Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Living the Divine Life: Sports

Faith Formation Lecture Series
“Living the Divine Life: Bringing Holiness into the Day-to-Day”
Session I: Sports
November 3rd, 2013
St. Vincent de Paul Parish

This series of lectures is titled “Living the Divine Life: Bringing Holiness into the Day-to-Day.” And while somewhat self-evident, I want to share with you briefly the logic behind these four talks. We as God’s people, His children are called to be holy, to be divine. As St. Peter reminds us in the scriptures: “But as He who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am Holy’” (1Pet 1:15-16). Our activities, therefore, must be a means of Holiness; there must be a way to conduct ourselves as God does Himself, to be Divine. Indeed, many of the various activities in which we participate are good in themselves. How, then, can we make them holy; how can we make them Divine?


“Sports” is the topic for today. I thought this topic pertinent since fall is such a sports filled time for our families: football, volleyball, basketball, just to name a few. The first thing I would like to do is to take an account of the number of hours a week we as a family spend involved in sports: playing, watching, talking, etc…So I would like you to take in your hands now the paper and pen you took when you came in and count these hours per week. Now, this is not simply as a family, but each member. How many hours a week does each member of the family spend playing, watching, and talking about sports, even sport themed video games? Count those up.

Now, the idea is to get a grasp of just how much this activity permeates our lives. Does anyone feel like sharing? I know I got 63 hrs a week when I counted up my own family, which changes greatly depending on the season. Certain weeks that number might have doubled, if you count a tournament weekend.

The question, then, becomes: how can those hours be hours consecrated to God; hours in which I become more like Him; hours of Divine activity?

We will approach the answer to this question by viewing Sports in two ways: 1) sports as an analogy of Faith—in this way sports are a source of contemplation by which we can understand our relationship with Christ—and 2) sports as a means of holiness—in this way sports forms a school of virtue in which we can grow more in conformity with Christ.

Let us take up the first, sports as an analogy of faith. This aspect of sports comes from the fact that St. Paul makes an analogy in two of his letters (1Cor and 1&2Tim) comparing the life of faith to that of a sport, specifically the Olympic athletes. Each reference St. Paul makes points out a different aspect of how sports can help us understand our lives of faith.

There are two aspects to St. Paul’s analogy that I would like to point out. The first: something is at stake; there is a winner and a looser; there is a prize to win. Let us listen to St. Paul himself:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.” (1Cor 9:24)

Now the beginning of an analogy is its limit. Thus there must not be a looser in the race for salvation; we can all win this race. Yet, there is a real possibility, however, of losing the race, that is, not finishing the race. This is an important aspect of our faith to remember. And St. Paul wishes us to recall this truth with the image of sports in mind. Not to scare us, but to remind us of the seriousness of the spiritual life and keep us on “track.” We are competing in a true fight, a spiritual battle, with an advocate, the Holy Spirit, and an enemy, Satan. Our team, the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, will win. Christ has already won it for us: “The gates of hell will not prevail against her.” But we must stay in communion. We must remain in Him, and so keep up in this race so as to make St. Paul’s words our own: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”


We see this analogy of the race present in our tradition. The Bishop’s Miter has two tassels on it, two bands stemming from the cap. These two bands represent the loose bands of a tied head band which the runners wore during their race. Indeed, the bishop is running the race. He like St. Paul is leading us in the race. Can we keep up?

The direct consequence of this competition for salvation—the second aspect of St. Paul’s analogy—is that we are racing for a prize, a crown of glory, the heavenly vision. We are racing for salvation. For the early Christians this often meant martyrdom, which due to its physical nature was easily likened to an athlete. Thus the wreath or crown of victory, of which St. Paul speak in his letter to Timothy, is that of martyrdom.

“Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” (1Cor 9:25)

“I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.” (2Tim 4:6-8)

St. Steven's Martyrdom
The wreath has many aspects to its symbolism. It can be a wreath as on a bride, a crown of jewels for the wedding feast. Or it can be this olive branch wrapped around the head of the victor, the crown of glory, the crown of martyrdom. As we live our lives do we keep this in mind that the reason we do anything is to go to heaven? Do we strive after that imperishable wreath? Do we hunger for the victory of Christ in our own lives? Is our own salvation the end to which we toil and strive, having faith and hope in Jesus our Savior? Let us set our eyes to that finish line and race towards that finish line that we might be crowned with that crown of righteousness. 

We see this in our tradition in the paintings of saints, particularly martyrs. They are depicted with a crown of olive branches. 

The second aspect of participating in this race is discipline. All of St. Paul’s citations speak of a regiment, or required set of rules that one must follow in order to run this race, and win the crown of glory.

Paul says to the Corinthians that “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things….Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1Cor 9:25-27)

To Timothy: “Train yourself in godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1Tim 4:7-8).

Continuing: “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules” (1Tim 2:5).

Every athlete knows that in order to be great, one must sacrifice. There are rules to the game which extend past simply the whistle of the referee. There is a requisite discipline that one must take on: change in diet, exercise, schedule, sleep, social time. Athletes give up a lot to do what they do. And most everyone accepts this reality. The spiritual life, the race for heaven, is no different. There are rules which oblige us: the precepts of the Church, the 10 Commandments, etc…And there are certain disciplines we take on, most well known during lent: prayer, fasting, and alms-giving  These are our weights, work outs, diets, routines, our spiritual exercises (as St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits calls them). In this way we work out our body and soul conforming it ever more to that of Christ such that as we go through the test of life, that race, we might run so as to win.

Again, we see this in our tradition by looking at the opening prayer of the first Sunday of lent:

Almighty God, grant us
that, by means of the annual exercises of the forty-day mystery, we may both make progress in understanding the mystery of Christ and by worthy conduct of life imitate its consequences.


Having gone through in a cursory fashion sports as analogy of faith thereby setting before us the ideal—how we are to see sports in the light of Christ—let us set out now to speak of the practical and concrete ways that sports can be a means of holiness. Another way of say this might be, how can the actual playing of sports be a way of growing closer to Christ.

I would like to start with a quote from Blessed Pope JohnPaul II:


"The correct practice of sport must be accompanied by practicing the virtues of temperance and sacrifice; frequently it also requires a good team spirit, respectful attitudes, the appreciation of the qualities of others, honesty in the game and humility to recognize one's own limitations. In short, sports, especially in less competitive forms, foster festive celebration and friendly coexistence. While playing sports, Christians also find help in developing the cardinal virtues—fortitude, temperance, prudence and justice."[1]

From this I take the subtitle of sports as a school of virtue,” for it is by the virtues, good habits, that we are conformed to Christ and become holy as He is holy. The virtues in other words are how we live a divine life. How we live like God.

The Virtues as some of you may already know are: prudence, temperance, fortitude (courage), and justice.

Justice: rendering to another what is due. How do sports help us develop the virtue of justice? Well as we have already mentioned in the previous section, sports require rules both of the game and of life. Breaking or transgressing these rules has serious consequences, penalties, which set us back, making the game more difficult. More generally, there is our responsibility towards the team, our role. This carries with it a demand of respect both for us and for our fellow teammates and opponents. Rules, responsibilities, and mutual respect during a contest are very concrete ways for us to develop a habit of justice. Here actions such as cheating, unsportsmanlike like conduct, and individual efforts are actions of injustice taking from our teammates and opponents what is due them in the course of the game. Might I suggest that these are not simple infractions on the playing field, but actual sins. Yes, our actions on the playing field are meritorious or hindering our race towards heaven. If we think our attitudes and dispositions on the playing field are different or disconnected with those upon the playing field of life, we are misguided. Certainly, sports may provide us the occasion to blow off our top more than usual because of the intensity, mitigating culpability. But such a habit will flow over into our actions outside and diminish our life of holiness. The good news is that if we approach sports as an opportunity to grow in virtue, then these games and contests can be a time to learn these virtues and set ourselves up for good actions in life and further ourselves in that race for the future glory.  

Temperance: everything in moderation. How do sports provide us an opportunity to exercise the virtue of temperance? This is easy enough I think. As mentioned already the discipline of sports often requires athletes to change their diet and schedule: fasting before a wrestling match to get one’s weight down; drinking nasty shakes full of protein to bulk up; just being in cross country; hydrating, ice baths, you name it. All of this suffering teaches us temperance, and even more sacrifice. Blessed JohnPaul II says that in this way sports teach us “the logic of life”: “without sacrifices, important results are not obtained or even genuine satisfaction.” This “logic of life” will set us up well for “a logic of love.”

This virtue is invaluable when it comes to forming future mothers and fathers, priests and religious. Parents, you know the sacrifice required of you day and night for your kids. Consider how this can be instilled in our own children by taking these opportunities sports affords us to build this virtue. Kids, consider how much Christ sacrifice and gave up out of love for us, and how sports could be the place where we learn this virtue. Again, think of lent: prayer, fasting, and alms-giving.

Yet there is more in this virtue. Consider the number of souls that would fly from purgatory if you began offering up your sufferings in practice for them. Consider the grace given to fuel the various missions around the world. Or the sanctity of our communities. Consider that when pulling out to make a lead block, you are laying your life down for a friend. Or when diving on a ball be it a basketball or baseball, that you are doing it for Christ. In this way, we will never lose no matter what the score board says.

Courage: overcoming fear in action. I dare say that this is probably the most clear of all the virtues. Anyone who at anytime has played sports knows the fear of a high pressure situation. And it need not even be the closing seconds of a period or quarter. The crowd, expectation, teammates, opponents, time, scores, pride, all of this on the line. When that ball comes, the fear of failure can be paralyzing. Yet, through practice which instills in us habits precisely for these situations we can prepare ourselves to handle this fear with courage and overcome it. Learning this virtue in sports is an imperative in order to be successful. The same is true for life, and even more so for the spiritual life. The fear of saying “no” to immoral behavior (drugs, sex, and rock and roll stuff), the fear of overcoming peer pressure, test anxiety, the fear of praying before meals in public, of speaking out for truth and life in the public square, all of these can be learned on the field of play, if we approach it that way.

Parents, consider the courage it took to say yes to a child that may have not been expected or “affordable”. Or the courage to make that move, change jobs, and leave behind a bad influence. Could your own child now learn that same courage during a game of football? Kids, consider the scary reality of entering into a lifelong commitment called marriage or religious life, or the intimidating world of college and jobs. You can learn to overcome this fear in your sporting, if you approach it that way.

Lastly, Prudence: the ability to discern with right reason and judgment. Prudence is the queen of all virtue since in some regard she is included in all other acts of virtue. And is this not true in sports. Every act of courage in a last minute play or high intensity moment in a game includes a very wise and prudent decision on how to execute that play. Every act of temperance refusing a meal or forcing another, getting enough rest or overcoming the heavy eyelids, all of these require prudence in knowing when it is time to do which. Lastly every act of justice risking a big play that might result in a foul, stepping out of somebody’s role for a big play, or overcoming ragging emotions to shake someone’s hand at the end of a hard game, all require a good amount of prudence to see clearly what is right. This virtue will prove most useful if learned well in the context of sports. Life decisions, finances, job opportunities, moves, you name it. Prudence is our daily bread when it comes to virtuous acts. And is sorely missing in so many of our families and communities. 

[1] 25th World Day of Tourism
"Sports and Culture:Two Vital Forces for
Mutual Understanding, Culture and Development among Countries."
September 27, 2004

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