by a long shot. Even Christmas is just a prelude to the Kingdom that awaits us.

In the “First Run” guided meditation in the app, Nike Head Coach Bennett offers advice: adjust your pace for a more sustainable level of effort. Each time I listen, a different phrase resonates the truth I so desperately need to hear: slow down. I’ve collected a few of them below. You could read them all now. Or, you could return to this reflection later with a cup of cocoa, sit, and let each phrase sink in slowly. Spread it out over a few days. Use this as an excuse to create some space to slow down this season.

“SOMETIMES YOU NEED TO RUN SLOWER IF YOU WANT TO EVENTUALLY RUN FASTER. BACKING OFF A PACE THAT IS TOO FAST DOES NOT MEAN FAILURE OR WEAKNESS.”

Our need for rest is fundamental. Honoring it does not make us lesser; it is a response to who we are. We shouldn’t compare ourselves to what others are able to accomplish or how they choose to live their lives. We know nothing of their inner lives, whether they are living at a joyful pace, or how they might be struggling. We don’t need to. The pace at which we live is our pace. Finding it requires attentiveness to our own needs, not external comparison. Comparison can tell us nothing of value. Our needs, passions, and joy are found by looking within.

“WE’RE NOT MEASURING SUCCESS BY HOW FAST OR HOW FAR. IT’S NOT ABOUT THE NUMBERS.”

As St. Teresa of Calcutta said, “God has not called me to be successful; he has called me to be faithful.” Feeling breathless, worn out, or overwhelmed by pressure to perform and push harder is a clue that we a running off course. It helps to ask, “By whose standards am I measuring myself?” The challenge of slowing down helps us redirect our efforts and remember whose race we are running.

“TAKE TIME TO STRETCH. YOUR BEST RUNNING WILL TAKE PLACE WHEN YOU ARE LOOSE AND FREE.”

I am never my best self when I am exhausted. My most cranky and impatient self, maybe, but certainly not the loving, attentive wife, mother and friend who I hope to be. Taking time in solitude is not selfish when it restores you, makes you more flexible, and enables you to give more generously to others.

“YOU ARE RUNNING THE RIGHT PACE WHEN YOU CONTROL THE RUN AND NOT LETTING THE RUN CONTROL YOU. YOU KNOW IT’S RIGHT WHEN YOU CAN BREATHE DEEPLY AND LAUGH A LITTLE.”

I often think to myself, “I can relax when…” Rather than respond to my need for rest, I allow the external to dictate the way I spend my time. Instead of feeling free to turn down opportunities and invitations, I am compelled to say “yes” to everything without regard for my own needs. Reflexive commitment without real discernment of what I have to give is life-giving for no one. This is a recipe for busyness that feeds my own ego, but not one that restores my soul. For that, I need different ingredients: prayer, exercise, family time. The sprinkles on top? The little things that bring me joy, like working in the garden or reading a good book. These aren’t “extras” to get around to if I happen to find time for leisure on top of my many responsibilities; these are the substance of life, the things I need to make time for if I want to truly live.

“PART OF THE DEAL IS THAT WE SHARE THIS. ANOTHER RUN BEGINS BECAUSE YOURS ENDS AND THAT’S WHY THERE IS NO FINISH LINE.”

This is true. This is why Jesus lives in his Church, the Body of Christ. This is why human beings are created in the image of the Trinity, a community of persons. We are relational beings. We need one another to lift us up, to strengthen us for the journey, to inspire us to carry on. What we receive is not meant to stay with us. Like Jesus, we are blessed and broken to be given and shared.

And so, here’s a little piece of my story, just a snippet of the beauty God is working in my life:

Slow down. The joy of the run is in the running. Don’t miss it.

An earlier version of this post was published as “Run at the Right Pace: A Lesson in Balance” at Catholic Women Run.

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