The Spiritual Olympics

By Julianne Stanz | Special to the Compass | September 14, 2021

During the recent 2020 Olympic Games, the world witnessed many heroic and mighty acts of athleticism and sportsmanship, with its many surprises, ups and downs. But it’s important to remember that what we see during the Olympic Games is but one snapshot of a moment in time that took years to come together. Coaches and athletes from across the world pledged their time, energy and gifts to their respective sports. This entailed many sacrifices, both personally and professionally. 

Recently, I sat down with my spiritual director, Fr. Jim, and we talked about our favorite moments from the Olympic Games. For me, it was seeing Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy win Ireland’s first gold medal in rowing, the two men beaming with pride. As a small island nation, Olympic medals are a rarity indeed and gold medals or, as we say in Ireland, “as rare as hen’s teeth!”

For Fr. Jim, his favorite moment took place during the men’s 800-meter semifinal race. Isaiah Jewett of the United States, who was a first-time Olympian, was in third position with Nijel Amos of Botswana in fourth place. Both racers were approaching the final turn at great speed when, suddenly, Amos fell over, taking Jewett with him to the ground. Both men fell hard on the track. 

In that moment, all their years of training faded away, their medal chances were dashed and their dreams were shattered. It was a crushing blow to Jewett and his Olympic hopes. But without missing a beat, Jewett turned and extended his hand and lifted Amos to his feet. Amos shook Jewett’s hand and then put his arm over his shoulder. Both men ran through the finish line together. It was an incredible moment. It was a special moment. It was a holy moment.

At a press conference, Jewett was later asked what was going through his head when he fell over and saw Amos on the ground. He responded that, “regardless of how mad you are, you have to be a hero at the end of the day. And that was my version of trying to be a hero, standing up and showing good character, even if it’s my rival or whoever I’m racing.” He then told the reporter that he felt “super blessed” just to be at the Olympic Games.

Fr. Jim looked at me and asked, “What do you think it would look like if there were a Spiritual Olympic Games and all Christians had to participate in some way?” While I waxed lyrical about all the different possibilities for Christians to participate, I stopped myself and asked Fr. Jim what he thought. He smiled, and said, “I think the Spiritual Olympics would look very much like this moment between Jewett and Amos — one Christian helping another get to the ultimate finish line.”

Such wisdom indeed. For all of us, heaven is that ultimate finish line, for it is a reality that faces us all. Jewett’s witness reminds us that, while the world might look for heroes, what we are striving for is sainthood, even in the midst of seeing our dreams completely shattered. How we respond is a test of our character and the strength of our faith, as I was reminded recently when my 6-year-old asked, “Mom, what planet is closest to heaven?” What a question!

Without getting into too much detail — and reminding him that heaven is a state, not a place — I instead chose a simple answer, keeping Jewett and Amos in mind. “The closest planet to heaven is Earth, Son,” I told him. “Jesus lived here and shows us the best way to get there.” He seemed satisfied enough, at least for now.

It is the way in which we live our lives here on Earth that determines what happens in the next. As the old response to the question and answer from the Baltimore Catechism teaches us — “Why did God make us? God made us to know him, to love him and to serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in the next” — we make our way to heaven from Earth. Now that’s a Spiritual Olympic task for each one of us indeed.

Stanz is director of parish life and evangelization for the Diocese of Green Bay and author of “Start with Jesus: How Everyday Disciples Will Renew the Church” (Loyola Press).

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