I’ve always been Catholic, but for years now the lives of the saints have struck me as falling somewhere an a continuum from disheartening to repugnant. Their extreme asceticism and renunciation was an ideal that was either unattainable or disgusting, though I knew I had to find some way to see it as good. The few times I actually tried fasting I found it illuminating and beneficial, but the insight seemed hard to keep one’s focus on, and so I’d find myself looking at the saints with the same yuck-feelings. If that’s sanctity, I thought, it’s a life for someone else. This post is not about shaking off those feelings – most of them remain. But I have found ways to contextualize them in helpful ways, most of all by seeing spirituality as a sort of athletic activity.
Askesis is from the root Askeo meaning to train or to exercise, where (as in English) the central meaning of the term is athletic training. Paul, who was nothing if not combative and energetic, uses the term everywhere as metaphor for the spiritual life, though most quotably in 2 Tim. 4:7 “I have fought the good fight” . The locus classicus of this spirituality is 1 Cor. 9: 24-27:
Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain.
25And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible.
26I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air:
27But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.
Now athletic training is on the one hand good for everyone, and on the other hand impossible for all but a few. There’s almost certainly a team or a sport out there for everyone, from kindergarten t-ball to geriatric water-robics. But to be an athlete simpliciter is the province of a few. The value of being an athlete simply (or, nowadays, a professional) is certainly not in providing an activity that anyone can perform, and the fact that almost no one can perform it will always be a part of the goodness it offers. But while almost no one can participate in professional sports as an athlete, we nevertheless can derive great meaning from participating in them as spectators, followers, and fans. This might be a part of the older attraction to patron saints.
Now if you understood the saints as giving an ideal that we are all called to, sanctity could only be disheartening. You might as well tell me to compete in the Olympics or win the heavyweight title. That’s not happening. Even the first stage of the process isn’t happening. But one can love the performance of the saints- we’re even called to love it. This love doesn’t spur action in the sense of making me think I should do it myself – it’s part of the very attraction of the saints that they are doing what I am incapable of. But fandom to the saints does spur changes in action in a different way: it redefines one’s sense of glory, promotes the value of spiritual good, and gives a deeper sense of the church as a place where we participate in spiritual excellence in part by cheering for things we could never do ourselves.