Septuagesima 2009

To Compete Or To Complete?

Septuagesima Sunday, 8 February 2009
“I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.” – I Corinthians 9:26-27

Well, it has been the subject of headlines and of conversations over coffee at Starbucks and at the water cooler in the lunchroom: The self-chosen role and title of ‘First Mom’! But Michele Obama has not been the only mother currently at the forefront or in the headlines. There has been much reporting throughout the week about that California single-mother who last week gave birth to eight babies that had been artificially implanted in her womb.

The unusual pregnancy has raised all kinds of ethical questions: Medical ethicists deplore the irrespon-sibility of the physician who performed the multiple implanting, pediatricians have expressed their shock over the number of embryos in such a bizarre pregnancy and psychologists question the mental state and personal motives of the mother. Catholic moralists reject the means utilized for the fertilization in the first place, but could applaud the mother for choosing not to reduce the number of the embryos in her womb, against the advise of some physicians who were counseling selective abortion.

As she is already the mother of six children – for a total of fourteen in all – it is not unreasonable to con-template what the future of these numerous children might be. The mother declares that she will give equal love, equal attention and equal care to ALL, just as she maintains she has been doing with the original six. How is that humanly possible? Caring for all those children will surely require an assembly line and a team of helpers.

I remember the first time I ever saw a mother dog with its newborn litter, and apparently at feeding time. There were all of those little pups crawling all over each other, muscling each other aside, in fierce and frantic competition for a spot at the food source. The imagination boggles at a bizarre image – should this single mother with eight newborns plan and insist on breastfeeding them all! What a feeding frenzy that would prove to be!

Can you just imagine the competition within that household as those fourteen children grow up, all wanting and demanding the individual attention and personal care of their mother? Imagine the scene whilst taking them with her to the grocery store and all fourteen are begging her, ‘Mommy, can I have this?’ Or after they’ve grown some, when she takes them for a swim at the pool, and all are shouting to her simultaneously, ‘Mommy, watch me’!

Competition can get out of control! Competition makes some people a little crazy. Do you recall what happened last Christmas, when a crowd of early shoppers, waiting in line impatiently outside a department store stampeded through the front door as it was being opened for business, and in frenzied competition to snatch up the ‘early-bird specials,’ subsequently trampled underfoot and killed the store security guard.

Competition can be fierce; but at the same time it can generally be controlled and sane. For instance, there is fierce competition at the organized winter and summer world Olympics. In clearly defined events and contests, under the scrutiny of the judge’s eye, athletes from around the world fiercely compete against each other, individually as well as in teams, to the best of their ability and the utmost of their trained skill, to determine who is the best or the fastest, the strongest or the most agile and skilled of them all, to achieve final victory and be awarded its coveted prize.

St. Paul says, ‘Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.’ Apart from a few isolated instances of the past, Olympic athletes don’t trample or maim each other, but exercise restraint during competition, while determined to capture the prize.

In the Special Olympics, where children with serious physical or mental handicaps are brought and encouraged to compete, the competition is anything but fierce. The games are so designed as to be all-inclusive, so that every competitor comes away a winner! Elsewhere, those with handicaps oftentimes have to achieve their own personal victories.

I wonder if you happened to see the television news coverage about the remarkable sixteen-year-old boy with Down Syndrome who has developed a big following in his town. During a recent high-school basket ball game, with three seconds to go in the game, he made the final shot, an amazing shot from near the sidelines that landed right in the hoop. It was his first-ever Varsity basket.

As the buzzer sounded the crowd exploded into applause and gave him a standing ovation.The coach on the opposing team even came over to shake the boy’s hand.At the age of three he began showing interest in sports. Now a high school senior, he has played four years of high school basketball even though he is handicapped and short of stature. But basketball is not even his best sport. He is thought to be the only kid with Down Syndrome in the States to earn a varsity letter in two sports — basketball and golf. The shot made by that young man is proof itself that sometimes, even in the competiveness of life, the biggest triumphs come in the smallest of victories. Sometimes even for the little guy! ‘So run as to obtain,’ says Paul.

You might be surprised to learn I like to watch professional boxing. If you’ve ever watched a boxing match, you probably noted how the competitors, upon entering the ring dance around, and do a great deal also throughout the course of the bout. In the boxing ring, agile foot movement is a crucial skill and can give a boxer an important edge; hence outside the ring his training will include much rope skipping and running.

Also upon entering the ring, besides dancing around, to demonstrate their prowess before the crowd, boxers make several swings in the air, sparring with an imaginary opponent. This movement it called shadow boxing. It too is part of intense physical training in the gym, where they will also hit at a punching bag or spar with a partner.

But in the ring is where a boxer’s training must pay off. He must be able to hit hard and connect with a genuine target, the opponent. If he hasn’t sufficiently trained his hands and his feet, his punches won’t con-nect, and he might as well be simply beating the air! Boxers may boast in advance, but once the bell is rung the bout begins and reality sets in. The fight is on and, all boasting aside, every move counts and there can be only one winner. Hence, St. Paul says, ‘I do not run aimlessly. Nor do I box as one beating the air.’

Sometimes it is a ‘title’ bout. Champion’s belts are bulky and loose fitting round the waist. I’ve sometimes thought it to be so designed because he won’t be wearing or keeping it for long. Even in ancient times the laurel wreath awarded the victor soon faded and fell into crumbs. Whatever the competitive sport: from track and field, from football to golf, from boxing to fencing, from gymnastics to weight lifting, there will come the day when one’s winning streak comes to an end, one’s world record will be surpassed by someone else’s.

What is true in the world of Olympic competition is true for all competitive sports. The crown of victory will eventually fade, the glory of past victory is soon taken away. ‘Now they do it to obtain a perish-able crown; but we an imperishable,’ says St. Paul. There is a Crown that doesn’t fade in glory: there is a Victory that can’t be taken away. To obtain that Victory and that Crown one must prepare carefully and train vigorously; one must literally bring oneself into subjection. The victory he speaks of is a spiritual one.

St. Paul prepares, not as a shadow boxer who only beats the air. He makes every punch count! One must aim to connect spiritually. He runs on track, stays in his lane and keeps his eye on the finish line and the prize that awaits him in victory. He runs not aimlessly, and he preaches to us that we must not travel through life aimlessly. St. Paul trains his body to obey his commands. He put it this way: ‘I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection.’ He has the mastery over it. He controls it: it doesn’t control him. Could we say the same of ourselves? Do we have the mastery over ourselves?

Parents have been known to say to their children, ‘Do as I say; not as I do!’ They know that their personal example often fails to match their words. Paul is one who practices what he preaches and for good reason: he doesn’t want to set a bad example for others, nor does he want to be disqualified from the race or from receiving the final reward. ‘Lest by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.’

‘In a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize: Run that you may obtain it.’ St. Paul sounds as if is saying, compete! As if we must compete with one another for the prize. To obtain it is quite the opposite! We are to run with one another, not against one another. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are not to compete with one another, but to complete one another! As Paul reminds us elsewhere, we are members, one of another in the Mystical Body of Christ. And each member, working in conjunction with the other members, tends to the well being and building up of the whole body.

Whatever you do, run together and in such a disciplined way as to be assured of victory! For we don’t have to cross the finish line first: but we must cross the finish line to win. We must run the course straight. We must fight the good fight.

As St. Paul saw his life drawing to conclusion and most probably he would face martyrdom, he wrote to Timothy, ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the Crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.’

How are you running? Are you keeping on course? Will you be completing the race? Will the prize be yours? ‘So run, that you may obtain!’