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In step with his spirituality

Solitary sport gives professor a chance to 'do a lot of thinking'

The Globe's Russell Contreras interviewed Dr. Warren A. Kay about his new book "Running: The Sacred Art: Preparing to Practice."
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Russell Contreras
Globe Staff / April 17, 2008

It's not that Warren A. Kay sees God lurking among the bushes during his morning jogs.

But for this longtime distance runner, running and spirituality are inseparable. So connected are the two, says the Merrimack College theology professor, that one can actually "experience the divine in the physicality of running" and have a conversation with God while on the track.

Allow him to explain.

In his new book, "Running - The Sacred Art: Preparing to Practice," released in January, Kay attempts to connect the two using history, philosophy, and his personal experiences.

The way he sees it, the act of running is a simple but solitary act that allows one to clear the mind and "do a lot of thinking." It gives the runner an excellent opportunity for spiritual development, regardless of membership in a particular religion or sect, he says.

"Running itself is a mode for spiritual growth that other sports may not be," writes the 55-year-old Lawrence resident, who is chairman of Merrimack's Religious and Theological Studies Department. "Running . . . doesn't need external tools or devices; you have your body, and that's all you need."

That's what the ancient Greeks believed, he writes, when they developed the concept of the Olympic Games, religious festivals in which running was the first event; or what a group of Japanese monks, known as the "Marathon Monks," see when they cover long distances in short periods of time.

How does one make that personal connection? Look around your route during a run. Make your own ritual. Glance toward the sun. Pray.

For Kay, who is also a longtime Merrimack cross-country coach and teaches a class called "The Spirituality of Running," the book addresses his curiosity about running and spirituality since he was a freshman middle-distance runner at Villanova University. One day, while entering the campus gym, Kay came across a large copy of a photograph of Irishman Ron Delaney after winning the 1,500-meter run in record time at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne. In the photo, Delaney is kneeling on the track, hands clasped in prayer as if thanking God for his victory.

Kay was mesmerized by the image.

"I was in awe," writes Kay, who is a Christian. "I was a religious person and a runner, too. Here was a public demonstration by someone who was a runner and also deeply spiritual."

The years that followed saw Kay chasing down questions about the connection of running and spirituality. He kept "running for himself" and completed a doctorate in Switzerland.

Then he arrived at Merrimack College in 1989.

Kay began helping out with the cross-country team, and eventually became an assistant coach. As the program grew, so did the success of the team. Kay then sought to create a class on spirituality and running as a way to help the student-athletes.

"I was able to justify spending a lot more time reflecting on these notions that were in the back in my head all of that time," he says.

For the most part, students responded well to the class, say Kay, who acknowledges that sometimes students tease him about it.

Once, after a 6-mile run with the cross-country team, a sweaty Kay was approached by two basketball players at a water fountain. "Did you have a spiritual experience?" they asked.

"Although they meant it as a joke, I was able to truthfully say to them, 'Yes, I had,' " Kay writes. "Having a spiritual experience doesn't mean that I have visions of Jesus while I am on my morning run. It doesn't mean that I hear voices from beyond the grave or that I occasionally encounter burning bushes the way Moses did more than 3,000 years ago."

Rather, he says, it's about appreciating the "beauty of God's creation" or "enjoying the gift of friendship" during a run.

Kay's wife, Nancy, says her husband's book is consistent with his character and is a snapshot of ideas he's been throwing around for some time. "He's always been one to talk about his ideas out loud to develop them," she says. "But he never pushes them on other people."

The 46-year-old art historian sees her own connection between spirituality and another form of human expression - art. She is wrapping up a doctoral dissertation on sacred sculptures.

"As you might imagine, we always have plenty to talk about," she says.

The couple even runs together on occasion. But Nancy Kay concedes that her husband is much faster. "When we run together on a track, he usually laps me at least once."

Russell Contreras can be reached at rcontreras@globe.com.

'Running itself is a mode for spiritual growth that other sports may not be,' says the Merrimack College theology professor.

WARREN A. KAY

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