The start of the Winter Olympics, as well as the recent Super Bowl win by the Philadelphia Eagles, calls to mind the words of Saint Paul in the ninth chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians. Here, Saint Paul writes about how athletes train themselves so to win the crown. We certainly see this in the athletes competing for Olympic Gold; they have made many sacrifices in order to compete. They have gotten up early, spent long hours training and have watched their diets.
Saint Paul uses these athletes as examples for Christians. He writes: “Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one” (1 Cor. 9:24-25). Saint Paul will further state how he disciplines his own body to be able to run the race and achieve the imperishable crown.
Saint Paul encourages us to win the imperishable crown. This crown is nothing less than sharing in the glory of the most Blessed Trinity, which we commonly call heaven. All that Christians do should be ordered to going to heaven. Often, heaven sits unnoticed in the back of our minds, and is seldom taken into consideration when we make decisions. A good question is: Will this lead me toward or away from heaven? Will this action glorify God or will it lead to a passing moment of quickly fading self-glory.
Saint Paul further speaks of disciplining our bodies. This starts simply with how we spend our time. We find time to do all sorts of things (go to the store, watch TV, go to the Eagles’ parade) but how often do we take time to pray, to go to church or to perform an act of charity. Taking time to pray or go to church might mean getting up a little earlier or putting off watching a show till later. Performing a charitable deed might mean giving your time or your money to something other than what you had planned.
The discipline of which Saint Paul writes also implies controlling our passions and appetites. Sometimes our appetites or passions can get the better of us, particularly in the areas of food, drink, sex, anger and even consumption of material goods. It is important to learn to strengthen our control over such passions by refraining from indulging them. This can be difficult, for it is so easy to find something with which to delight our senses. Here fasting from food can be of a great assistance; for the desert fathers taught that if one could control one’s appetite for food one could control all appetites.
All of this discipling and ordering of our lives only makes sense if we truly desire heaven. Those athletes desire to win the gold. The Eagles players desired to win the Lombardi Trophy. They made sacrifices to be in the competition. Too often things distract us from our goal. It is easy to become engrossed in the things of the world to the point of becoming forgetful of God and his invitation to partake in his glory. As stated, most of the time heaven is unnoticed in the back of our minds. It needs to come to the fore.
The Lord’s Prayer is a good way to keep heaven in mind. The first petition calls to mind God the Father, who is in heaven. Said devoutly, this should lead to a desire to be with God in heaven. This desire for being with God in heaven does not mean that our heads are up in the clouds, for we further pray that his will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Here we are asking for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit so that we may love as God, the Blessed Trinity, loves. This implies cooperating with God in his care for all of creation, beginning with mankind.
Having mentioned discipline, how opportune that Lent, a time of discipline, especially as exercised in prayer, fasting and the giving of alms, has begun. Perhaps the Lord’s prayer, prayed three times a day, could be the Lenten discipline of prayer. Surely this will strengthen the desire for heaven within our hearts, leading us to live accordingly, so to gain the imperishable crown of sharing in the Glory of God.
Father Jason Rocks is in Rome at the Pontifical North American College for Advanced Studies.