Christian asceticism is like athletic training for the whole person
"Win one for the Gipper.” Notre Dame fans will recognize this famous line from the pep talk given by Knute Rockne to his 1928 team and immortalized in "Knute Rockne: All American." Plagued with injuries and about to take on Army, the Irish huddle with Rockne in the locker room, where he gives his legendary speech. He tells them about George Gipp, the greatest player he had ever coached, who died in 1920 of a severe case of strep throat.
Near death, Gipp had said, “I’ve got to go, Rock. It’s all right. I’m not afraid. Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong, and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock, but I’ll know about it, and I’ll be happy.”
The Irish defeated Army, 12-6, stirred by Rockne’s moving account of Gipp’s deathbed request. “This is the day, and you are the team,” he told them. Rockne knew that if they could not win by talent, they could win by inspiration and passion.
Many lines from sports movies are memorable because they evoke images of discipline and drive, goal and gumption. Whether the stories are true or not, they entertain and motivate us.
St. Paul often used sports images to teach the meaning of Christian discipline:
“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)
“But you, man of God … pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience and gentleness. Compete well for the faith.” (1 Timothy 6:11-12)
“An athlete cannot receive the winner’s crown except by competing according to the rules.”
(2 Timothy 2:5)
“I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:6-8)
Teaching about the discipline needed to condition oneself for the kingdom of God, early Christian writers borrowed a term from the world of Greek sport: askesis — “practice,” “bodily exercise,” “athletic training.” The English word “asceticism” is derived from askesis.
Christian asceticism includes bodily conditioning — fasting and abstaining from meat, for example. It trains us to reach beyond the satisfaction of our appetites to the fulfillment of our deepest hunger.
But as Paul taught, asceticism also includes the spiritual and emotional conditioning of shedding whatever is incompatible with Christ (bickering, envy and slander, for example) and practicing virtues like patience, gentleness and devotion. Anyone who has put Paul’s teaching to work knows that doing so requires discipline and prayer. Grace is the essential requirement.
Training for the kingdom
The goal of Christian asceticism is to bring every aspect of life into conformity with the ways of God. Long ago, Abram left the land of his kinfolk and bravely set out in obedience to God’s command. The Israelites abandoned the relative comfort of Egypt to undergo the hardships of a desert journey, prodded by the promises of God.
Athletic training strives to put the body in such shape that it appears and performs optimally; it is an end in itself. Christian asceticism strives to put the whole person into such shape that he or she allows God to work his marvels; God, therefore, is its “end.”
Do I devote all I have to God? Have I surrendered all my goals to him? Am I training for the kingdom?
Christian asceticism is not a spectator sport. It is characterized by the disciplined determination of Paul, the gutsy obedience of Abraham, even the meandering attention of the Israelites. Neither is it its own origin or its own end. Its purpose is inspired and fulfilled only by the sacrificial love of Jesus whose crown was made of thorns — and whose prize is everlasting.
Send your prayer intentions to Archbishop Sartain’s Prayer List, Archdiocese of Seattle, 710 Ninth Ave., Seattle, WA 98104.
Northwest Catholic - Sept. 2014
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