Consider this my “overthinking the Super Bowl” post. (Wait till I get to the Olympics!)
First things first: I’ve always loved sports, and I’ve always enjoyed the Super Bowl. I just love the pure fun of competition, and at least during my adult life I’ve thought that sport reveals something about the human condition and the human psyche. (Especially the male psyche; I say this having coached rowing for a number of years, both men and women of all ages.)
As I get older, though, I’m more fascinated by the expression of desire in sport. Why do we want to win? Why will the Dwight Freeneys of the world submit themselves to pain just for the chance to play and win? Why do athletes embrace ascetic practices (askesis comes from the Greek, meaning to exercise) for the sake of glory?
The answer is in Homer’s Iliad. Describing the soldiers’ anticipation of the war, he describes them “rejoicing,” as if to suggest that the war itself is the place where they will fulfill what their lives are for. Later, after the death of a key figure, Patroclus, the Greeks pause in the midst of war and celebrate the fallen warrior’s life with Olympic-style games. War and games are the proving grounds, the arenas within which each man proves his mettle, shows his excellence. War and games are the place where a man shows his deepest desire: to be worthy of life.
Ignatius knew this. He was a soldier, and his conversion to a life following Christ was hard precisely because over time he came to understand that he had to re-train his desire. His early post-conversion life was still rooted in seeking excellence; in his autobiography, for example, he describes the awkward scene when he was ready to kill a man who had disparaged the Blessed Virgin. The will to win was still embedded in his psyche, and if it were not for the fact that he let the donkey he was riding on decide which way to go at a fork in the road, he would have committed murder.
Ignatius learned to let go of the desire to win by embracing more and more Christ’s invitation to serve him. A new form of askesis emerged, a form rooted in Saint Paul’s model of straining for the high calling in Christ Jesus (see Philippians 3:14)–a calling that paradoxically involved letting go of competition.
There is something deeply rooted in the psyche of males, young and old. Boys wrestle and fight and compete; men want to one-up each other. War and games are two sides of the same coin of competition for the sake of glory. What Paul and Ignatius teach us is that the desire to compete is rooted in an even deeper desire. Underneath the desire to be worthy of life is a desire to know and be known by the author of life, to find radical freedom in the radical obedience to the author of my life. And that deeper desire cannot be satisfied with competition. (Achilles, the unsurpassed hero of the Greeks, was miserable.) It can be satisfied, Ignatius realized, only in a life founded upon the praise, reverence, and service of God, so radically that everything else in life serves that single end. It culminates not in competition, but in love–not in the attitude of overcoming one’s enemies, but in the sacrifice of self that enables enemies to become friends. In short, in the imitation of Christ.