“It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman! No, actually, it’s a 6’5″ Jamaican sprinter named Usain Bolt whizzing to the finish line of the 100-meter dash in 9.63 seconds!” This was just one of a myriad of highlights and incredible athletic performances featured at the London Olympics in the past few weeks. The world also witnessed the last curtain call of Michael Phelps who swam his way to 22 medals, 18 of which were gold, over the last 4 Olympic Games. He decided to hang up his Speedo after accomplishing every swimming goal he ever set for himself. How many of us can proclaim to have hit every goal in any area of our lives?
We saw 76 years of British heartache on Center Court at Wimbledon erased by a determined Scotsman named Andy Murray. He beat the #1 player in the world, Roger Federer, to claim gold in front of the elated British crowd. The world was awed by the quiet bravery of Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee from South Africa who ran on his Cheetah Blades down the track and into the hearts of millions.
The world witnessed an effervescent 17 year old from Colorado named Missy Franklin take home five medals despite unprecedented expectations at her first Olympic Games. We also observed the Fab Five, the American Gymnastics Team, wrest the first all-around team gold from the Russians, Chinese, and Romanians since the Magnificent Seven did it in 1996. Lastly, we saw a man who was shot multiple times in his leg several years ago and told he would never run again get the silver medal in the 4×100 Relay. Bryshon Nellum was awarded the privilege of carrying the American Flag in the Closing Ceremony due to his inspiring story.
Of course there were many, many other great stories from the 2012 Games, but it isn’t the place to mention them all here. Throughout the course of the Olympic coverage one thing became very clear every time an athlete was interviewed after they competed; many years and countless hours were spent training and perfecting their respective athletic skills. They spoke of the many sacrifices that they had to make and the laser-like focus that they maintained on their goals. It was fidelity to their training regimen on a daily basis despite aches, pains, frustrations, setbacks, and personal issues that brought them to the one moment when they could shine on the big stage and allow their training to bring them to victory. In other words, it was more than a thousand days of hidden work and faithfulness in small training routines, followed by a few days with cameras flashing and fans cheering.
This is a great illustration of the Little Way of St. Therese where thousands of days on earth are spent largely in mundane and monotonous routines followed by the Inevitable – The Big ‘D’ – DEATH. And despite what the 1934 movie ‘Death Takes a Holiday’ says, Death never takes a holiday! Just ask Brad Pitt’s character in the movie ‘Meet Joe Black’! We will die, but Christians (and many other religions) believe that the fidelity and love with which we conduct our trivial daily routines will determine how we spend out Eternity after we die. Like the Olympic athletes, we will only enjoy the Victory if we put in the thousands of hours of preparation necessary to get ready for heaven. St. Paul summarizes this notion perfectly in his First Letter to the Corinthians, “Do you know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Cor 9: 24-27)
Therese describes in her Autobiography about how her oldest sister, Marie, taught her about the theme of daily fidelity to the service of God. Therese writes that, “I sat on her lap and listened eagerly to everything she said to me. It seemed to me her large and generous heart passed into my own. Just as famous warriors taught their children the art of war, so Marie spoke to me about life’s struggles and the palm given to the victors. She spoke about the eternal riches that one can so easily amass each day, and what a misfortune it was to pass by without so much as stretching forth one’s hand to take them. She explained the way of becoming holy through fidelity in little things; furthermore, she gave me a little leaflet called “Renunciation” and I meditated on this with delight.” (Story of A Soul, p. 74) Even though the Little Way of St. Therese is much more than simply ‘fidelity in little things’, that is still an essential component. Therese understood well that because we are truly One Body in Christ, our daily sacrifices of love and fidelity can be offered up for the good of oneself, one’s family, the Church, and for humanity as a whole. Nothing goes to waste when offered in love. The athlete may console himself that he was happy just to compete when he comes up short, but he and everyone else knows that he is there to win and have a medal hung around his neck! The Christian, on the other hand, knows that although things may not turn out the way he likes, he can always be consoled that all he does is meaningful and efficacious if done in love and service. Physics has the Law of the Conservation of Energy where energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Therese teaches the Law of the Conservation of Love. Nothing is for naught with LOVE.
A few months before her death in 1897 Therese writes that, “Love is nourished only by sacrifices, and the more a soul refuses natural satisfactions, the stronger and more disinterested becomes her tenderness. How happy I am now for having deprived myself from the very beginning of my religious life! I already enjoy the reward promised to those who fight courageously. I no longer feel the necessity of refusing all human consolations, for my soul is strengthened by Him whom I wanted to love uniquely. I can see with joy that in loving Him the heart expands and can give to those who are dear to it incomparably more tenderness than if it had concentrated upon one egotistical and unfruitful love.” (Story of A Soul, p. 237) Therese teaches that small sacrifices fan the flames of love just as oxygen fans the flames of fires. These sacrifices can take on a myriad of forms. It can be the sacrifice of calling someone that we are not in the mood to call, doing the dishes when we would rather watch TV, or smiling at someone when we would rather remain in a somber mood. Doing such small actions habitually in love is our training for getting to the the Big Game of heaven.
The athletes of the London Games can teach us a very valuable lesson about the spiritual life. We would do well to remember when we observe them standing on the podium with the National Anthem playing that it was thousands of hours of preparation that got them there. The same is true of our Christian journey. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the RACE that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12: 1-2)
I wanted to mention that today is the Feast Day of St. Maximilian Kolbe. He was a Franciscan Friar who volunteered to die in the place of a stranger at the hands of the Nazis at Auschwitz. He was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1982. St. Maximilian Kolbe made the ultimate sacrifice of his own life so that a married man with children could live. We may be called to make such a big sacrifice in love, but most likely we will only be called to make many small sacrifices in love.