Wednesday, April 20, 2011

FINISHING THE RACE: CHRIST AS ATHLETE AND AGONISTE

MATTHIAS GRÜNEWALD
DETAIL FROM THE ISENHEIM ALTARPIECE
Hi folks, it's Holy Week in case you haven't noticed and I have in fact fled to the desert outside Joshua Tree National Park to pray to and with my Savior. Actually, from where I'm staying I can walk into the park, via Covington Flats Road. No internet so I'm in the Yucca Valley Starbucks headed for 8:15 Mass at St. Mary of the Valley...sometime during Lent, now I can't remember where, I swear I read that St. Francis of Assisi considered failing to celebrate daily Mass akin to a crime...did anyone else see that, in Magnificat maybe, or the Office of Readings? If so, let me know cause it has stuck in my head...

Anyway, I borrowed a bunch of books from my friend Julia before coming out, among them short stories by Gogol, Aesop's Fables, The Turn of the Screw (which I've only read about five times) and The Best American Essays 2008.

For one thing I was pleasantly surprised to find in the latter my essay "Sooner or Later, Delicate Death" (North Dakota Quarterly, Winter 2007) had a "Notable Essay" (i.e. runner-up, consolation prize) in the back, which I hadn't even known about. But more to the point, I came across an essay that braced me no end: "Where God Is Glad," by Joe Wenderoth, which is about a Baltimore...not exactly a strip club but a joint that reminds me of the bars where I used to drink near the end of my run in Boston. The place is called Tony's and the first time Wenderoth goes in  the roster consists of a woman who weighs 270 pounds, another with a misshappen arm, a third, "a thin, middle-aged blond woman (thin save for a beer belly, that is)." The sign for the place is misspelled and the girls go around after and collect a buck tip.

Here's an excerpt:

"The ladies have changed over the years, and continually, but the essence of the ladies has not. I recall one night I was in there with a friend, and mostly it was Eastern European young women dancing, but there was one straight-up Baltimore woman. So she dances and then descends and makes her way down to us to get her dollars. Wanting to make conversation, my friend says: "Hey, what's up with the patch on your arm--quitting smoking."
"Oh, no," she says, "it's painkiller."
"Oh, man, what do you need that for?"
"Bone cancer," she says, and moves along to the next guy down the bar...

Tony's is more like a hospital, really, than a strip club. Or many it's better to say a hospice. The sort of place wherein no one thinks about the prospect of discharge. At Tony's, one thinks: Life will never be better than this; I am sick...But there is something that's still missing from the analogy. Think of it as a hospice in which there is a celebration going on!..."

A hospice with a celebration going on is one very good way to describe the Crucifixion and Resurrection and corroborates for me one more time that Christ is about life, and the weirdest, most head-shaking life imaginable, which is what life is. This was the first I'd heard of Joe but you can be sure I already have his collection, The Holy Spirit of Life: Essays Written for John Ashcroft's Secret Self, on reserve at the library.

Also speaking of the Crucifixion, here's a reflection tying in my run on the Winnacunnet High girls' basketball team, motherhood, and Mount Calvary.


FINISHING THE RACE

Even as a sophomore in high school, on the girls’ basketball team, I had a Greek sense of the nobility of the athlete. I once wrote that I was willing to die for those girls, my teammates, and I wasn’t entirely kidding. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith,” observed St. Paul (2 Timothy 4:7), and to follow Christ, you do have to be an athlete of sorts. You have to train in loneliness, in poverty, in being persecuted, in pain, and misunderstood, in resisting a culture that encourages you to anaesthetize yourself, to take the shortcut, to not feel or think.

Years ago I read a column by Ron Rolheiser: “The Agony In The Garden - The Place To Ready Ourselves For Ordeals.” 

Rolheiser wrote:

Luke's account of Gethsemane says this of Jesus: "And being in a certain agony (AGONIA), he prayed more earnestly." This word, AGONIA, doesn't just describe the intensity of Jesus' suffering, but also his readying of himself for the painful task that awaits. How?

An athlete doesn't enter the arena of competition without first properly warming up and, at the time this text was written, a serious athlete would warm up for a competition by first working himself or herself into a certain intense sweat, a lather, an AGONIA, so that he or she wouldn't enter the competition with cold muscles…

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus dies before he dies and in that way readies himself for what awaits him”...

Sports is a rudimentary form of self-sacrifice. You bond with your teammates and, together, consecrate yourselves to something higher. You “die” to yourself in favor of the shared goal of winning the game. This form of self-sacrifice, calling forth a deep nobility, underlies the family, politics, and war. You lay down your life for your teammates, your family members, your country.

But there is one thing higher, and that is to lay down your life for all mankind. To lay down your life not just for your own family, but for everyone’s family. To lay down your life not only for your friends, but for your enemies. To love each other as we are loved by Christ. Christ: the sinless victim who could have vaporized the entire Roman army with a word, but who chose not to. Christ, who could have knocked over the chalice with a glance, but who chose instead to drink it to the last drop. Christ who could have chosen to be impervious, untouchable, unwoundable, but instead became one of us.

To let go of the fruits of our work, our lives, is in some sense to die. Behind all true spiritual pilgrimage is the willingness to relinquish control. You’re moved to leave something behind and go, without knowing why or how the journey will end. You have to be willing to not be “productive” or efficient or relevant. You have to be willing to have “nothing” happen. You have to know that your pilgrimage, your contest, is a matter of life and death.

A runner friend of mine once described a race during the course of which she made a conscious decision to put the focus not on winning but on letting go. “My surrender of autonomy came in the form of declining to measure effort in a rational or strategic way. It was really a sacrifice of focus or drive. In racing, this is a tremendous risk, usually a grave mistake”…

Again, Christ’s passion comes to mind. The intention, focus, and drive remain absolute: but the object is not so much to win, as it is in a race or a war, but to offer oneself up, to relinquish control over the results (while still, of course, wanting to “win.” i.e. there’s nothing in it of resignation, or giving up, or out of false modesty, allowing the adversary to win). Faith consists in just this “letting go” into a way of being we can’t yet imagine: startling, new. Interesting that the “aching, ugly, beautiful moment” this same runner described experiencing later in the race could also have been applied to childbirth.

The Crucifixion was Christ’s “race.” He trained all his life. He took the gravest of risks. Like my runner friend, he declined to measure effort in a rational or strategic way. He worked up his bloody sweat, his agonia, in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before. He endured betrayal, scorn, ridicule, and all the evil in men’s hearts. He bore the scourge, the crown of thorns, the sponge soaked in gall, the nails. With his last drop of strength, he consoled the thief beside him. With his dying breath, he commended his spirit to God. He refused to return violence for violence and thereby established the eternal triumph of faith over fear, love over hatred, good over evil, life over death. He finished the course.

And there at the foot of the cross stood Mary. Torn with grief, but still standing. In anguish, in horror, but still standing. With the sorrow of the world on her shoulders but still standing.

For to his finest, most sublime hour--as any great athlete would--Christ had invited his mother.


I walked for an hour and a half yesterday afternoon through the chaparral, scrub, Joshua trees, and mountains, and sobbed half the way so it's good I'm out here. Thank you all for helping to...sustain my strange little existence.

The Mother is Still Standing...

12 comments:

  1. Heather,

    Another excellent post! I can totally relate to how athletics are a basic form of mortification. Just this past Monday, I decided to jog as far as I could. I ended up jogginig for about 3 miles. But the most important thing about it all was that I suffered greatly while I was running. My lungs felt like they were on fire, my legs felt deadly sore, so sore that I thought they would buckle at any moment. Worst of all was the mental temptation, to quit, to procrastinate, to not run at all. Fortunately I did persevere and I was able to finish the race right in front of Majestic Gateway National Park in New Jersey. As I heard the roaring waters, and smelled the salty air I knew that I had arrived, it was type of resurrection for me, while the journey there was Calvary.

    You can check out my blog at www.marcominute.blogspot.com

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  2. Hey there! I emailed you recently about your query re doing a guest blog...I was thinking part of the other agony of the Crucifixion must have been...the fact that it was so public. When I really exert myself, I don't like anyone looking at me! I want to sweat and contort and weep and whatever else in private...that a Man so exquisitely sensitive should have given up what should have been his most private hour to us...

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  3. Heather

    I have recently discovered you and your writings. You have a new fan. Continue your journey. Do not falter. Stay strong. What you are doing is worthwhile.

    Philip

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  4. Haven't heard about that St. Francis quote, but I do remember Dorothy Day being advised shortly after her conversion by one of her early spiritual directors to go to daily mass. When she replied that doing so was for elderly women and saints only, the good priest told her it was food for the journey, and we needed as much nourishment from the Eucharist as possible to become saints ourselves. And Day rarely missed daily mass for the rest of her life.

    I'm paraphrasing, I know, and probably badly remembering the story. It may be in The Long Loneliness, or in From Union Square to Rome, neither of which I have handy at the moment.

    May your desert days be fruitful! I'm praying to be able to get to a "desert" myself, as it were, at the end of May, God willing.

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  5. "Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much..."

    ~Mike D.

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  6. Jason, yes! I think I had this as an epigraph in one of my books:

    When I moved to the East Side, I went to a Salesian priest, Father Zossima. It was he who urged me to go to daily communion. I had thought this was only for the old or the saintly, and I told him so. “Not at all,” he said. “You go because you need food to nourish you, for your pilgrimage on this earth.”
    --Dorothy Day, Loaves and Fishes

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  7. Wonderful post Heather.

    Have a good and peaceful Easter.

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  8. I checked out the Joe Wenderoth book "The Holy Spirit of Life..." from the library and began to peruse the chapters looking for an interesting story. I was not, I guess, mentally prepared though for his chapter on 25 ways have sex without actually having sex. I could not get past it, and took the book out of my house and put it in my car to return it to the library the next day. After you read it, you might be able to tell me if it was just "what is was", or, was it some kind of modern irony on the depths we will plunge into to avoid the sex act? Thanks.

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  9. Oh dear--that doesn't sound good. All I can say is I loved the essay I mentioned. Once my own library copy arrives, I'll take a look and let you know what I think...

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  10. Thank you, Philip and Mike D. as well. "Do not falter"...I'm mystified and gratified and continually astonished to hear from those read, reflect, check in, shore up, and sometimes argue...I like the shoring up better....

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  11. Calling goodalice19: The lovely thing about the piece in Best American Essays was that it was NOT ironic and therefore got at something deep about human brokenness and need. But my reaction to the essay collection was exactly the same as yours. I am all for trying to get to the holy spirit of life, and sex, but you have to be way more in touch with your vulnerability, and maybe with your glory, than this...I wish Joe W. well and I'm sorry my post led you to take the trouble to hunt up a book that was less than you--or I--would have liked.

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  12. Thank you for getting back to me, Heather. I appreciate your thoughts and your time. Oh, an excellent essay written by you was in today's Magnificat, post Gospel "homily".

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I WELCOME your comments!!!