For the cynic who criticizes the narcissism of athletes or the ugly tendencies of cheating, we must observe that sport is not exempt from the darker side of all human striving: in the Catholic tradition we call this tendency original sin.  But we must go a step further, and recognize that our better selves create rules, establish officiating, and hope against hope that our games will elicit the best of all who compete.  There is gain, and there is loss: in the old broadcasts of Wide World of Sports, Jim McKay waxed poetic about "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."  In sports, these are real, and they teach us lessons.

Sport is life because in sport we undertake a kind of spiritual discipline: a way of imagining ourselves in the world, of taking stock of the kinds of human beings we are created to be in relation to others.  Athletes don't just speak about what they can do: they speak about who they are.  "I'm a runner."  "I'm a boxer."  "I'm a rower."  These disciplines shape self-perception; they build confidence; they affect relationships. 

It is no surprise that the most widely used spiritual text in the West is called the Spiritual Exercises, by Saint Ignatius of Loyola -- a soldier-turned-mystic whose model of spiritual growth was rooted in the ancient Christian practice of asceticism (Greek askesis, exercise), or self-denial for spiritual growth.  For Ignatius, as for the early Greek fathers of the Church, Christian asceticism was about training the body and the mind in a way reminiscent of Saint Paul: putting everything on the line, as it were, for the promise of glory in Christ. 

Today, fasting is a vestige of that practice; more radical is the call to celibacy, which in this post-Freudian world strikes many as a perplexing sacrifice.  Both of these reflect a much more radical understanding of Christian life as a kind of athletic contest: a test of will to endure trials, to practice discipline, for the sake of that glory to which all the faithful are called in imitation of Christ's own sacrifice.  It is no surprise that in the early Church, martyrdom was regarded as the final test of one's ascetic will: for in martyrdom is seen the most perfect example of a perfectly trained, faithful will overcoming the raw, physical desire to stay alive.  For Paul -- as for Virgil, as for Homer -- sport was ultimately the discipline of the will to face with steely resolve the tests of life.  Performance on the field -- whether the athletic field, the field of battle, or even the field of martyrdom - is that which all are called to undertake.

 

Tim Muldoon is a Catholic theologian, author, speaker, and retreat leader specializing in the ways that Church traditions speak to contemporary life. He has written three books, including The Ignatian Workout, and a number of academic and popular essays on the themes of young adult spirituality, Ignatian spirituality, theology in postmodernity, sexuality and marriage, and adoption issues. He currently teaches at Boston College.