THIRD SUNDAY BEFORE LENT
1 Corinthians 9.25 Every athlete in
training submits to strict discipline, in order to be crowned with a
wreath that will not last; but we do it for one that will last for ever.
The image Paul uses to invoke what
he thought of as the ideal Christian way of life endures to this day. What
could be more topical now than an athlete's highly disciplined training
schedule as he or she prepares for fame and fortune?
It seems that some things just don't change - even over
two thousand years. A Greek or Roman sports champion could be as
well-known in Paul's time as he or she would be today. It seems likely
that the supreme sportsman of those times was the gladiator. He would have
been adored by many thousands. His trainer would have treasured and
pampered him on one hand, and demanded strict discipline on the other. At
the peak of his career (which tended, as now, to end rather abruptly) he
would have been the David Beckham of the amphitheatre.
The greatest prizes usually come only at equally great
cost, however. That's what Paul refers to here. There is physical pain,
the sacrifice of a balanced life, and the motivation-sapping boredom of
doing the same thing over and over again.
Paul's vision of a "crown that will last for ever" must
have been appealing to his hearers. Those who take Jesus as master and
mentor will prevail in the ongoing contest against evil powers, says Paul.
Theirs will be eternal joy and fulfillment. "The last enemy to be defeated
is death," he writes (1 Corinthians 15.26). This is the Christian's great
Paul's image is sharp, clear and relevant to any age.
But what exactly is the sort of training to which he refers?
Many Christians think of Paul as an innovator when he
used the lively picture of an athlete in training. But the idea of
disciplined training (askesis in Greek) was intrinsic to the
ancient world. The word could refer to athletics, to the clearing of the
mind for philosophical debate, and to religious practices which purified
the human spirit. The best human life was lived in the spirit of
So Paul was making an utterly familiar point which would
have resonated with all. Some three centuries later, however, his
essentially positive message had been radically changed. The askesis
of the Christian became a calling to escape from ordinary, earthy life
into a rarified spiritual realm.
The ascetic St Anthony, for example, has been revered
since the fourth century by Christians as a super-athlete. His biographer
(reputed to have been the famous Athanasius) wrote of him that he
... possessed a very high degree of apatheia -
perfect self-control, freedom from passion - the ideal of every monk and
ascetic striving for perfection. Christ, who was free from every
emotional weakness and fault was his model.
This model of life persists for many Christians to this
day in this peculiarly distorted form. That is, the ideal Christian is one
who is spiritually
The "strict discipline" about which Paul writes has been
more and more confined to a particular small corner of life called "holy"
or "spiritual". If a Christian is to be commended, first and above all she
or he must worship, pray and meditate. A good dose of these spiritual
steroids, it is said, will produce a godly way of life.
Despite this emphasis on things spiritual, what
increasingly makes sense today is the idea that the discipline of
askesis operates at every level of our lives. The time has passed when
we can split life into "spiritual" and "physical" parts. Life doesn't
consist of the flesh and the devil on one hand, and holiness and God on
the other. It consists of a whole, to which the idea of askesis can
and should be applied.
What then does askesis - holy discipline in every
department of life - consist of in the 21st century?
The answer can't be expressed briefly. But to give an
example: How does a Christian practice askesis an a society (such
as the one in which I live) which is dedicated to the ruthless
over-exploitation of natural resources? One response is the difficult
of living as simply as possible.
Such a life may appear foolish to a consumer society. An
ascetic person may be mocked. To deliberately consume as little as
possible in one's circumstances may even be feared as a threat to
established ways. But it is closer, I think, to the pioneer Jesus who
lived a simple life than to the fantasy Christ who is regarded as special
because he prayed, meditated, fasted, performed miracles and rose from the
The underlying root of askesis, then, is an
attitude which embraces discipline in life as a whole. The true ascetic
doesn't just dose up on spiritual steroids but recognises that all
"spiritual" practices are merely aspects of a totality we call life. To be
holy isn't to abdicate from life but to engage in every aspect of it with