What a difference a month makes, Andy Murray on the same court against the same opponent seemed to be a different person yesterday. It has been called the fastest redemption story in sport. Murray, often seen as moody, has been smiling, having fun and playing with a freedom and a ‘lightness’ that he didn’t seem to have at the Wimbledon tournament. He has clearly thrived over the past week not being such a focus for national attention as during the Wimbledon fortnight. Being part of a team and being inspired by others – he has said he is so glad to be part of Team GB and is motivated by the other athletes. What is the difference? I think it is that he was not just playing for himself but for something bigger than him. It reminds me of that beautiful line in EP 4 ‘And that we might live no longer for ourselves but for him‘ . It is also beautiful – that in a sport, with huge amounts of money, pressure, were everything is oriented to the individual with a huge entourage around them – it is the Olympics, with no direct monetary award, and where Murray is one of many great British athletes…. it is this environment that has brought the best out of him.
Ignatius describes the phenomenon of spiritual consolation in a similar way – anything that opens us to the world, fills us with peace, joy, freedom – allows us to fulfill our potential can be a sign of consolation. When we are basically focused on something greater than ourselves. The opposite, desolation, leads us in on ourselves, to self doubt, apathy, cynicism. This is speaking very generally of course and in the spiritual life consolation and desolation can be much more subtle than that (i.e. If an evil tyrant had self doubt it might be a path to consolation!) Ignatius talks about consolation in a much more focused and religious way – here are his words:
“ I call consolation every increase of faith, hope, and love, and all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly and to the salvation of one’s soul by filling it with peace and quiet in its Creator and Lord.”
Whereas desolation leads to “ the opposite of (consolation), as darkness of soul, torment of spirit, inclination to what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations which lead to want of faith, want of hope, want of love. The soul is wholly slothful, tepid, sad, and separated, as it were, from its Creator and Lord.”
The incredible scenes at the Olympics these days – the joy, the support of the crowds, the adulation was so powerful, particularly of your are British. Working with boys the last few years I have seen with my own eyes how sport can ‘save them’ from lives on the streets in gangs. Coaching football I know how sport can give them meaning and discipline, so it is wonderful to see how Andy Murray, Jessica Ennis and the rest can be such positive role models. But even the roar of the crowd, the glamour of gold fades away. The love, so powerfully expressed in the stadium, is nothing compared to the patience of their families and friends as they embark on the discipline of training and single-mindedness of an elite athlete. There are striking scenes here too in Edinburgh as the Fringe Festival begins, we are being bombarded with flyers and posters – it can get a bit much. It feels like there is too much attention seeking – look at me! Come to my show! On the other hand there is great energy and creative talent – it is exciting. Careers will be launched, shows will be commissioned, and these shows and personalities will have a big impact on our culture and televisions over the next years. Seeing the pictures of comedians on the posters is revealing… we live in a golden age of comedy …. some of these people are starting to sell out football stadiums / becoming wealthy beyond their dreams as they sell their DVD box sets. Some of the comedy is no more than mockery, mean spirited, angry and cynical but some of the most popular stuff isn’t – its observational, balanced, self- deprecating, not nasty. However both the athletes and the comedians will find the adulation fades. So again what lasts?
In this week of great Olympians, the church has quietly celebrated three of its own Olympians. If you came to daily mass you know who I am talking about. Our own St Ignatius on Tuesday, the founder of the Jesuits, in whose ‘Spiritual Exercises’ many people, kings, queens, writers, poets, and normal people like you and me, have changed our lives for the better. On Wednesday we remembered St Alphonsus Liguori – the founder of the Redemptorists, who changed the hearts and minds of so many young slum dwellers all over the world and then on Saturday we remembered St Jean Vianney – patron of parish priests. To whom 20,000 people a year would visit and make their confession to. They would travel on pilgrimage from all over Europe, long before the days of Ryan Air….. They too are role models, but their legacy is much longer, more than gold it endures.
Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life (Todays Gospel)
Some of the most powerful images for me so far in the Olympics have been in the pool. The rapid turn over of races, the excitement and the beauty of some of the slow-mo’s is quite gripping. The commentary and punditry on the BBC is also top-class. The other day we were told how Michael Phelps, now the most decorated Olympian of all times, trains using his imagination. In a previous games he had won a gold medal in a race in spite of his goggles leaking. Obviously this would seriously affect your vision and could upset your concentration. When so many races are won by hundredths of seconds how did he cope with this distraction and still win? We were told that his training covered all bases including this eventuality. In fact a key part of his training was to use the power of his imagination, and totally immerse himself in the race-day atmosphere. He trains to hear, feel, the water. the atmosphere with incredible detail – so that when something unexpected happens, i.e. leaky goggles, it has no disruption and those vital split-seconds aren’t lost. I was watching this with two other Jesuits, and as he said this, we all turned to one another and simultaneously said ‘Composition of Place’ .
‘Composition of Place’ is a technique that Ignatius uses in his imaginative contemplations and we are trained in. When you enter a contemplation, usually from a scene in the Gospel, you imagine yourself in the scene, either as a bystander or a protagonist. You ‘apply the senses’ so that you can smell, hear, see as much detail in your imagination as possible. This allows a deep entry into the contemplation and often ends up in a conversation or a ‘colloquy’ with Christ, or whoever is in the scene. The power of ‘visualisation’ is often banded about, ‘visualising success’ etc – and I think a lot of it is nonsense and can lead to complacency, as sense of entitlement and under achievement. However Phelps was using ‘composition of place’ as part of an incredibly thorough preparation. Surely a coincidence? Well maybe not – yesterday I was sent this article from an American journal the Catholic Review – called ‘Jesuit schools influence Olympic Swimming‘ click here. Written before the Beijing Games – the gist of it is, that the North Baltimore Aquatic Club (NBAC), where Phelps began training and has now returned to was created by two alumni from Loyola Blakefield, Towson, and then Loyola College in Maryland. The article suggests that the rigor applied by their Jesuit education is reflected in the training environment that has turned Phelps into what most experts agree is the greatest swimmer of all time. “The Jesuit schools thought that they were more mentally and physically up to the task than some of the competition,” said founder Murray Stephens, “We were dedicated to the sense of skill and hard repetition that it took to master something.” The motto of the NBAC :
The awards of youth are soon forgotten, but the qualities learnt through the disciplined pursuit of excellence will last a lifetime.
Who said spirituality wasn’t practical?
P.S. Whilst I am on the Jesuit educated swimmers theme – Missy Franklin (Regis Jesuit High School, Denver) also seems to be doing well – and claims that her Kairos retreat experience early this year was one of the best experiences of her life click here