I spent most of yesterday at a gathering for some of the very best college athletes in the area. I like athletics, probably because I have been a life-long athlete (at least, that is my story!) Playing athletics was always fun for me. And I know that athletics are often touted as a good way to prepare for life and leadership, etc. For the most part, I believe this is true. But there is always enough nasty news about athletics to know that it is not true in every case. The fact is, all athletes are humans and that means they are subject to all the glory and foibles of every human being.
The athletic event yesterday rightly touted the past accomplishments of the participants and anticipated the even greater hopes for the days ahead. That, too, is fully human---to stand between the past history of our accomplishments and future hopes of better days ahead.
When we laud the accomplishments of athletes, it is typical to recognize their commitment, their discipline and hard work. We talk about the character they form in the process. Most good athletes are praised for their team allegiance. I always hoped this was true for myself as an athlete. And by and large, I think it is true for athletes, as I know them. This is certainly the standard to which coaches and others hold the athlete. Nothing wrong with that.
You might wonder why I spend so much time talking about athletics in a spiritual inspirational piece. On the surface that might not seem relevant. After all, athletics is just a game. Spirituality is life. It is not a game. It is very serious and, perhaps, ought not to be mixed up with games and athletes. It is easy for me to see this critique.
If I did not know Greek, I might agree wholeheartedly with this critique. But because I know Greek, I am aware that our English word, athlete, is nothing more than an English rendering of the Greek word, athlete. If I see this Greek word, athlete, I can translate it with words like competitor, warrior and player in a contest. It certainly is associated with games and contests, like our athletic events today. One can think of the ancient Greek Olympics and know athletes competed.
But the word, athlete, does not have to be a sports’ term. The early Christian Church, which widely wrote in the Greek language, used the term, athlete, to describe people engaged seriously in the spiritual journey. In fact, I could refer you to numerous texts in those early Christian centuries where the author talks about “spiritual athletes.” By using such a phrase, the author appropriates everything the word, athlete, means and applies that to the spiritual person. Let’s look at how this plays out.
A spiritual athlete is someone who is recognized for his or her commitment, discipline and hard work---the same description for the sport athlete. This seems quite clear to me. A spiritual athlete surely is deeply committed to God, the Holy One, the Ultimate Source of the Universe---however you want to describe the source of their commitment. Commitment is more than a mere belief---an idea of God. Commitment is a willful engagement and allegiance to the Holy One. It is a desire to make that One the ultimate in one’s relationship.
For sure, the spiritual athlete is committed to the necessary discipline to be a spiritual athlete---and not simply a spectator in life. The spiritual disciplines enable the disciple to be in spiritual shape. Discipline helps the athlete persevere through tough times. Discipline means the spiritual athlete is in shape to go the whole way. The spiritual athlete will be a winner---whatever that means in spiritual terms.
Spiritual athletes are willing to do the hard work that athletics know they must do. I can even imagine the spiritual athlete saying that hard work is good for the soul---soul work, as I like to call it. Soul work asks us to reflect on life and work to grow and develop spiritually. It asks for as to develop hearts committed to social justice and compassion. It asks us to work for the good of others---to place our self lower than our neighbor.
Certainly spiritual athletes develop character. Character means a virtuous life. Character defines the spiritual person who acts with integrity---who is dependably good and trustworthy. This does not suggest the spiritual athlete is perfect. Spiritual athletes make mistakes, just as athletes in sports make mistakes. But in both case, both athletes learn from their mistakes and develop a higher level of prowess.
Finally, in the spiritual athlete there also is a form of team allegiance. The spiritual athlete is committed to community building---fostering spiritual ties and allegiances across various boundaries. Spiritual athletes have big, broad visions. Ultimately, it is the whole of humanity redeemed and brought into the unity of the Spirit.
My playing days may be over…but I am a spiritual athlete till my dying day.