religious experience?

It can happen anywhere at anytime, some say

By Matt Russell

Running as often as Lin Gentling does, there's bound to be times when her blisters rub raw, her legs tire out and her spirit gets tested.

Gentling runs four times a week, covering eight to 25 miles each time. She counts more than 140 marathons and 35 ultra-marathon, or 100-mile, races she's finished in her life.


"I can't tell you the number of times that I've had to reach to a higher power to make some deals with God: 'If you get me to the next aid station I'll be a good person,'" she said.

Physical activities such as yoga and tai chi have long been linked to religious experiences, but some observers worry that boundaries between physical and spiritual activities have blurred recently as more people test their physical limits in the search for feelings of awe and transcendence.

"Our culture's prosperity now allows us to approach nirvana by way of death-defying sports," wrote editor Sarah Koops Vanderveen in the spring edition of "Mars Hill Review," a Christian literary magazine. "In many cases, the extremes we go in order to achieve well-being resemble plain old-fashioned penance. Perhaps we find these demanding games and sports so attractive because they offer up martyrdom lite -- a chance to suffer honorably in an otherwise comfortable existence."

Gentling, a 51-year-old revenue analyst at Mayo Medical Center, finds peace and solitude while running. It's time for her to contemplate and appreciate God's creation and deepen her relationship with the divine. That's why she runs such long distances: There's so much to think about.

"What I see in church is more of a organized hour," Gentling said. "When I'm on the trail I have no clue what will come up next or what's going to happen in the next moment. There's no pattern."

Range in intensity

Religious experiences can differ widely in intensity, ranging from a sudden, fleeting, feelings of peace to the extraordinary spiritual experiences at the core of most major religions.

Religious experiences don't have to be confined to an organized church setting, said the Rev. David Simerson of Cornerstone Assembly of God in Austin. "God wants to be involved in our lives 24-7, and not just in an organized setting, but in everything we do," he said.


While Simerson says a sense of the presence of God can hit people while doing something as common as driving, Rochester painter Ann Riggott said a landscape painting can evoke feelings of appreciation for the creativity of God. "As someone who's a Christian I tend to look at things through that point of view," she said.

Music -- from rock to sacred -- is linked to religious experiences had by people from different religions and cultures. "Harmony and dissonance are central religious themes in relation to the cosmos and music conveys both with immediacy and power," said Albert L. Blackwell, author of "The Sacred in Music."

"I don't think God puts any parameters or any particular set of circumstances in which to reveal himself to people," said the Rev. Bob Solon of Oak Hills Wesleyan Church in Rochester.

He defines a religious experience as a response to God's grace and revelation of himself to people. The experience could be recovery from addiction, finding peace in the middle of a stressful situation, or finding new meaning in a verse of scripture that a person hadn't found before. "All are equally valid," he said.

'Personal response' to God

Randy Massot, a member of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Rochester, agrees that a relationship with God is necessary in a religious experience.

"When I have a religious experience it's a response, it's a personal response directed to God," he said. "It's not an 'Oh, I feel one with nature' kind of thing. I'm prompted to praise or give thanks to God."

But while endurance tests such as marathon running are often linked to spiritual experiences, the connection isn't automatic.


"I feel like I'm a spiritual person, in a way, but I felt like it was more a lot of hard work that paid off. It wasn't like the lights went on and all of the sudden I saw heaven," said Sabrena Resman of Rochester, who recently ran her 30th marathon.

Mark Comeaux, director of athletics at Crossroads College in Rochester, believes taking care of your body is a spiritual responsibility, not a way of achieving spiritual insight.

"You use your convictions to express yourself as you play," he said. "A person could have an epiphany, all of a sudden understand what the Lord is trying to tell them, while on the ball field. But I don't think that's the norm."

That's not how it is for Gentling, who sees running as a healthy way for her to gain insight and to sort things out with God. "What I do has far greater meaning than putting one foot in front of the other," she said. "I don't run just to run."

Her feelings about the religious aspects of running are so strong that she's written an essay on the subject.

"I am beginning to understand this idea of being connected to both worlds, a part of something larger than myself, the striving toward a wholeness," she wrote. "Spirituality? I try to remember the lessons presented. And I return to the trails for renewals."

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