In 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a discourse entitled, Emile, or On Education. The treatise was meant to deeply explain the natures of both education and man’s ability to learn. Within its pages one finds the political and philosophical ideals of the individuality of each human person when weighed with society as a whole. In a brief but very powerful way, Rousseau explained that physical education as something that is just as important as moral formation. This was the beginning of a movement later titled as Muscular Christianity. A movement which lasted explicitly up until the early 1900’s and then implicitly within sports to today, as seen by athletes and coaches alike in the examples of Tim Tebow or Tony Dungy. In large part the movement began based upon the use of St. Paul’s athletic allegories: “…Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we van imperishable….” (1 Corinthians 9: 24-27) The theological and philosophical depth of physical training as an avenue for both moral formation and the proper understanding of discipleship is as vast as the amount of individuals involved in sports.
St. Paul understood with deep admiration the role of sports, and sports metaphors, in the life of a disciple of Christ. Think about it in terms of a mirror image. There are many similarities and a deep cohesiveness in the reality of what discipleship asks for in comparison to what sports and athletics asks for. The foundational theme of sports and athletics is discipline, without discipline, chaos ensues and championships are out of the question. The root word of both disciple and discipline comes from the Latin disciplina, meaning teaching or learning. In disciplining ourselves we become stronger disciples, learning what we are capable of in the moral order. Athletics is based upon the same principal within the physical realm. It seems to me that the discipline earned in athletics would both enhance and enrich our discipline needed to be a suitable disciple of Christ. Athletics and sports teach more than just sportsmanship, a vastly important aspect of physical education, it also can impart to us the virtues of discipleship.
Building upon the theme of discipline, in order to truly follow Christ and become his disciple, self-discipline is step No. two in the order of giving our lives to Christ; step one being surrender to the will of God. As fallen creatures in a fallen world, self-discipline is difficult. At times it seems nearly impossible with the bombardment of sin around us, but it is in shaking off our faults and putting our wills in right order in which we grow stronger in our relationship to Christ. This takes a tremendous amount of regular discipline. In athletics the same principal rings true. It is a rare thing for a person to want to wake up before the sun and go for a run. It is even more infrequent to find one who disciplines his or her body by keeping tabs on every calorie they take in. Yet it is in these times of restraint or pushing through in which the body is subdued and the mind and soul are put in its proper place in control of the lower instincts. The disciple of Christ experiences the exact same resource of willpower in subduing his own will in times of temptation or in times that might be difficult to pray. The disciple practices what St. Paul preached when he subjected his own body for the imperishable crown. (1 Corinthians 9:27)
Lorenzo Scupoli, the author of the remarkable work Spiritual Combat, repeatedly explicated upon self-knowledge as a means of perfection. It is through self-knowledge where we find out what we are capable of in things both moral and immoral. Knowing more about ourselves prepares us to know what to avoid but also where our strengths lie. This attribute is extremely important to a disciple of Christ. If we know something that might be a near occasion of sin, it takes self-knowledge to be able to avoid such cases. In knowing our weaknesses we have more opportunity to lean on He who is Strength. In the area of athletic education, the body can teach the soul this exact concept. When we regularly exercise or play sports we learn what we are capable of and what we can push through. For an athlete to know when to swing a bat, when to add more weight to the barbell, or when to take in more or less calories, it takes an intense understanding of their own bodies. In this way they grow better as athletes and in this way they grow in self-knowledge. This creates a palpable, tangible human experience for the disciple to understand and imitate Christ in a more profound way. It concretizes what the Church needs in its saints, men and women who do not lack in their self-awareness of both body and soul.
Without a shadow of a doubt, the basis of Christianity is located in the sacrifice of one man for the love of others. The sacrificial nature of love is a school of virtue within itself. So, for the follower of Christ authentic sacrifice becomes a necessity. Whether it is a mother foregoing her time for her children, or a priest surrendering his time for his spiritual children, true God-given love is based on giving and sacrifice. Within sports and athletics we absorb this quality on many levels. It hurts to push through a hard workout. It hurts to give up any sweets for ten months preparing for a competition. Yet the athlete sacrifices these things, which are inherently good because he or she sees the prize at the finale. The athlete learns what it means to put his or her body on the line for either the good of the team or the good of his or her own body. In following the path of the agonizing road to Calgary, the athlete picks himself up every time he falls because it is at the end of the path in which they find their glorious victory.
So often today we still find remnants of the Platonic errors of seeing the body as something separated from the soul. The Church highly disagrees with this notion as found in the catechism: “The unity of the soul and the body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the form of the body.” Rather than seeing the body as something that should be escaped, the Church finds that the body and soul are not two different materials but one matter in all things. When we see disciples of the magnitude of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, were it not for her body she would not have been able to reach the poor in such a profound way. John Paul II called sport a school. He stated that, “The correct practice of sport must be accompanied by practicing the virtues of temperance and sacrifice; frequently it also requires a good team spirit, respectful attitudes, the appreciation of the qualities of others, honesty in the game and humility to recognize one’s own limitations.” The disciple of Christ must learn that evangelization and love are not capable of being expressed without the human body. In disciplining the body we become more self-aware which then leads to a cavernous appreciation and willingness to sacrifice for the good of others. Sports and athleticism not only can teach the disciple about his mission, it can heighten his ability to carry it out. Rather than seeing the role of an athlete of Christ as something separate from being His disciple we can learn that they are in fact, one in the same.