Although I’m usually apathetic about sports, last month I found myself engrossed by competitions I didn’t even know existed when I turned on the Summer Olympics.
Speed walking, table tennis and water polo are not usually on my radar, but watching the news with my morning coffee, I was engrossed as Elena Lashmanova and Olga Kaniskina of Russia strutted towards an emotional finish, beating Shenjie Qieyang of China in the Women’s 20K Race Walk.
It boggled my mind that this was an event and that apparently it’s owned by the women of Russia and China.
Part of the appeal of the Olympics is this temporary broadening of our horizons, reminding us that people compete and excel in sports besides football and baseball.
The international stage that is the Olympics is full of many surprises and my favorite moments were from unknown athletes showing up and competing in almost-unknown sports.
I remember having a similar feeling when I was in college. Not because of my athletic abilities — I am consistently klutzy.
However, as a high school student I was the “church girl” and thought that God was awfully lucky to have me on His team. I sang in the choir, went to youth group and got a 105 percent of my Confirmation exam — there was extra credit.
I felt that compared to all my peers who were not singing in the choir and couldn’t name the cardinal virtues, I was in really good shape.
My sense of holiness was based not on God, but by the actions of those around me.
Much like an athlete arriving at an international venue and discovering that there are many who are faster, stronger and better than they are, I left my parish for college and discovered that many of my peers sang in the choir, were active in their youth group and also passed their Confirmation exams with flying colors. Some of them even had plaques of recognition.
I felt defeated to discover that I wasn’t nearly as on top of my spirituality game as I thought I was.
My mistake had been comparing myself to others instead of Christ. Michael Phelps didn’t train next to the local YMCA swim team and Gabby Douglas didn’t just practice her somersaults with classmates during recess.
They — and all athletes serious about perfecting their skills — found coaches and teammates that pushed them to be the best in their field, not just their neighborhood.
Similarly, if we’re serious about growing in holiness, we need to use authentic measurements. As Catholics, we’re blessed with many: Hebrews reminds us that we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” — the entire Communion of Saints whose lives are held up as examples for us to model. Also helpful are daily examinations of conscience, and regular confession.
Most importantly, we can look to Christ, “the leader and perfecter of faith” (Heb 12:2) to ensure that we see holiness not as a competition with others, but a genuine pursuit of the person of Christ.