“Rivalry ought really to be considered a good.”
The Dominican saint Catherine de Ricci wrote this provocative statement in a letter on Palm Sunday. Her words seem to parallel those of Gordon Gekko, the notorious villain from Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, who proclaimed, “the point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” St. Paul condemns Gekko in writing, “The love of money is the root of all evils” (1 Tm 6:10). He also seems to condemn Catherine’s words: “It is true that some of them are doing it just out of rivalry and competition, but the rest preach Christ with the right intention” (Phil 1:15).
St. Paul is speaking of the rivalry likely to lead to strife, war, and contention, the rivalry in which one ultimately supplants another in some field. The late Catholic philosopher René Girard spoke of how conflict arises from one person imitating another person’s desire. In rivalry, two desire and compete for the same prize, and “the winner takes all.” And many have cheated, slandered, sabotaged, or plundered for the sake of some trophy, medal, laurel, or seat. In addition to obtaining the prized good, there’s the additional desire to be the one to get it. A Buckeye win also means a Michigan loss.
St. Catherine, however, speaks of a “holy rivalry”–one that doesn’t include envy or inhibiting one’s neighbor. She exclaims, “by holy rivalry and a thirst for the heavenly spring we must hasten with great vigor; without an obstacle in anyone’s way, we must strive to advance.” She’s touching on the words of Christ, “If any man desire to be first, he shall be the last of all” (Mk 9:35). It’s paradoxical that one is supposed to run so as to win (1 Cor 9:24) and yet be last.
St. Paul and Girard warn us of the rivalry that pits one against another for a finite prize. In this way, if one wins, another loses; if one is last, one receives nothing. Yet, St. Catherine explains that the winner of the Christian race does not deprive another: “For a thief, in an instant, swiftly ran to beat all the others and be worthy to be the first one at the victory, which he took away from none of those who were called to it.”
One excellent example of a holy rivalry comes from the Cappadocian fathers Saints Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus. They both pursued the life of holiness with the vigor St. Catherine mentions, but they did not see the other’s success as their loss. St. Gregory writes of their vying:
The same hope inspired us: the pursuit of learning. This is an ambition especially subject to envy. Yet between us there was no envy. On the contrary, we made capital out of our rivalry. Our rivalry consisted not in seeking the first place for oneself but in yielding it to the other, for we each looked on the other’s success as his own.
Ss. Basil and Gregory demonstrate how a friendly rivalry enjoys the good of the other, and St. Catherine demonstrates a rivalry with self and sin. She exorts her readers to live life like the Good Thief as he was on the cross, to marvel at God Incarnate. She writes, “[Christ] ran His race with our nature, so swiftly and to meet such a passion.” Roused by His example, and following after Him, all Christians ought to race to Calvary in rivalry seeking their infinite prize. Catherine writes of the trophy as seen on this side of heaven—the One Our Lady hugged at the foot of the Cross: “We have competed and have found the red and ruddy trophy, which is Jesus on the Cross, sprinkled with blood and deathly pale in the cause of love.”
Image: Rogier van der Weyden, Lamentation