I have a prayer that has accompanied me for many years when I run…

…no my prayer is not, “Dear God help me survive this unnatural grueling torture.” Although there are times in the early morning dark days of winter when that might well be my chosen mantra.

The prayer that has accompanied me on most of my runs is the traditional Jesus prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of the living God,
Have mercy on me.

Over and over, these words that have been prayed for thousands of years in every imaginable setting have kept pace with my feet as I pound along the trail.

Recently it occurred to me that my running prayer might have become a tiny bit rote. It seems the words can repeat themselves in my brain while my mind is off somewhere else entirely reciting my most recent argument with life. It is not necessarily an entirely bad thing to have the words of the Jesus prayer running as the background music to one’s life, but I began to wonder if perhaps  this unconscious Jesus-Prayer-muzak had become something less than a rich aid to deepening my conscious awareness of the Divine.

So, I launched a little experiment. After many years of using the traditional twelve word Jesus prayer, I decided to use the equally traditional but simpler version:

Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Lord have mercy.

The prayer is intended to be a triad. Done repeatedly, it comes out as:

Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Lord have mercy.

Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Lord have mercy…..

….except it didn’t. As I ran, I soon realized the triad had become a couplet:

Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.

Lord have mercy.

Christ have mercy.

I tried to repeat “Lord have mercy” after the second “Lord have mercy,” to begin a new triad. But rather than repeating “Lord have mercy”, the words “Christ have mercy” almost inevitably came to my brain. I seemed incapable of remembering that following the second “Lord have mercy”, I intended to repeat “Lord have mercy” and start the triad from the beginning. It just did not happen.

So, I tried another experiment. After the “Lord have mercy” that followed “Christ have mercy”, instead of trying to repeat, “Lord have mercy” immediately, I took a two stride pause. The prayer now followed the intended three-fold pattern, as my brain recited:

Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Lord have mercy.
Stride/pause, Stride/pause

Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Lord have mercy.
Stride/pause, Stride/pause

The strange miracle is that, I never forgot the pause. And, after each pause, the prayer began again quite naturally with “Lord have mercy”.

There is a momentum to words that gives them a power all their own. The momentum of the words propelled me from “Lord have mercy” to “Christ have mercy” to “Lord have mercy” and then back to “Christ have mercy,” with an unstoppable energy stronger than my attempt to pray the prayer as a triad. But the pause changed all that.

I expect there may be a lesson here about conversation and public speaking.

How much more mindfully might I speak if, in the middle of the unstoppable flow of words that characterize so much of my verbal output, I simply stopped, relaxed, and took a deep breath before continuing? How much more presence might enter into my words if they were surrounded by a little more space? How much more connection might I find with people if I paused in my conversation before responding automatically?

There is power in the pause. It stops the propelling force of language. It allows a moment of reflection. It interrupts the tendency to operate on automatic that leaves me so often unconscious of the beauty and mystery that haunt the silent edges of life, even when running.

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