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The Race gives us a glimpse into the endless round of self-neglectful business that is robbing a woman of the peace of resting in her Lord. She wakes, with the jolt and intensity of a runner at the starting block, having anticipated and rehearsed the day’s demands to the point of near-sleeplessness. We feel sorry for her, hurting herself as she is by the hyperactivity that clearly is leading her to physical breakdown and, possibly, to the point of madness. But, we see in her mania an element of free choice that prevents our interpreting her predicament as inevitable, or unavoidable.
The poem is full of choice words with several layers of meaning that combine to place the characteristics of such driven-ness into relief against a background of love – of self, and of God. Here are just a few examples:
Writhe: twist in pain, twist into coils
Compress: press hard, condense, contract
Mania: ungovernable frenzy, excitement manifested by hyperactivity and elevation of mood
Design: mental scheme in which means to an end are laid down
Restive: stubbornly resisting control, uneasy
Heady: willful, rash, head-first, intoxicating
Coil: tumult, trouble
These images all fight – as the woman fights – against relaxation, and true rest. This woman’s coping, or self-defense mechanisms have gone horribly awry and are now destroying her. She is doing violence to herself, to the day, and to those around her, whose needs and humanity she speeds past.
The Race speaks of the subtle seductive power of ideas. Unless they are translated into reality – dull and tedious as that process may be – they may lure us into a world of imagined virtue, imagined freedom of movement, imagined rest that undermines the very things ‘vain imaginings’ represent. We may lose our footing in the imagined future if we dissipate our energies by grappling with virtual problems. Grace does not, cannot flow into virtual life. That territory – for all our work to know and control it – is an unmapped waste: “ungraceful and uncharted time”.
As one whose own life is the stuff this poem was made of, I can speak firsthand about the antidote for this woman’s – for my – impotent, cramped, pragmatic, heedless life. The cure is, pure and simple, real rest. The Source and Summit of this elixir? The Eucharist. Christ, fully present, waits for the soul to turn, simply, to Him for refreshment, for new life.
The poem echoes Christ’s words (in a vision) to Bl. Angela of Foligno: “Make yourself a capacity, and I will make myself a torrent,” and alludes to the last line of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14 (“Nor ever chaste except you ravish me.”) I include a discussion of The Race in my talk, A Prayer, A Poem, A Person, a Place, to illustrate both poetry and the poetic person – one whose very being is, like a poem, a place of encounter with Reality.
It is my prayer that, by winning people over to the practice of true Sabbath-keeping – Eucharistic Sabbath – I can help restore the calm, surrendered, interior spaciousness that will invite Christ’s torrential grace, more and more, into the world. “Slowed to a singleness of soul,” the double-minded man can become whole, and participate in the glorious freedom of the children of God.
Note: Since the poem is a bit longer than usual, I’ve got a pdf of it for you, here.