When I was younger, my mother used to quote a friend of hers who ran cross-country who said, “cross-country is where you run a long way in order to throw up.” Needless to say, I was never tempted to go out for the cross-country team! Since then I have observed, on a couple of occasions, a member of the local high school cross-country team pausing along the side of the road during practice to lose their lunch. While it makes me wonder what the payoff is for these brave athletes, it occurs to me that the spiritual life is a lot more like a distance race than it is a fifty yard dash.
Many people treat spirituality as if it was a sprint toward a finish line, the finish line best being described as the “right” collection of beliefs. Once one arrives at the finish line, the goal is to stay right there on the finish line and never depart from it. Most of us who have led a more self-reflective and internalized spiritual life will recognize that the finish line is in fact a constantly moving target. The finish line we aimed for in our twenties won’t seem an appropriate destination in our fifties – because it isn’t. In fact, the point of faith and belief is not the finish line but rather the journey toward the finish line in which life experience constantly refines faith and belief. Actually believing we had reached the finish line would be a bad thing, even worse than throwing up, because it would mean that we had abandoned the race and chosen to withdraw from it. Such a journey isn’t authentic, because it involves conforming to a completely external collection of beliefs that we never make our own. It’s quite sad that such a situation represents a great deal of popular religion in America.