The National Catholic Review

Running long distances is difficult, all the more so when you’re the best American runner trying to capture Olympic marathon glory. That’s the case for Ryan Hall, profiled in last Sunday’s New York Times, a Pentecostal Christian who incorporates fundamentalist spirituality into his intense training regimen, fueled by his attendance at an Assemblies of God Church in California:

At Bethel Church, God’s presence is felt in a number of ways, including what is said to be the appearance of feathers from angels’ wings and the manifestation of what is called a “glory cloud.”

Hall said he and his wife had experienced a glory cloud on New Year’s night, likening the phenomenon to fireflies or the flashing of tiny fireworks. Others say it resembles gold dust. He had seen a YouTube version of the glory cloud and was somewhat skeptical, believing that it might be simply a cascade of dust from the ceiling of the church. His skepticism faded when he saw for himself.

“I feel like I’ve experienced God in a lot of ways, but I’ve never seen a sign like that in such a tangible way,” Hall said. “I was like so sure it was God, that it was him doing it, because there was no explanation. I almost feel like we’re kids and he’s our dad and he’s kind of like having fun with us.”

Hall’s training is partly based on the biblical texts:

Hall said that God spoke to him regularly, giving him training plans, even a race strategy for the London Olympics. He does not hear a voice; rather, he will pray or scroll through workouts in his head and a heightened thought will give him a sense of peace, grace, empowerment. Or a passage from the Bible will seem particularly relevant and urgent. Hall is still learning to distinguish his own thoughts from what he believes are God’s words to him. And sometimes, he has done workouts that in retrospect seem unwise — a thigh-shredding hill run in Flagstaff, a bicycle time trial a week after the Boston Marathon.

But Hall has also found biblical reinforcement for his training. He takes one day off a week, just as God rested on the seventh day. Every seven weeks, for restoration he runs only once a day instead of twice, an allusion to Exodus 23:11 and the admonition that farmers should leave their fields fallow every seventh year.

At night, he rubs his legs with anointing oil, another reference to Exodus and the belief that the human body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Hall bought — but did not immediately use — a weighted vest for uphill running, an idea gleaned from Judges 16:3 and Samson hoisting the doors of the city gate of Gaza on his shoulders and carrying them to the top of the hill facing Hebron.

In spacing three days between his most arduous workouts, Hall refers to the Holy Trinity and the time that Jesus spent in the tomb; for him, this period represents resurrection, completeness, new life.

Admittedly, I cringe a bit when others claim that God speaks directly to them, but perhaps when Evangelicals talk to other Christians or people of faith, something is lost in translation? I remember while in divinity school, I was surrounded by all kinds of Christians, marveling at the various ways different denominations utilize the Bible, sacraments, worship, liturgy, space, prayer, and music. Some aspects made me uncomfortable and others were welcomed and inspiring.

Have you experienced anything resembling this unique brand of faith and spirituality? Does the diversity within Christianity strike you as inspiring or challenging? Do you recognize some Catholic spirituality in Evangelical life, or does it appear to be a new, American creation?

Comments

J Cosgrove | 7/25/2012 - 6:08pm
Just got an email about the latest in the Stanford Magazine. There is an article about a book on this topic.


http://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=54818


Here is a short paragraph from the article


''The book in question is When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God (Knopf), published to plenty of fanfare in religious, academic and mainstream circles. Terry Gross interviewed the author, Stanford anthropology professor T. M. Luhrmann, on NPR's Fresh Air. Stellar reviews included ones in the New Yorker and the New York Times.''
Jason Yergler | 7/24/2012 - 10:12am
Why do the simple find it easier to hear the Voice of God?  I think, somewhere, in a book I read once, it said something about the wisdom of the wise being as foolishness.  Maybe, just maybe, our western minds are so filled with the crap that our lives are built around, you know, the temple of money, the shrine to television in every home, the idea that humans can destroy what God has created that it is difficult us to quiet our mind to the point that we can hear Him or believe it is Him when He speaks.
Sandi Sinor | 7/24/2012 - 7:52am
I'm always interested in these kinds of stories, but whenever I read them, I can't help but think about all of those people who don't fit. Think about all the successful athletes who make it to the top who aren't christian and so aren't ''coached'' by God but make it anyway just because they had natural talent, and a whole lot of drive and discipline and worked hard for years to make the most of their gifts. And maybe a few good human coaches too.  I also can't help but think about all of those people who need a lot more than $5.00 - who storm heaven with prayers and read the bible looking for a key passage - but who lose their home anyway. And whenever I read about someone believing that God protected them during a natural disaster, I can't help but wonder about the other person we also read about who was also a ''devoted Christian'', who didn't survive the same disaster in spite of the same prayers.  

Sometimes we see what we want to see - or maybe what we need to see at a particular time. We hear God speaking to us, because we need to hear that, even if the thoughts just come out of our own consciousness, formed as God's words because we've lived thinking there is a God who talks to us somehow and we have these answers buried inside of us, and maybe prayer helps us bring it to the surface.
Michael Barberi | 7/23/2012 - 4:37pm
@Mel Evan,

A great commentary. I also find other Christian beliefs, such as the one regarding this blog, as too far right for me. It is not my sense of God's presense and communications with me. I like Mel's Scriptural quotation that God is found in the whisper of the wind. 

What is important to me is not so much the manner in which God is communicating with us, as it is in our good actions. If God is speaking to and guiding us, and we say "I am doing this or that because God told me to do it, or that I believe this is God's will, then our actions will be virtuous. Equally important, our end-goal, intentions and circumstances will be also good. In other words,  means-act we choose in order to accomplish our end-goals should be right and good and proportionate to the good in the end and intention. This does not mean that all of our actions are good, but if we are proclaiming that certain of our voluntary human actions are God's will, then there can be no evil associated with our actions, save for an pre-moral evil that is accidental and proportionate to the good accomplished in the end.

In conclusion, if our voluntary human actions are good, and we proclaim them to be God's will because we claim He has spoken to us, then it does not matter to me how God chooses to speak to us. From my point of view, God speaks to all of us especially when we pray and ask him for help and guidance. Even when we don't pray God love us and wants us to follow His will. God does not wait until we ask him for guidance, albeit that is good, He freely speaks to us in mysterious ways in accordance with His will, not ours. This does not mean we "hear" God or recognize his calling. It also does not mean that we will not sin and offend God. However, if we seek God we will find him, if we knock, the door will be open to us.
Melody Evans | 7/22/2012 - 10:28pm
"Never make a principle out of your experience; let God be as original with other people as He is with you."  -Oswald Chambers

I love the diversity within Christianity.  Although, I do worry about stories like the one above.  Partly my concern is that it is discouraging for many Christians who don't experience God in "glory clouds" or other over the top ways. Having been raised in a non-denominational protestant home with a mother who is definitely a charismatic I remember questioning my faith so many times because of stories that others shared about God communicating with them.  A verse in 1st Kings 19 came to my mind, although it might not perfectly apply here.  God's presence was not in the powerful wind, earthquake, or fire but instead in a gentle whisper.  He wasn't in the flashy stuff (although at times He has been known to be found in burning bushes), He was found in something extremely subtle that you have to be very still to even notice.  The other concern is that some of what is described above sounds more like superstition.  With that I worry more about what non-Christians think about our faith.  How am I supposed to talk about my faith with someone who has just read about a guy scheduling his workout routine around lucky numbers while regularly rubbing anointing oil on his legs.

Having said all that, I would not question his faith.  Per the quote above, God makes His presence known to each of us in unique ways.  Some are able to experience the miracles while for others of us faith in the unseen has to be enough ("...blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed").
Amy Ho-Ohn | 7/21/2012 - 9:24pm
To simple people, God speaks perforce in simple ways. If He were only able or willing to speak to the intellectually profound and subtle, He would not be the Christian God, because we believe God is omnipotent and wills the salvation of all mankind.

This sort of direct, personal communication with the Trinity often seems crude and infantile to me too. But it is very common in my parish, especially among parishioners from the developing world, and I try (not very successfully) to respect it. I think a glory cloud is more or less how many people I know experience the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament at Benediction.

A priest in my parish claims to have had mystical experiences involving the BVM; another thinks himself capable of supernatural healing. Neither seems like a nutcase or a charlatan. In fact, they both seem perfectly ordinary. Maybe there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Western science.

It's impossible not to admire Hall's ability to worship God through his sport. Athletic excellence is a prayer of thanksgiving for creation and for the incarnation and a genuinely sacramental experience. Anybody who despises sports despises God.
J Cosgrove | 7/21/2012 - 5:08pm
I work with a training adviser who has about 65 athletes going to the London Olympics and whose athletes that he has helped train have won over 50 Olympic medals since Atlanta including some world records.  A lot of what Ryan Hall says he does are standard training procedures.


A rest day every week is probably optimal for recovery and regeneration.  If you don't do this, then the body never regenerates properly.  Also a rest week every 6-8 weeks is normal for any training program (low level workouts for the week not actual rest).  Limiting hard workouts to once or twice a week is also standard procedure as too many hard workouts break down the body too much.  Hard workouts are the best but must be allocated carefully.  Like the golden goose, if you try to get it all, you lost everything.


So if Ryan is listening to God, God is giving him good advice.
David Smith | 7/21/2012 - 3:02pm
Well, all reality is constructed in our minds.  Real Presence, Glory Cloud, apparition at Fatima, Higgs Boson, whatever.  We know what we imagine.  Truth is multiple.  You sort of have to pick one or two, though - they can't all be true for all of us.  It's humbling, no?
Melody Evans | 7/24/2012 - 12:07am
The funny thing about this blog is that I had written a blog on Facebook just one day before asking the same question.  I feel that sometimes God may be trying to communicate with me but I am just not sure.  I wish I had more of the confidence of some people.  My hope is that one day in heaven I'll be able to look back and be shown the many, many ways that God's Hand was giving to and guiding my life along the way.  I wish I could see more clearly now.  Although, that could be either a scary thing (if He's not happy) or an encouraging thing.  :)
6466379 | 7/23/2012 - 6:39pm
Does God speak to us? I believe he does in ordinary ways, simply, plainly not easily discernible to the sophisticated. Jesus said “I thank you heavenly Father that you have revealed this (the  ways of God)   to little ones …”.  Franciscan Sister Briege  McKenna who has a worldwide healing ministry to priests and other too, has said, to get God’s attention one needs “expectant Faith.” We have to believe that God can and  is willing to help. Let me offer two examples how I   believe  God speaks.


 Once, recently, troubled about many things, including what seemed to be fruitless prayer , recalling  the  words of Jesus, “Pray always and do not lose heart,”  I asked the Lord to give a helping hand. I was on my way to Mass and as I walked towards the chapel near home, unexpectedly and never before seen in the area, I spotted a Praying Mantis, an insect always attitudinally position in a prayerful mode. I recognized  immediately  that the Lord had spoken to me, saying, “Pray always and do not lose heart.”  As I walked away from the little creature  prayerfully  perched on a bench,  my mood brightened, peace of heart returned and in a flash I understood that in God’s own way and in God’s own time all would be well and not a moment sooner, or later. I was happy.




A few decades ago on my way to work in the early morning, I decided to stop at a church where confession was already in progress. My mood was bleak, even though I’m not a moody person. As I sat in the pew trying to pull my thoughts together, only negative prayer seemed to happen. I said to the Lord feeling weary, “Lord, why am I here, going through this painful ritual of confession?” Answering my question I said, “Because you, recommend it!” Then unexpectedly the following thought came to mind, “I want you to remember that Jesus  Christ  is your friend and your brother!” Spurred by that message I entered the confessional, made my confession and then the shocker happened! The priest said to me in exhortation, “My good man, I want you to remember that Jesus Christ is your friend and your brother!” There was nothing that I told the priest that would call forth that kind of teaching from him. But there it was, twice in my dank mood Jesus reminded me of what I already knew but needed at the moment to hear it again. The Lord had spoken to me. As I did my penance I became more and more astonished and to this day regret that I didn’t   have the presence of mind to thank the priest for hitting the nail on it head! I imagine that in confession priests never know for sure if they are saying the right thing. In my case he did.



There are other examples that I could give that God does speak to us, like the time many, many years ago, for some long forgotten reason, I  needed  $5, a lousy $5! Why? I don’t remember. But I asked the Lord to give a hand. As I arrived home on the steps to my apartment there in plain view, I found a $5 bill saying to me, “Pick me up!” Yes, God does speak to us simply, plainly and without gloss.
 
Brenda Sheridan | 7/21/2012 - 4:49pm
Well, God spoke to St. ignatius didn't he? And in Ignatian Spirituality we learn to listen for God's voice. The thing to remember is that God speaks to us all the time, but God NEVER wants us to do anything that is not good and right. So using ''God's will'' as a justification for actions that have no justification is simply wrong. 
Crystal Watson | 7/21/2012 - 4:32pm
I knd of cringe too when I hear this about other people, but I want to believe it's possible. Ignatius of Loyola thought that God did work directly with people, he himself had a religious experience, and he believed the Spiritual Exercises retreat could foster that kind of experience for others.  I had a sort of experience during a retreat - I don't know if it was valid or not but I'd like to believe it was.
JIM MCCREA | 7/21/2012 - 3:46pm
I'm a firm believer in haunting scriptures to find a guide for my life - and finally found one!

Judas, seeing that he done such a detestable thing, went out and hanged him.  And Jesus said, do this in remembrance of me.
Marie Rehbein | 7/21/2012 - 3:14pm
I certainly get the cringing part - especially last week hearing that George Zimmerman believes it was God's will.  It's too easy, isn't it, to attribute everything to God's will and never to have to worry that one is committing a sin, but only occasionally doing something that is unwise?

I tend to see recurring references to the number seven as some kind of human inclination given that it is not possible for there to have been earth days when God created the universe.  Maybe it's just a natural human limit to have to rest after approximately seven days and again after seven weeks.  It's certainly a good thing to work with nature no matter what one's religion happens to be.

I have my doubts that the level of religiousity Ryan Hall brings to his activities can be sustained for a lifetime.  It would be interesting to me to learn of someone who lived like this for eighty years.