Thursday, March 31, 2011

Treadmills and Comfy Pews

Over the last several years, I’ve participated in a summer-long 5K racing tour – a series of 3.1 mile races that begins in late April and wraps up in mid-October. Last year, there were 12 races in the tour. The knowledge that the next race is coming up, along with some competitiveness as points add up in the age categories, keeps me running through the summer.

My experiences with training and racing have led me to draw many parallels between running and the spiritual life. Last year was a bit of an off year for me, as I expected it would be. Even with my lowered expectations, I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed in my race times and general performance.

I’m a heavy runner. Through most of last year, I tipped the scales at about 230 lbs. By the end of last year’s tour, my knees were ready for a rest. Around mid-November, I started running on a treadmill at the local YMCA. I reasoned that the flex of the deck would be easier on my joints than the unyielding pavement. Plus, I’m a fair-weather runner, easily deterred by snow, ice, and temperatures that numb exposed flesh. I’ve been running indoors almost exclusively, mostly on the treadmill, for four months now. It’s been a long, cold winter.

I know that the day is fast approaching when I will have to venture back out onto the roads. It just doesn’t seem right to pound out miles on a treadmill when a beautiful day is happening on the other side of the window glass. Even aside from that, though, I’ve discovered that there might be another reason to hop off the treadmill.

Jeff Smith, aka Coach Jeff, produces The Running Podcast Coach Jeff has been coaching and training athletes for 26 years. On a recent podcast, he fielded a question from a listener regarding long distance training runs on a treadmill. Now, when they say long distance, they’re talking about 1-1/2 to 2 hours. That’s much longer than anything I do. Even when I’m ramping up for the Oktoberfest 10K, my longest runs are in the 6.5 mile range and last just under one hour. Still, the Coach’s response was interesting.

The problem with running on a treadmill, according to Coach Jeff, is that there is no variation. Every foot plant is the same, and that can lead to repetitive motion injuries. I never would have guessed that what I was assuming to be less jarring and therefore less injurious to my joints could harbor unknown dangers.

That’s where the spiritual parallel drops into place. The equivalent of the treadmill might be what we can call “the comfortable pew.” The phrase comes from a book of the same title written over 40 years ago and referenced by our pastor emeritus in a recent homily at our clustered parish. We Catholics can become complacent, lured into thinking that just coming to mass every Sunday and parking ourselves in a pew is sufficient. It isn’t. While there is something to be said for stability and perseverance, the mindless repetition of any pious devotion brings with it the risk of complacency and presumption.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Knicker Knotting Translations

Have you heard about the new translation that's been in the news? There is, of course, the new English translation of the Roman Missal, which takes effect in the United States this coming November. That's been in the news for about a year now, and will continue to be in the news right up until, and probably several months after, its use begins. However, there's been another new translation in the news recently.

In January, the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE) was released. The NABRE is the fourth edition of the New American Bible (NAB), which is the translation on which the Lectionary readings used for mass are based. There are a handful of differences between the NAB translation and the text used in the Lectionary, most notably in Luke 1:28, where the angel Gabriel's greeting to Mary is translated as "Hail, favored one!" in the NAB and "Hail, full of grace!" in the Lectionary. The Revised Standard Version (RSV) that I favor uses the "full of grace" translation, with a footnote. My understanding is that neither translation captures the full meaning of the Greek.

Some Catholics have their knickers in a knot over the NABRE. Again, I'm no expert, but my understanding is that the NABRE differs from the NAB only in the translation of the Old Testament and Psalms. Of particular concern to the knicker-knotted is the choice of words for Isaiah 7:14, where the phrase "the virgin shall be with child" has replaced "virgin" with "young woman." There might be problems with the new translation, but I can't get too worked up about this one. Why? Because my RSV translation already reads, "Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear and son, and shall call his name Immanuel." With a footnote, of course.

The footnote for a "young woman" states that other sources use "virgin." The ambiguity comes from the fact that the oldest copies of Isaiah 7:14 in Hebrew use a word meaning "young woman," whereas the oldest copies of Isaiah 7:14 in Greek (i.e., from the Septuagint) use a word meaning "virgin." The translators have simply chosen to place greater emphasis on the Hebrew texts than on the Greek ones.

Regardless of the translation used for Isaiah, the translation used in Matthew 1:22, which references Isaiah 7:14, still uses the word "virgin." It seems to me that the evangelist implicitly endorses the Greek translation of Isaiah found in the Septuagint, with a collateral endorsement of the deutero-canonical books of the Septuagint.

I'm not likely to run out and buy a new NABRE Bible. But as long as it has the footnotes that identify where alternate sources use different words, I don't think it's anything to knot my knickers over.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Render Unto Millard Fillmore

Tuesday’s Gospel reading (the last for Ordinary Time until June) saw the Pharisees and Herodians trying to embroil Jesus in a tax controversy. Jesus asked to see a coin, which was stamped with the image of Caesar. Noting that the image on the coin was Caesar’s Jesus replied to his questioners that we should render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.

I had two quick thoughts, one serious and one light. The first is that the coin was created by the Roman government in the image of Caesar. The human person, on the other hand, is created by God in His image. In one sense then, when we talk about what should be rendered unto God, we can speak of the entire human person.

In a lighter sense, I wondered what it would be like if Jesus asked a modern American for a dollar coin. The image on the coin might be Milllard Fillmore, Rutherford B. Hayes, Sacajewea, or Susan B. Anthony, among others. It just wouldn’t do to say, “Render unto Millard Fillmore the things that are Millard Fillmore’s.”

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Withered Fig

What are we to make of the fig tree in today’s gospel reading from Mark? On my first reading, I’ve always see it as a warning to us, that we had better bear fruit. Interpreting the fig tree this way, though, causes Jesus to come off as capricious and petulant for cursing a tree that is not bearing fruit when it isn’t even in season.

As usual, however, there’s much more going on here than is initially apparent. Consider the timeline given by Mark. On the first day, Jesus comes into Jerusalem, spends some time at the Temple, and then retires to Bethany. On the second day, Jesus returns to Jerusalem, cursing the fig tree on the way, then enters the Temple and chases out the vendors and money-changers. Again, he retires to Bethany. On the third day, he again heads for Jerusalem, and the disciples notice that the fig tree is withered.

Note that the timeline in Matthew 21 is a little different. I’m not going to try to deal with that right now. I’m concentrating on the fig tree.

In both gospels, the cursing of the fig tree is within the context of the cleansing of the Temple. It seems clear to me, therefore, that in this instance, the fig tree represents not the individual believer, but the Temple and the Old Covenant system of sacrifices associated with it. The Temple might appear outwardly healthy and might have born fruit in the past, but its days have come to an end. The withering of the fig tree foreshadows the destruction of the Temple.

There are, of course, other questions that are raised by Mark’s account. Why does he note that Jesus was hungry? Why does Jesus cleanse the Temple on the second day and not the first? Is it possible that Jesus was hungry because he had spent the first day and night in fasting and prayer, seeking guidance from the Father regarding what to do about what he had seen in the Temple on the first day?

I dunno. I’d love to hear some reasonable theories. The only thing that I have left to say is that I find some of the arguments that Jesus cursed the fig tree as a demonstration of his power or that his hunger was merely the supposition of the disciples to be unconvincing.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Lenten Expectations

Lent is nearly upon us. It comes late this year, with Easter falling on April 24th (the first Sunday after the first full moon – April 18th – after the first day of Spring – March 20th). My wife recently proclaimed, “I can’t believe it’s almost Lent already,” to which I (predictably) replied, “It’s late this year.”

As strange as it might be to say, I’m looking forward to finally entering the season of Lent. I am sorely in need of an extended period of penance. Having said that, I fear that I am once again setting myself up for disappointment. My desire for conversion, repentance, and renewal does not guarantee a spiritual experience and response on my part. Although I might want to be moved, that does not mean that I will be moved. Unfortunately, recent Sunday homilies on kindness and affirmation, going the extra mile, and Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy just haven’t met my spiritual needs.

Where does the desire to be contrite end and true contrition begin? I pray that contrition is more than, or at least not dependent upon, emotional sorrow, for my emotions have failed me. Instead, let it be an act of the will. Let true contrition be indicated not be feelings, but by actions to atone for and separate oneself from sin.

By that measure, the success of my Lent will be entirely up to me (although a little spiritual consolation would surely help).