Monday, February 17, 2014

Finding spirituality in the Olympic Games

"In sport and journey, men are known." George Herbert -17th century poet

The modern Olympic Games are a secular pursuit. However, we might find in them some connection with spirituality, with the inner life that motivates all individuals. 

The Olympic Charter (page 11) talks about something called “Olympism”, which it defines as “a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind.”  Olympism sounds a bit like a religion, only without a divinity or any mention of the spiritual side of the human person.

Some ancient history
The ancient Olympic Games were part of a religious festival. From at least as early as 776 BCE, male Greek citizens gathered on the plains of the sacred precinct of Olympia every four years to compete in athletic events in honor of the god Zeus. Although less well known, the ancient Greeks also held competitive games at Olympia for unmarried women in honor of the goddess Hera.

In the 5th century BCE, there were other athletic games in honor of Zeus. King Archelaus held nine days of games in Dion, a small Macedonian village on the slopes of Mount Olympus. Mount Olympus, in Greek mythology, was the home of the gods. While Archelaus’s games were not the famed Olympics, they are an example of the value that the ancient Greeks placed on the connections between body, mind and spirit.

Spirituality: the inner fire of our restlessness
In ancient Greek philosophy, there was a notion that the gods fired people into existence. Contemporary theologian Ron Rolheiser builds on this idea, and on the Christian idea of human restlessness that harkens back to Saint Augustine, in his discussion of spirituality.  Deep within every person, there is a fiery energy.  Our spirituality is what we do with the interior fire of our restlessness. In Christian thought, spirituality begins within the individual, moves outward to the community, and ultimately, culminates in a sense of mission.

During the Olympics, we witness a high level of fiery energy in the dedication, determination and competitive spirit that pushes athletes onward in hopes of owning the podium.  And while the athletes command center stage, there is a bevy of people behind the scenes who assist the athlete in realizing their dream. No athlete becomes an Olympian without a community; the community plays a pivotal role in helping the athlete channel their inner fire.

While some might consider restlessness something to avoid, I think that human restlessness, when appropriately directed, is beneficial for us as individuals, and for human society. On the personal level, the fire within us can prod us towards higher levels of achievement than we might ordinarily expect to attain. And, when a group of individuals harness their collective energy in support of a shared goal they can make a difference in the world.

Olympism: Sport at the service of human dignity
Although I have no wish to idealize the Olympic movement, because like any human institution with lofty goals (including religion) it contains the potential for hypocrisy, I detect something akin to spirituality in the goal of Olympism defined in the Olympic Charter: “to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” There may be a spiritual aspect to Olympism in the passion of the athlete, in the guidance and commitment of the community that surrounds the athlete, and in Olympism’s goal of service to the common good.

Within the last few days, there have been some inspiring stories that demonstrate the harnessing of the fiery energy of athletic competition and a willingness to serve the common good.   The sportsmanship of Canadian cross-country ski coach Justin Wadsworth who rushed to help a Russian skier, and the selflessness of speed skater Gilmore Junio who gave up his spot to teammate Denny Morrison may have nothing to do with faith or religion, per se, but there is a spirituality to these actions that reveals the inner life of the individual. 

As the 17th century poet George Herbert observed “in sport and journey men are known.”  

Sunday, February 2, 2014

"Sam, Sam the grader man" and other minor characters in the movie of my life

I hadn't thought about Sam for years. He was a minor figure in my childhood who made a lasting impression on me because of his sensitivity to kids.  When I started thinking about Sam, I began to remember other adults who briefly figured in my childhood for similar reasons.  All were unassuming, humble and kind, and they were celebrities in my mind.  Below is my recent newspaper column and Troy Media post.

"Sam, Sam the grader man" made a splash in the movie of my life
You don’t need to win an Academy Award to make a splash in the movie of someone’s life.

I was reminded of this when I read Sam’s obituary in my local paper. Sam worked in the village where I grew up and where I settled after a stint in the big city. While I quickly came to respect Sam for the precision and efficiency with which he did his job when I became a village homeowner and taxpayer, I remember him most vividly from my childhood days. 

As children, we knew Sam as “Sam, Sam the grader man”, a nickname that expressed our universal liking for the man with whom most of us had never even spoken. We called Sam “the grader man” because he operated the grater, which in those days, doubled as the snowplow.

A terrifying machine
The grader was a noisy, brute of a machine, and for some of us little kids trudging to and from school on a snowy winter’s day, the grader would have been terrifying except for Sam. After a heavy snowfall, when I heard the grader at the end of my street in the morning, I would pray that “Sam, the grader man” would be on duty that day.

When I saw Sam at the controls, I always breathed a bit easier because Sam would pull the grader with its massive and frightening blade over to the side, and pause to let us pass.  If for some reason he could not do this, he would slow down, make eye contact with us, and give us a little wave as if to say, “Don’t be afraid, don’t worry. I see you.”  Sam’s wave allayed our fears of the adult world and reassured us that our little lives mattered.

Sam was not the only grown up who made a splash as a minor actor in the movie of my childhood. Two women, each of whom left an impression on me spiritually, readily come to mind.

Two memorable women
One was my first grade catechism teacher. Class was held in her home after school, and while I remember only one lesson from that year, on Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, I will always remember the teacher’s warmth, gentleness and kindness; her very person conveyed the idea that while our mistakes might get us kicked out of the garden, love would take us back there.

The other woman sponsored a sodality for teenage girls. We prayed around the chrome and arborite kitchen table in her home, and we discussed church teaching and moral-ethical issues. More than any specific topic, I remember our sponsor’s non-judgmental and loving approach that challenged us to expand our viewpoints, improve our relationships and nurture our souls.

The people who deserve admiration are right in front of us
In the movie of my life, Sam and these two women were like actors who make memorable cameo appearances, appearing in a scene or two before exiting the stage.  In the eyes of the viewing audience, they wouldn’t qualify for an Academy nomination let alone an Oscar, but to my childhood eyes, Sam and these women were celebrities. Their quiet, unassuming ways made a deep impression on me. They walked humbly and acted kindly and in doing so, each of them graced my childhood in their own unique fashion.

Often, as a society, we obsess over the rich and famous; yet, it is unlikely that the celebrities we fawn over will positively influence us personally in a meaningful or permanent way. More often than not, the people who touch our lives and are most deserving of our admiration are right in front of us; they are the Sams of our life, and our movie would be less without them.

The film of my life will never be “Best Picture” material. I’m hoping, though, that if I live well enough, somewhere within my daily and ordinary existence, there will be an Oscar winning performance, one small scene where I will be somebody's "Sam."

Postscript: I received an email from a reader who knew Sam, and attended his retirement party. She recollected that one of the speaker's referred to Sam as "the greater man", a fitting tribute, in my mind, to the "grader man" who made an impact on us.