By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
St. Paul’s continued relevance for our contemporary culture is evident in a beautiful passage devoted to an understanding of sports as an image for the life of faith: “Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27, New American Bible Revised Edition).
St. Paul was well acquainted with the veneration of athletic heroes in the Greco-Roman world. The victors of the various athletic competitions in the original Olympic Games, from sprints to wrestling to javelin throwing, received a wreath of olive branches. In the passage from 1 Corinthians quoted above, St. Paul employs the running race as an analogy for the spiritual life, and compares the pagan spoils of victory (leaves destined to wither) with those earned by Christ (immortality and beatitude).
The value of sports for the training of young boys and girls in virtues such as teamwork, perseverance, and sacrifice to a cause greater than oneself, is obvious. Less well known is the manner in which several fathers of the early church, expanding on Paul’s analogy between faith and physical exercise, define the true athlete of God. The greatest athletes trained in the Christian faith, according to St. Clement, are martyrs such as Peter and especially Paul, “who showed how to win the prize for patient endurance” (1 Clement 5:6). Through the letter of Ignatius of Antioch to Polycarp, we are privileged to eavesdrop on a conversation between two glorious witnesses who shed their blood for Christ. Ignatius calls Polycarp “the athlete of God,” and his multiple allusions to the world of sport are always tied to the virtues of perseverance and self-discipline: “Bear the sicknesses of everyone, like a perfect athlete. The greater the toil, the greater the gain […] Stand your ground like an anvil under the hammer. A great athlete must suffer blows to conquer” (Letter to Polycarp, 1:3; 3:1).
Without the background for these quotes, one might suspect that they come from the mouth of a great coach, such as Vince Lombardi or John Wooden; instead, they are the exhortations of a saint imploring a fellow holy one to stand firm in the midst of persecution. The discipline demanded by St. Paul, and the toil championed by St. Ignatius, are necessary for the perfection not simply of the body, for that is but an earthen vessel animated for a time allotted by God, but for the immortal self, infinitely more than a beautiful body. The training and discipline which Paul emphasizes for the Christian life are required to properly coordinate body and soul, to channel the natural passions to their proper end in Christ. The acronym of the shoe company ASICS reflects the harmony that must exist between our spirited selves and our bodies: Anima Sana In Corpore Sano, “a healthy soul in a healthy body.”
Yet the true “athletes of God” will treat their bodies and their athletic pursuits as a preparation, a training ground, for the ultimate sporting event for which they were created: the journey of their soul as it struggles to unite itself more deeply with Christ. The shedding of blood and sweat in physical exercise is a mere prelude to the greater war to be waged in the quiet of prayer—for the shedding of temptations and the surrender of one’s selfish will to the love of God, even to the point of shedding blood for the Christian faith, bring a far greater glory than any earthly prize can offer.
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column will appear occasionally in The Texas Catholic.