With a reassuring smile, the priest told us, “If you are uncomfortable leaving your bike outside, you can take it inside and leave it in the church hall.” I was at Mass on a Saturday evening with dozens of other out-of-town bicyclists and regular parishioners in Council Bluffs, Iowa, the starting point for RAGBRAI, a seven-day, 450-mile bicycle ride across the state.
I signed up for the ride to indulge in my love of cycling, to test my physical fitness, and last, but certainly not least, to ramp up my faltering faith life. I was at a crossroads in my life. As much as I could hop on my bike and pedal for miles, my faith life felt stagnant. Everyday responsibilities consumed me: work, family obligations, and more work. My spiritual life had taken a back seat to all the busyness and I was struggling to answer the BIG questions of my faith: Where was God in all of this? How was I truly building the Kingdom of God?
It was easy for me to avidly embrace my physical fitness. But to what extent did I exercise my faith? So, I decided to embrace the ride for what it was: a retreat. The week of cycling was a golden opportunity to reclaim my faith and nudge it back toward the center of my life.
That night, in my tent, I said my usual Our Fathers and Hail Marys and also prayed to be drawn closer to God, to better understand God’s will for my life, and to be more welcoming and open to others.
That first day, I pedaled my bike up and down the rolling hills of the Iowa countryside. I gave up a thumbs-up to a father and son pedaling on a tandem. As I passed a struggling solo rider, I said, “Almost there!” At rest stops, I made small talk with other riders and sought out companionship.
It was hard to do the ride alone, but the riders I met were friendly, boosting my belief we are all one family and children of God. Greg, a banker in his 30s from the Des Moines area, rode despite having his hips replaced a few years ago because of a rare illness. He was sore but cheerful and hopeful about completing the ride. Then there was 20-something Sarah, who sported a nose ring and tattoos. We traded funny war stories about that day’s ride.
I attended Mass nearly every day on the ride/retreat. The Gospel reading one day included the passage where Jesus says anyone who does the will of the Father in heaven is his brother, sister, and mother. As the week progressed, I began to feel an increasing solidarity with the thousands of fellow riders, as well as the small-town residents who sat on their porches and lawn chairs to welcome and cheer us. We became our own little Kingdom of God, united in our love of biking and our respect and affection for one another.
On the last day, the small town of Montrose was the final stop before the finish. Gathered on a hill in front of a church, a dozen bagpipers in kilts greeted us with a stirring “Amazing Grace.” Lastly came a 10-mile stretch alongside the mighty Mississippi River. A middle-aged man sitting in his front yard shouted, “Three more hills–two small ones and a big one.” I strained to climb the big hill. Oh no—ahead of me loomed a much bigger hill. I had mistaken a small one for the big one. I strained and pedaled hard up the beast.
Cheering folks lined the road, and a wave of emotion swept over me as I burst past the finish line. “I did it! I did it!” flashed through my mind.
I returned home on a Sunday. Amazingly, the readings and the priest’s homily were all about perseverance. If we persist, we find what we need—whether it’s at work, home, or on an arduous bike ride that requires unrelenting perseverance. “Ask and it shall be given. Seek and you shall find,” Jesus told his disciples in the Gospel reading.
On the ride, I sought reassurance that God is a central part of my life and will get me through each day, however challenging. The ride taught me I am loved and cherished for who I am, and I can extend myself lovingly to others. Today, I’m still pedaling through life, day after day, but I know I have a tailwind of sorts, an invisible fellow rider. I may never ride as fast or as far, but I’m always in a good place, close to God.