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
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 prize.
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 askesis.
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 askesis
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 dead.
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 holy discipline.