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in the Catholic Mystic Tradition

Questions and Answers

What’s wrong with sports? Don’t they teach us fair play?

Outline of the Answer
• A Ubiquitous Cultural Institution
• Love—or Pride?
• The Scandal of Pride
• Boasting
• The Real Crown
• Going for the Gold?
• The Wisdom of Non-competition

 
In today’s world, competitive sports have become a ubiquitous cultural institution, and so, on the surface, it may seem that they are all for “fun” and that they teach “fair play.”

 
Love—or Pride?

Nevertheless, the underlying values of competitive sports derive from the ancient pagan Greek adoration of athletic strength, prowess, and glory. But look closely: these are all ideals based in the sin of pride. Then look again: pride stands completely opposed to the virtue of love.

  

If morality requires respect for the life of the body, it does not make it an absolute value. It rejects a neo-pagan notion that tends to promote a cult of the body, to sacrifice everything for its sake, to idolize physical perfection and success at sports. By its selective preference of the strong over the weak, such a conception can lead to the perversion of human relationships.

  

 

Catechism of the Catholic Church (2289)

 

God is love. Moreover, because God is love, a genuine Christian life does nothing but represent God’s love to the world. I mean that literally: as God presents his love to us, we in turn must re-present it to the world.

  

Finally, all of you, be of one mind, sympathetic, loving toward one another, compassionate, humble. Do not return evil for evil, or insult for insult; but, on the contrary, a blessing. . . .

  

— 1 Peter 3:8-9a

 
The Scandal of Pride

When the Greeks built a gymnasium in Jerusalem during the Maccabean Dynasty, the Jews were scandalized (see 2 Maccabees 4:7 ff.), and it holds even more true today that competitive sports are a scandal to Christianity because you simply cannot present love to the world through the evil-for-evil and insult-for-insult nature of strife and competition.

  

Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous; [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury. . . .

  

— 1 Corinthians 13:4-5

Now, when parents kill each other over arguments about children’s sports, you know something is seriously wrong under the surface and that love has been gravely defiled; so just imagine the corruption—not to mention the organized crime—underlying professional and amateur sports.

Do you think you will find in competitive sports any hint of holiness? Where is humility, patience, or kindness? Instead the playing fields are strewn with boasting, pomposity, inflation, jealousy, rudeness, self-interest, anger, and brooding over injury.

Our cultural adoration of competitive sports teaches us to put our trust in power, mastery, and competitive strategy—and to kill, whip, trounce, or trample anyone who gets in our way. All of this “sportsman” frenzy stands completely opposed to true Christian conduct, as lovingly described by Saint Paul:

  

Let us never be boastful, or challenging, or jealous toward one another. Help carry one another’s burdens; in that way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

  

—Galatians 5:26; 6:2

Imagine, for example, playing ping-pong without hitting the ball back, so that the other person can accumulate all the points he wants. Imagine playing bridge without doing anything to obstruct the other players in claiming all the points they want. Imagine two teams of men joyfully walking from one end of a field to the other, helping each other to accumulate all the touchdowns they want. In the eyes of the world, it would be boring, wouldn’t it? Well, in the eyes of the world, Christianity is boring. That’s why the Roman Empire made a sport out of killing Christians: it made Christianity into something exciting.

 
Boasting

Saint Paul, moreover, who not only clearly understood the truth about Christian life but also lived it right into martyrdom, had no use for puffing up his ego by boasting about a favorite sports team:

  

I will rather boast more gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.

  

— 2 Corinthians 12:9b-10

In fact, Saint Paul, summed up the Christian mission in a few words that show how the frenzy of competitive sports has no place in a Christian lifestyle:

  

But may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ!

  

— Galatians 6:14

 
The Real Crown

Saint Paul, in his merciful attempt to become “all things to all” (1 Corinthians 9:22) for the sake of preaching the gospel, often used the metaphor of “running the race” (1 Corinthians 9:24–27; Hebrews 12:1) to illustrate the virtues of discipline and perseverance in grace.

If you read his words carefully, however, you will realize that, in contrast to the vain, perishable prize of human glory sought by athletes, Saint Paul sought the eternal, unperishable crown of God’s glory. It is a crown given only to the humble, as Saint Paul knew and as the Blessed Virgin before him attested: “For He has regarded the humility of His servant; behold, therefore, from this day all generations will call me blessed.”

  

If you were to pray the Litany of Humility as it should be prayed—that is, not just saying the words but yearning for their fulfillment in your very being—you would find it impossible to play competitive sports.

  

Now, it often happens that high school and university students will pray before a game. Ironically, this only reveals the fundamental fraud of their faith: if they really trusted in God to protect them in all things, they would not be using competition with others to make themselves feel strong and powerful.

 
Going for the Gold?

The truth is, if you learn to love others as God loves us, it will simply break your heart to compete with anyone for any reason. Until you do learn this love, and as long as you cling to the illusions of your own athletic prowess, you will be like the rich man who walked away from Christ. Whereas Christ demanded humble self-sacrifice, the rich man wanted to go for the gold.

Jesus in most appropriate language treated . . . of trade and commerce with foreign nations, taking occasion at the same time to censure severely the various fashions and frivolities lately introduced from Athens. He condemned likewise the games and juggling now in use among them, and which were also spreading throughout Nazareth and other places. These games were likewise a product of their intercourse with Athens. Jesus stigmatized them as unpardonable since they that indulge in them look upon them as no sin; consequently, they do no penance for them, and therefore they cannot be pardoned.

The Life of Jesus Christ
as told by the Venerable Anne Catherine Emmerich

 
The Wisdom of Non-competition

Christianity is fundamentally a religion that values non-competition because Christ taught us to place all our trust in God while seeking our spiritual hope in His Kingdom. Therefore, all the Catholic mystics have realized that the ways of the social world are useless distractions to the spirit.

Moreover, this wisdom of non-competition and detachment from worldly success is so profound that even non-Christian philosophers have sought it.

  

THEREFORE, the sage holds in his embrace the one thing (of humility) and manifests it to all the world. He is free from self-display, and therefore he shines; from self-assertion, and therefore he is distinguished; from self-boasting, and therefore his merit is acknowledged; from self-complacency, and therefore he acquires superiority. It is because he is thus free from striving that therefore no one in the world is able to strive with him.

  

 

—Lao Tzu
The Tao Te Ching, 22.2.

 

Think about that. If you are free from striving, no one in the world is able to strive with you. That’s the first step to the real peace that everyone asks for yet rarely finds. Yes, you ask for peace. You ask for many things. But you “do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3).

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