In the wake of the celebration of Super Bowl LII, we have been looking at the interaction of faith, sports and athletes. This week I’d like to look at a podcast from Bishop Robert Barron from his Word On Fire Show. The bishop discusses “spiritual athletes.” He starts by mentioning that, at Mundelein Seminary outside of Chicago, is a statue of St. George slaying a dragon. Below the statue, one reads, “Athleta Christi Nobilis” — the Noble Athlete of Christ. So, what is a “spiritual athlete?”
In their “Good Leaders – Good Shepherds” leadership curriculum for priests and pastors, Catholic Leadership Institute discusses “5 phases of performance.” “Curious” is the initial phase. In this phase, “the rookie” has a lot of energy and enthusiasm. Unfortunately, he is inexperienced. In the next “confronting” phase, the person is still inexperienced. But, reality has now set in, he is getting creamed by the veterans, the rose-colored glasses are off and the neophyte becomes quite discouraged. When a person reaches the 3rd or “Cautious” phase, they have gained some skills. Their energy, motivation and enthusiasm are beginning to increase. In the 4th or “Achieving” phase, the person is a skilled veteran with battle-hardened, playoff experience. He possesses confidence and high energy. The 5th or “Discerning” phase is a mysterious, strange and sometimes scary place. Perhaps the player is being called to a higher skill level at his position. Maybe he is being asked to assume a leadership role. Perhaps he is even considering retirement. Questions about motivation, experience, skills and enthusiasm are all pretty much in the air. The person experiences a bit of a “dark night” as he finds himself “living in the question.”
Bishop Barron (“A” man in black) says that this parallels the spiritual life. Spiritual athleticism is a contest, even a battle. Spiritual athletes are called to get over self-preoccupation. It is a hero’s journey. It is about striving, struggle a champion and becoming useful to someone for something – for Christ (not against the Patriots). As Johnny Cash (“THE” Man In Black) once said, “Being a Christian ain’t for sissies.”
Spiritual athleticism is similar to the phases mentioned above. The spiritual beginner or convert enters the preparation phase with a lot of excitement and fervor. At some point, they hit the wall. Temptations rage, they fail and sin, they don’t feel the presence of Christ anymore and are ready to quit. They are now “in the desert.” Here the struggle is against yourself, against something else (sin, temptation, the world, the flesh) or someone else (the Devil). If the spiritual athlete sticks with it, he/she then begins to enter a “spiritual boot camp.” This is an intense preparation or gestation period. It is necessary to submit themselves to a “coach” (spiritual master) who provides guidance, clarity and support. They also begin to withdraw from the dysfunction of the world. This withdrawal can be an actual “retreat” at a retreat house, seminary or monastery. The period of time can be for a day, a weekend or even longer. They begin to experience a pull to simplify their lives. This includes withdrawing from certain aspects of the material world and getting rid of “stuff” in their lives and in their house that has accumulated over the years. This is spiritually “losing those excess pounds” and getting down to a good, spiritual “training weight.” They become a leaner spiritual specimen who is ready to be put into the game by the Lord.
So who were some spiritual athletes? One of the early ones is St. Anthony of the Desert who lived in the 3rd and 4th century. We find out about this battle-hardened athlete from St. Athanasias’ book, Life of St. Anthony. At some point, Anthony felt called to retreat from a corrupt Roman culture. And retreat he did – big time! He fled into the Egyptian desert and lived as a hermit – practicing dramatic discipline, sacrifice and self-denial for the rest of his life. Anthony, and other monks who lived around him, wrote about getting sacked by dark spiritual forces and how difficult it was to tackle their own desires of the flesh.
Meanwhile, in Italy, St. Benedict also left a corrupt society and retreated to a cave near Subiaco. After several years, Benedict came through his own “discerning phase,” came out from the cave, gathered some like-minded teammates around him and started the Benedictine Order. In the 1500’s St. Ignatius of Loyola was a highly-skilled, professional soldier. He was wounded in battle and ended up in the “concussion protocol” in a hospital. During this time, Ignatius went through his own “discerning” phase. He retreated to a cave on Mount Manresa, Spain for a period of time. He eventually came out and founded the Society of Jesus (or “Jesuits” for all of you Cowboy fans). This order later became the experts in “discernment” based on Ignatius’ “Spiritual Exercises.”
A more modern spiritual athlete was Pier Giorgio Frassati (1901 – 1925). Pier Giorgio was a spiritual athlete. He was also a physical specimen. He was a strong man, a powerful mountain climber and an expert hiker. He balanced his spirituality and athleticism with a very active social life. He was known for his great love for the Mass and the Eucharist. In fact, at one point, his parents were worried what he was doing since he seemed to be out all hours of the night. They sent the local parish priest to spy on him. The priest returned to tell the parents that their son was spending the time in church, in adoration all through the night. Frassati also was known for his incredible charity and work for the poor. It eventually killed him as he contracted an especially virulent strain of polio and died within days.
Pier Giorgio’ feelings about the Eucharist are admirable in that they “are real.” People would ask him about his devotion to the Eucharist. “Is it fun? Do you enjoy it?” He said that it was like the feelings he had about his friends. “Sometimes it’s enjoyable. Sometimes it’s exciting, not all the time. Sometimes it’s boring. But it’s about spending time with them. Over the long run, it develops something deep and special.”
If you ask the Eagles why they won, they will tell you it because they were a team. Pier Frasatti says something similar about being a spiritual athlete for Christ. The sacrifice, the difficulties, the training is difficult. Still, “It’s not about doing this for yourself. You’re in solidarity with others. You’re connected with the others in the Church.”
That’s quite a team that “church thing.”