Of course I’m not, really. I’m probably one of the least athletic people I know. But I love the Olympics, in a love-hate kind of way. The hate part isn’t really “hate,” but I do end up feeling like there is a risk of an over-emphasis on one’s body, and that the soul can be ignored when athletics are one’s main pursuit. However, I’ve loved the Olympics since I was a little girl. I have always loved watching people do things that I can’t do — it’s fascinating to me. How wonderful it is that someone can possess that talent and have the drive to match it. That’s a combination that wins, in life and in sport, and in spiritual combat.
Watching a preview from Sochi, I heard an Olympic competitor say “Suffering is a skill.” The phrase embedded itself in my ear, then my mind. I’m a pretty forgetful gal, especially after forty, so the fact that I woke up still pondering those words told me that I had to interpret what they meant in my life, and in the life of every Catholic.
Suffering means something to Catholics. It’s not a puzzlement or a punishment like it is for certain ecclesial communities or other belief systems. And while my sufferings, when compared to those I observe far and wide, look pretty tiny, some of them have brought me quite literally to the ground.
I think about why I’ve come out the other side of these events and time periods closer to Jesus, and why now, at 44, the suffering of others hurts me more than my OWN suffering, and I realize there indeed is, as that young skier said, a skill to suffering, or at least a skill in dealing with suffering. It begins with recognizing what suffering is, how temporary its nature is, and how powerful it can be when we don’t attempt to compete against our suffering alone.
We all know the basics of suffering if we are Catholics: join our sufferings with those of Christ, with the sorrows and sufferings of His Mother, and of course, offer our sufferings up for those in Purgatory, or for the pains and battles of others. These should be automatic and constant practices for us.
The skill of suffering, what will make me an Olympic level Catholic, is this: to focus not on myself even at the exact apex of my suffering. That is the moment, the climax, when union with Jesus is most possible and most profitable. We can’t waste that time on self-pity or panic. In my sufferings, I need to ask Him what to do, whom to think of, where to put my pain. Where does this pain go today, Lord? Picture Jesus’ face and ask Him: what do we do now? How do I cross the finish line? How do I push past the wall of pain that I’ve hit? What is my next turn, my next jump, my next move?
An answer will come. And not just for that moment, but for your whole existence from that point in time onward. You will find that you are thinking of life in different ways. It’s not a race or a contest that you want to win to lord over others; it is a team sport. We are all working together, so many of us just don’t know it.
What a cold thing my suffering used to be. I would hold it inside like a hard diamond, like a little treasure. How could I think about anyone else when I was suffering so? But there is such liberation and such hidden reward in thinking not of oneself in suffering but of others — and of Jesus.
Emptying myself out is not a one time, singular practice. After the suffering has passed and the seas are calm, some remnant, some gift, is there, something left by Jesus. I’ve earned a medal, and it’s a sense of acceptance. It’s a liberty from selfishness. It’s waking up and thinking of ten different people before I think of myself. It’s processing each and every moment of time in a new way. Not “What’s in this for me?” But “Why am I here in this moment? FOR WHOM am I here in this moment and in this place?”
I learn, exquisitely, to wait. To wait for my coaching, my orders, my strategy. How am I to be a blessing? A lesson? A pair of arms? An ear? A Catechism? Tell me, Lord. I am empty now; the suffering has emptied me . . . so refill me. The Olympic event, pushing myself to the limit has emptied me . . . so give me some of You, Lord, so I can get back in there, back in the pool, back on the track, back on the mountain. I live to fight again, fight for someone’s rights, or someone’s peace. Or even someone’s life.
I invite you to take your sufferings to Jesus and be prostrate before him so He can increase your skill level. Let Him excise from you what is not needed, and replace it with the muscle and the endurance required to become an Olympic level Christian.
You will be pushed to your limit, and then you will receive a laurel, a crown of peace. You will feel something that is overpowering and unique: a painful ecstasy of selflessness, a love of “the other” that is so deep and freeing that you will not at first recognize it. You may fear you will get lost in it. But hold tight to Jesus’ hand — this coach will never give you more than you can handle.
Remember that He is perfect, and His love for you is perfect. His ownership of you and handling of you must then naturally also be perfect. Nothing He allows to happen to you while you are in active pursuit of His will can be less than perfect. But you must be in active pursuit. You must be suited up and ready to run.
“No one wins the Olympic gold from the couch,” my Dad once joked. And no one reaches the level of intimacy with Jesus that he or she desires by simply running the hamster wheel of this world, pursuing earthly honors and kudos, physical pleasures, entitlements labeled as “rights,” revenge, or any of the offerings of the devil. Decide today which team you will walk on to the field with, and then decide if you want to go all the way, if you really love Jesus’ immaculate heart enough to go for the gold.