There is something amazing about watching the best athletes compete. In astounding feats of physical prowess, they stretch the human body to its physical and mental limits. Throw in a healthy dose of national pride, and you get the glory of the Olympic Games. Thousands of competitors from all over the world converge in one place for a great festival of sport, most of them competing in front of crowds larger than they have ever experienced, and all of them watched by massive audiences worldwide. This is probably the only time over the next four years that most Americans will even think about track and field or gymnastics, volleyball or water polo, and that’s not even mentioning the sports that don’t usually make prime time, like badminton, team handball, and men’s field hockey.
For those of us who realize we could never even qualify for the Olympics, there is a joy in marveling at what is so far beyond our reach and a wonder at the achievements of others. We can even find ourselves pulling hard for complete strangers. We may not have been training since we were little kids, building up our muscles, practicing complex skills, and pushing our bodies to the limit, but we can appreciate the effort and the sacrifice of those who have. In some way, we can participate in the joy of great athletes achieving greatness, and commiserate with those who fall short, all from the comfort of our living room.
While being a spectator can bring a certain pleasure, it can be dangerous if it discourages us from achieving what truly is within our own power. If the realization that we could never win a gold medal leaves us with a desire simply to watch others perform amazing feats, we will never accomplish those perfectly ordinary feats that can keep us healthy ourselves. This attitude is particularly dangerous when it creeps into our spiritual lives. Like the achievements of Olympic athletes, the marvelous deeds of the saints can seem so far beyond our own power that we become discouraged and give up even attempting anything similar. We can fall into the trap of honoring and appreciating the saints as wonderful specimens of the Christian life, while being content simply to go on leading our lives in the same way we always do, hoping to slip into heaven by the skin of our teeth.
Comparing sanctity to athleticism can be useful—St. Paul does exactly that several times in his letters—but we must be careful taking the comparison too far. There is a certain discipline involved our sanctification; we must control our passions and avoid evil, just as an athlete must follow a certain diet and dedicate himself to a rigorous training regimen. Again, so many athletes started training as children and have been working at it full-time ever since, and most of us realize that our chance at Olympic glory passed a long time ago; but does this mean our chance at sanctity has passed as well? We may be tempted to think, “Sure, if I had gotten started right and had been taught differently as a child and hadn’t made so many mistakes in adolescence or young adulthood, I might have a chance to be a saint; but now I’ll just have to settle for watching great saints from the comfort of my average life.”
This attitude betrays a misunderstanding of the true nature of the spiritual life. While athletes can have a lot of help from parents and coaches and teammates, this is not enough. Their success ultimately depends upon their own talent and effort. On the other hand, while a saint can also receive assistance from parents, spiritual directors, and friends, even these, combined with his best effort, is not enough to make him holy. For that, he must depend on the grace of God.
But this grace is not simply a final piece of the puzzle, stingily handed out to a select few. Rather, it is freely offered to all of us, and it has the power to make up for all the things that, considered in a purely human way, we may seem to lack. We may have missed out on our chance for a gold medal long ago, but the truly imperishable crown of sanctity is always available to us, if we will simply cooperate with God’s grace.