I had the good fortune to interview Sister Madonna Buder, author of The Grace to Race, a few days back. My Catholic Post review of the book makes it clear how much I enjoyed this book, and Sister was gracious enough to talk with me on the phone for a long conversation about her racing and her vocation. Following is the best of our conversation. Thank you, Sister for your time and for your wonderful book!
First of all, I loved your book. Well done! Let me ask a kind of bold question: why is a nun doing triathlons?
Well, it can seem different to what you would expect a nun’s life to be. But I’ve always been active, mountain climbing & other adventuring, and I need to use that gift for His glory. I’ve learned that if the Lord gives you a talent, and you recognize it and you know it’s a gift, then you are almost duty bound to use it as a compliment to the Creator. To ignore it is insulting the Creator. Once I was climbing a mountain and the answer struck me, “I gave you a gift and you are complimenting me to use it, and if you don’t, it’s lost.” This thought was the one that helped me persist because I knew the attitudes in society of what a sister “should be.”
Do you see racing as your primary ministry? How is that part of your vocation?
It seems to have developed into that, but it is a mystery to me as to how this has all come about. All I can do is say is, “Yes, Yes, Yes, Lord.” In fact, the last few days have been snowy out here, and it’s been difficult for me to run to Mass, even with my YakTrax. So I can only say, “Yes, Lord, Yes, Lord.”
How are you able to recognize that it’s not just you out there, but really something that is given by God?
That is really discernment, and that’s both a thought process and a heart process. Is your heart really into it? If you try to strip yourself of all the trappings of ‘what’s in it for me,’ and consider the effects an action would have on other people– that’s helpful in discernment.
I’m a runner (I’ve even raced a sprint distance triathlon, along with all four of my sisters—a great experience!) and I’ve always found it hard to explain to others how I find it spiritually and emotionally productive to run, especially long distances.
Could you explore a little what you mean by what you call “a different kind of prayer posture” and how your racing relates to your prayer life?
Prayer is not a place. When you talk about posture, that indicates a static movement. To me, prayer is being in constant communication with the Beloved. That does not require any kind of posture. If kneeling is a posture that puts you in a state of reverence, then it’s productive. But other ways of being can be prayerful; what matters most to God is that you’re thinking about Him. And you can be thinking about Him no matter where you are or what you’re doing. For me, I find my comtemplative spirit is on the run, so to speak. (pun intended!)
One of the things you capture well in the book is that there’s something special about running or being active that can really connect with you God in a different way.
It certainly draws a person into a sense of wholeness. You’re not a compartmentalized in denying the body and spirit. You are in harmony as one being, and this is what we have to be mindful of for our wholeness’ sake.
Some people are a little top heavy, mentally, and so their body gets neglected. Other people are so intent on bodybuilding that their mind and emotions get neglected. Other people are emotional ‘touchy-feely’ and their mind gets pushed aside. I think we actually spend our lifetimes attempting to get into balance. Racing helps me to be more whole as a human.
Following up on the previous question: I was part of a discussion recently about the Theology of the Body, John Paul II’s series of talks exploring that we are meant to speak the truth not just with our words, but with our bodies. I was reflecting about how while the Theology of the Body is primarily discussed in the context of vocation to marriage, it really applies to everything we do with our bodies. For instance, I like to dedicate each mile of a race to a family member, and in a sense that is an offering for them. Do you have any thoughts on that?
It’s very common to dedicate a race or a portion of a race to a person. I like to do this. And that helps with the focus being on other people, not just me. Paradoxically, it’s as much to the runner’s spiritual and emotional benefit as it is to the person we want to benefit. That goes back to the focus. For one, if you’re thinking about every step you’re taking it becomes drudgery, but if you thinking about your reason for doing this, it uplifts you. Also, offering it for others helps get our prayers and thoughts in alignment. Prayers and thoughts are very closely linked. So that’s why we have to watch we think!
Ultimately, it’s the intention with which we do anything that makes it worthwhile. And the intentions we offer for others can be very powerful, especially for someone who needs prayers for a peaceful death.
After all these years, do you still enjoy racing?
I don’t know if I would call it racing anymore (laughing). Well, as far as putting forth the effort, I don’t mind that, especially the running. But what I enjoy most is the camaraderie — being out there with like-minded people who are enjoying the gift of physicality. How they express their gift is totally individual, but it’s all God-given.
How do you feel you minister to the other people at races? You write a lot about that in The Grace to Race.
I think I do this just by being me. A lot of it depends on the very fact that I am a religious, you know. Even an atheist feels a little bit interested running next to a spiritual person.
People minister to me, too, as I help them with spiritual matters. One time, during the Capital City Marathon (in Olympia Washington), a man started talking to be at about mile 20, which is when things tend to get tougher in a marathon. I guess he knew who I was, and he wasn’t very spiritual, so he wanted to talk with me about my beliefs. It actually was a very productive conversation, and he thanked me after we finished the race for talking with him. But I don’t think he realized how much he helped me to finish. The talking helped me to push through.
When is your next race?
I plan to run the Boston Marathon in April. I want to open a new age group for women if possible. I don’t know if there’s been an 80-year-old woman to run Boston. When I last ran Boston in 2008, there were several men in their 80s, but no women.
This month at the Catholic Post Book Group blog, we’re talking about new year’s resolutions and making changes. Any thoughts or words of wisdom to share with people who might want to start getting active?
Well the first thing is just to put one step in front of the other. Some people look at a distance and think, ‘Oh, that’s too much’. Start by putting one step in front of the other, and you’ll be amazed at how far you’ve gotten. Then you keep increasing it until it becomes a routine.
You write in The Grace to Race of your love for the Blessed Mother and for St. Therese. Is there a patron saint of triathletes or racers? Could you recommend a particular saint for this, especially for newer athletes?
Actually, we are all called to be saints, if we recognize the Christ within us and Christ in others. Even if we don’t have the capital “S” in front of our names, we can all try to be little saints running around.
Anything else you would like to add or wish that I had asked?
I just want to say one word to anybody who is attempting to do a race or to get physically active when they haven’t been: ‘Godspeed.’ It’s an old Anglo-Saxon term, a meaning-well term: ‘Godspeed.’