A few years ago, I began mixing up my walking regimen with intervals of running, working my slow way up to running a mile at a time, and then—eventually—to four. And now I’m hooked.

I’ve experienced all the benefits that runners have long extolled—I sleep better, I have more energy, my heart and bones are healthier. (To say nothing of the boost in serum levels of complacency, which has been significant.) The real surprise, though, has been the way running has taken me to a whole new place in prayer—given me a deeper understanding of the promise of the Christian journey.

Now when I read St. Paul’s exclamation that he has “finished the race”—or the prophet’s promise that we shall “run and not be weary”—I feel the power of the images in the depths of my tendons. Which is odd, since I habitually cringe whenever I hear sports analogies in homilies. I have never warmed to anything remotely muscular in Christianity.

Partly this is due, no doubt, to my pre–Title IX youth, throughout which only boys were athletes, ladies didn’t sweat, and mothers never ran anything but the PTA. But mostly I blame Dante.

When I was an undergraduate, I took a class on Dante’s Inferno, which both fascinated and repelled me. I was particularly struck by the fact that the damned seem compelled to run all the time, pursued by demons, in pointless circles of torment. They never got anywhere, but they could never stop running.

This didn’t make running sound like much fun, really. My mind forged an unconscious but tenacious link between running and the pains of Hell. To run was to run away (futilely, but forever) from something awful chasing you. Running seemed punitive, ignoble.

At best, running was a metaphor for grim resolve. “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). And heaven knows I learned, in the early months of running, just how grim perseverance can be. I found it impossible, in the beginning, to run even half a mile without longing to drop, crawl, and gasp. Much perseverance was required at first. But persevere I (grimly) did.

And then—in an apparently unrelated decision—I made up my mind to honor the undergraduate promise we all made to Wallace Fowlie, our Dante professor at Duke, to someday read the rest of the Divine Comedy.

Imagine my surprise when, on cornice after cornice of the Mountain of Purgatory, I encountered the souls of the penitent running up the steep paths. And the more they are purified of their sins, the faster and more joyfully they run. Not because something awful is chasing them (there are no demons in Purgatory) but just because they are so eager to be ever closer to Paradise. The penitents not only “run with perseverance” but with a jubilant haste that Dante initially finds undignified.

Maybe if we—like the penitent, jubilant souls in the Purgatorio—run with perseverance when that is the best we can do, and for as long as we must, we too may discover wings on our heels. Perseverance itself might burst into joy, as Aaron’s rod burst into bloom.

In Dante’s Paradiso, the souls of the blessed no longer merely run for joy (as they did in the Purgatorio). They dance, they soar—they make instantaneous ascents through the celestial spheres with a speed that puts Han Solo’s star-blurring hyperdrive in the shade.

Most mornings, I have to say, the possibility of my—eventual, theoretical—participation with the saints and angels in the great cosmic dance doesn’t occur to me. I just want to run my four miles and come home and have breakfast. Similarly, in my so-called life in God, most of the time I am more aware of the rough bit of road in front of me than in the possibility of wings.

Nevertheless, that is the promise of our faith. As the words of George Gershwin’s tune “Summertime” remind us, one of these mornings we’re going to rise up singing, spread our wings, and take to the sky. But till that morning, I will keep lacing up my running shoes and heading out the back door. I will run with perseverance when I need to, with gladness when I may, and hope to fly someday. Thank you, Dante, after all.

Deborah Smith Douglas is the author of The Praying Life: Seeing God in All Things (Morehouse). She lives in New Mexico.

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Published in the 2009-10-23 issue: View Contents
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