Bronwyn Lawrie, Youth Speak News

Faith lessons via sport

By  Bronwyn Lawrie, Youth Speak News
  • March 28, 2012

When I compare the number of hours I spend acquiring blisters and backaches travelling miles in a rowing shell to the time I spend at Mass or in prayer, I feel sheepish. To paraphrase St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:27, athletes chase after perishable wreaths. 

As a member of my university’s varsity rowing team, my days are structured around these wreaths: practice, second practice, regattas and recovery. 

I used to feel guilty about this. Sports and games can seem like essentially useless activities. With the time and energy I spend training, I could be doing something spiritually “productive.” In the grand scheme of things, there’s not much point in beating people just for the sake of beating them. 

But this fall I started talking with a new recruit to our team who is also Christian. She showed me a quote from Chariots of Fire, a movie about the Scottish athlete and missionary Eric Lidell. He withdrew from his best Olympic event, the 100-metre dash, because heats were on a Sunday and he refused to race on the Sabbath. The quote: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

When I row, I feel like I’m flying, to the point where I forget to think and slip into the sheer joy of movement for its own sake. I never thought that God could delight in my delight.

After that conversation, I started to unpack the rest of 1 Corinthians. Depending on the translation, athletes “go into strict training,” “exercise self control” and exercise “discipline.” Learning to give up things I like (beer) and to do things I don’t like (4:30 a.m. wakeup, -5 C practices) has taught me that the best rewards often require sacrifice. If winning a race or making it to Heaven were easy, everyone would be doing it. Nose hair icicles don’t exactly compare to the sacrifices of the martyrs, but cultivating discipline through sport often helps me persevere in spiritual matters—or at least to recognize when I’m not doing my best.

I’ve heard it said that living in community takes the rough edges off of you. The acts of being a good teammate — helping before being asked, showing love to those who feel left out and learning to bite my tongue — are all frequent reminders of St. Thérèse’s “little way.” 

The high-pressure environment of competition and training also forces me to learn about myself. Seeing how I react to failure, to success, to following someone else’s leadership and leading others, I often learn things about myself that I’d rather not know. But knowing myself, even the ugly bits, is the first step to self-mastery. If nothing else, I learn where I need God’s grace the most.

Perhaps I’d still feel guilty about “wasted” time if I only cared about beating others. But St. Paul never said that pursuing perishable wreaths can’t teach us how to pursue the prize that really matters. In faith, as in sports, “I do not run aimlessly nor do I box as though shadowboxing.” (1 Col 9:26). I wish to fight the good fight and finish the race.

(Lawrie, 20, is a creative writing student at the University of Victoria.)

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