“Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.”(1 Corinthians 9:24)
Reading these words made me wonder, what does it take to win a race? What does it take to not only cross the finish line, but to cross the finish line first? And how can I relate that to the spiritual life? So I read the autobiography of an athlete. My athlete of choice was Jessie Diggins, a cross-country skier who won the first gold medal for the United States in any Olympic cross-country skiing event. Although her autobiography “Brave Enough” is secular in nature, there are many parts that are relatable to running this great race and participating in this pilgrimage to Heaven. Running a race takes an individual. Winning a race takes making good decisions each day, words of encouragement and truth, and the support of a great team.
It’s all in the moderation and balance, and before I do anything, my first thought is, how will this impact my racing? (p. 185)
There are a lot of decisions to make after leaving religious life – decisions that perhaps earlier were made for us. What will I wear? What will I eat? What time will I get up? How should I spend my free time? When will I pray? Athletes too face many daily decisions during their months – or even years – of preparation for a race. Jessie approaches these decisions with the end goal in sight: she asks herself, “How will this impact my racing?” I have found it helpful to ask myself the same question as I make decisions in the world. Of course, by “racing” I don’t mean an Olympic cross country ski event, but rather that pilgrimage to Heaven. Through that lens, the decisions usually become clearer and perhaps even easier.
Sometimes the right decision means striving to grow just a little bit more. One exercise that some competitive skiers do is roller ski 100km (that’s 62.1 miles!). Jessie completed this one year, or so she thought. When she got to the end of the route she plotted out the tracking device only read 96 kilometers… so she immediately roller skied four more kilometers. I was struck by how she gave that workout her all, even if there weren’t crowds cheering her on and she could have easily called 96 kilometers good enough. For us, sometimes the right decision will be just managing to sit through Mass. Or perhaps it is filling out one more job application, or even an act of generosity or patience when we feel like we have nothing left. Whatever it is, sometimes the right decision is to stretch ourselves and ski those last four kilometers.
And sometimes the right decision is rest. I was struck by the importance that athletes give to rest – and not just physical, but also mental. Athletes need physical rest, a whole day of it per week (doesn’t that sound familiar?), so that their muscles can be allowed to recover and build after all of the exercise. It means no going hiking or anything that could be physically demanding, even if that is something she wanted to do that day. In preparing for a race, mental rest was also needed. For Jessie, sometimes the right decision was to watch a movie with a teammate to relax and calm down when things were getting stressful. Reading about the intentionality and importance of rest inspired me to try to find ways to be more intentional about how I treat Sunday. This day of rest is more than just a day off or a day to go to church. If I treat it more intentionally, perhaps it will become a day of restoration and growth for my soul, much like it is for athletes.
Lastly, and perhaps the favorite thing I noticed, is that sometimes making the right decision is in the little things. For Jessie, an important part of preparing for a race is glitter. Putting glitter on her face before a race reminds her that racing is fun. Glitter is a little decision that positively impacts her race. Perhaps there are little, seemingly insignificant, decisions that we can make that will positively impact our relationship with Jesus. One little decision I have recently made is to smile at Jesus, to let my delight in Him be shown as I would a friend. That little decision of allowing a visible sign of my love for Him appear on my face has brough much joy to my prayer life.
Words are a powerful thing. (p. 175)
One of the pivotal moments in Jessie’s story is when her coach, Matt, said to her “Who you are is good enough,” and she believed him (p. 123). After having had many difficult experiences with a previous team, those words gave her the freedom to be herself and to trust that she would be loved and supported as she was. Of course, “Who you are is good enough” doesn’t mean that she was ready to win a gold medal right then and there. Of course there was still work to be done, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that she is good enough. She is someone her team is ready and willing to support. She is someone who has what it takes to race well. She is good enough.
Sadly, words can also have a negative impact. In a 10K Olympic race, Jessie missed the podium by 3.3 seconds. The media implied that she should be very disappointed that she failed to achieve the first Olympic medal of the US women’s team by a hair. But she wasn’t disappointed. She gave that race everything she had. She made the right choices leading up to the race. She had a good race. That was the true victory. And the media took that away from her. They were telling her she wasn’t good enough.
I think many of us who have left religious life face a similar temptation. We each have our own story of why we left, and we need to remain faithful to the truth. Sometimes we know the truth about leaving immediately, and sometimes it is a truth that unfolds after we have left. But we cannot let others take that truth from us. One of the lies that perhaps many of us face after leaving religious life is that we’re not enough. Those are not the words of the Father. In those moments, we need to turn to Jesus who is the Truth and allow Him to speak His words into our hearts. We need to allow Him to tell us that we are good enough. That we are still called to live lives of great holiness, lives of what Caryll Houselander calls “undiluted, heroic, crucified love.” That we are loved. Fully. Here and now. That He will never abandon us, and never has. Jesus wants to say those words to us. He wants to say, “Who you are is good enough.” Who you are is someone He can contine to lead along the path to holiness. Who you are is fully loved by Him here and now. Who you are is good enough.
It was the start of what we called the “fifth leg of the relay” because it was our way of saying that the alternate was our most important leg. (p. 126)
Selection for a 4 X 5K relay is hard when there are more than four skiers on the team. Someone is going to get left out of the race. The first year that this happened with the US National team the skier who was left out, Ida Sargent, turned it into the most important leg of the race. She showed up to the course on race day – even though she didn’t have to – and cheered her teammates on for over an hour. Her enthusiasm was so exuberant that some skiers wondered who that crazy person was yelling herself hoarse!
In a way, those of us who have left religious life are now a part of “the fifth leg.” Others were chosen and we are left out. But the reality is, whether or not we or our communities act like it, we are on the same team. We may no longer be a part of the particular community, but we are still a part of the Body of Christ. Ida set a precedent for the US National team. Perhaps some of us could help set a precedent for those of use who have left religious life. What if we could act like we still have an important role to play? What if we acted like our prayers and sacrifices do matter? Maybe the team that we left doesn’t have the camaraderie that would make imitating Ida easy. A rough transition can really make being a part of the fifth leg difficult. But we can still try. I can still try. You can still try.
“Here comes Diggins! Here comes Diggins!”
When you watch her gold medal finish at the Pyongyang Olympics, it may seem like she is on her own to strive for that finish line. But she’s not alone. Her team not only supported her though all the training, but was also there for the race. Her family was there. The announcer shouting “Here comes Diggins! Here comes Diggins!” as she edges past the other skiers knew her. She had family and friends watching the race on television. She was not alone in her race. And we are not alone in ours either. Some of us, I’d hope many of us, have the strong support of family and friends as we run this race to Heaven. Regardless of whether we do or don’t, sometimes it can be too easy to focus on the shortcomings of the earthly teams we are a part of, and forget that we are a part of an incredibly beautiful team. A beautiful team that is on our side. We have the Communion of Saints supporting us. We have the angels, and Mary, and Joseph. We have the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are not alone. And perhaps, when we do cross that finish line, we will hear the enthusiastic roar of all those who have been cheering for us along the way.
Images of Jessie Diggins from Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons Licence.
Attribution: Granada • CC BY-SA 4.0
Attribution: Cephas • CC BY-SA 3.0