Why did you do that?” I asked my wife, Ellie. In a five-mile road race, she slowed up in the last mile,
on purpose, to allow a friend to pass and beat her to the finish line.
“It meant more to her to get there first,” she said. It brought to mind a saying of Trappist monk Matthew Kelty: “To see God in all things you have only to play...with an unselfish heart.”
Wholesome spirituality must include the body in order to complete a holistic union with God. Physical play, whether it’s running, playing basketball, biking, rock climbing, swimming or dancing, is tied to the necessity of the human spirit.
If we put play in a spiritual context, indeed, a spiritual dimension, it will help us to understand life better, to accept absolute concepts—winning and losing, discipline, hard work. It will reveal character and grace. It will enlist intelligence and challenge. It will teach respect for limits and laws. Albert Camus once said, “Sport is where I had my only lessons in ethics.”
More importantly, play is an essential nutrient to the soul. Play makes time wonderfully irrelevant, allowing us to escape for a while from temporal and secular struggles that can eat away at our insides like termites—the mortgage, the bills, the workplace, the college tuition, the desecration of the environment, the crime in our cities, the dead ends and busted dreams.
It allows us to escape into our soul, to introspect, to awaken an innocence that often gets lost, or at least misplaced, in becoming an adult. Reflections and introspections during play possess the power to find ways to peel away those things that lead us asunder and keep our life from becoming merely a compendium of pleasure, power, glory and wealth.
Ernest Hemingway wrote: “If order is to be found in a meaningless universe, a man has to impose that order; a way of doing it is through the ritual of sports.”
When I run, there is always a celebration of the body and soul. One reason is this: I run in sacramental environments, where there is a physical and spiritual poetry to my surroundings, where there are mystical signs of nature and where there are God’s gifts to us: tall timbers that are enveloping; a vast river with its crisp currents running; geese—symbol bearers of faith and peace—sidling up that river or munching on grass along the banks; the sun dropping down like a gold coin. The soul can never be empty in these surroundings.
I sometimes feel part cheetah, part Thoreau, part Thomas More. I hear a prayer that keeps getting louder and louder: Curse the darkness and light a candle.