Working out spiritual glitches

I find biomechanics fascinating. They are more fascinating to me when someone else is having a biomechanical problem, not me, but the fact is that I have become intimately acquainted this summer with the biomechanics of my right knee.

You might be wondering what the heck this has to do with seminary, etc. I will get to that, I promise. But before I do, let me just explain that I was all jazzed this summer about ramping up my running for some half-marathons and the Hartford Marathon in October, 2011. I have run these types of races before and have loved them.

But I had tapered back my running at seminary the past two years because 1) I didn’t have much free time; 2) it can get really, really cold in Connecticut; 3) the roads are slippery when there is ice and snow on them; and 4) I don’t have a beautiful, nature-filled place to run at the moment. So I was doing short “maintenance” runs. But I really missed training for long races, and I wanted to have an interesting goal to shoot for during a mundane summer.

So this late spring, I started slowly building up my miles and speed, taking great care not to overdo anything as I prepared to reenter long distance running events.

And then, my right knee said, “No.” “What do you mean, ‘no’?” I asked. “Of course you can do this! We’re only at 6 miles! That is a ridiculously short training run. Do it!” But suddenly, I started to get sharp, stabbing pains in my knee, and then, I couldn’t even walk or go up or down stairs without a lot of pain. Eventually, sitting on the sofa hurt.

I rushed to the doctor and said I needed to be back in marathon-training mode NOW. She looked sadly at my limping self and said that running was very hard on the knees, and maybe I should take up swimming or walking. Anyone who has seen me swimming knows that it will never be a real sport for me. And walking is not exercise! Please! Walking is just what one does when one doesn’t have running shoes on. And actually, I have been known to run down hallways in one-inch heel pumps because, well, it’s faster, and that’s what my legs were meant to do.

My doctor ordered a regular bone x-ray and an MRI, which entailed a two-week wait to get on the MRI schedule. Then I had to wait another two weeks to get an orthopedist to interpret the results. Meanwhile, the doctor was saying, “Don’t run.” The orthopedist said I did not have a meniscus tear or an ACL tear or even any bone problems, but what I did have was a kneecap that pulled the wrong way when I contracted my quadriceps muscle. “What kind of conditioning do you do?”

Conditioning? Huh? I said, “Well, I run. Or I used to.”

“You don’t do any weight training or strengthening exercises?” he asked.

Not really. Why should I? The truth is, I have always been somewhat proud of my running-only regimen. It worked for me. I was a running purist. Speed workouts? Give it to me. Hills? Love’em. Distance? Anything up to 26.2 miles was fine with me. And I was doing fine. Who needs conditioning or cross-training?

He ordered physical therapy, and at my first physical therapy appointment, I learned the problem: I have a weak VMO (vastus medialis obliquus–part of the quadriceps) on my right leg, which causes my kneecap to pull to the side when I contract my quadriceps, which causes the kneecap to dig into the femur cartilage, and thus… pain and inflammation. It probably got weakened by a ski injury years ago, when a snowboarder slammed into me from behind, and my right leg was ripped out of the ski binding.

The reason I found this fascinating is that during all of my long-distance running the past few years, I would get a tight piriformis muscle (lower gluteal region) on my left side, and my sports massage therapist used to say, “This is probably compensating for some weakness on your right side.”

So the solution is easy, really. I need to work the VMO muscle until it is strong enough to keep my kneecap in alignment, and then return slowly to running.

I have learned something about the foolishness of avoiding other types of exercise because running is the one I like, the one I do all the time, the one that never fails me. It’s time for some conditioning.

Did I mention that running has also been a spiritual practice for me? The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, was profiled in Runner’s World magazine as saying that she uses running as body prayer, and I know exactly what she means. Not only do I pray (as in offering up thoughts of thanksgiving, praise, petition, contrition, and just plain “Hey, how ya doing?”) while I run, but my whole body moving through space is a prayer in itself.

Other people feel this way about singing, or breastfeeding a child, or harvesting vegetables, or building something from materials.

So imagine having that taken away from you. I was not a happy camper for a while. I even uttered some kind of prayer like, “Hey, God, if I can’t run, and you’re not going to fix my knee in my hoped-for time frame, then how can I be expected to pray?”

Readers wiser than I will recognize the stupidity and spiritual immaturity of that prayer. Quid pro quo reasoning is a really bad way to approach God, given the fact that we are not on equal footing with God.

This got me to thinking about spiritual exercises (other than running). I have a few, and my religious order (the Third Order Franciscans) stipulates several different ones. Some I love, and some I hate. And so… the ones I hate tend to slip off the spiritual workout schedule, and the ones that are easy and effortless remain.

Ironically, in seminary, my list of spiritual practices has actually contracted rather than expanded due to the many demands upon my time. Things I used to do more often have seriously declined or disappeared. I stuck with the ones I liked, the ones that were easy. And that was fine with me! I’m a runner! Who needs conditioning?

But after this whole knee debacle, I have begun to wonder what happens to our spirits when we avoid spiritual therapy–practices that stretch us in ways that hurt a little, but ultimately strengthen our spirit’s ability to reach out to God and the people around us.

Is it obvious when we are limping spiritually, when there is some weakness due to our unwillingness to face the unpleasant exercises? What tightens up in us and becomes rigid to compensate for that weakness? What past injury has caused us enough pain to make us unwilling to use certain spiritual muscles or stretch ourselves?

Alas, in my case, I know exactly what spiritual practices I am avoiding. Because I hate them. Because I am no good at them. Because I have been injured spiritually in the past by others and don’t wish to risk that injury again. Because I feel like an idiot. Because, because, because.

Interestingly, I had a similar list of excuses about swimming for two doctors, but now, lo and behold, I swim laps three times a week. Although I will never be a great swimmer, I am starting to look forward a little bit to a swim workout and to value the sleek feeling of gliding through water and getting just a little bit stronger in my ridiculously weak upper body.

So maybe the same could be true for our spiritual lives in bodies. What would happen if we could get a spiritual diagnosis and force ourselves to do (or return to) those spiritual exercises that stretch or strengthen the weak and injured parts of our spirits?

I am afraid I am overdue for some stretching.

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