Sport as Soul-Shaping

I've had the honor of meeting and talking with many extraordinary people over the past few years. People who are giving their lives to serve and help others. Dr Tom Neal is one of those people. His piece here below is well worth your time and reflection - thanks Tom!

I have been thinking about the link between Theology of the Body and Sports Leader.

In many ways, I think the link is clear between virtue and the life of the body as an essential dimension of the human person. Theology of the Body is far more than sexual ethics, though it is that. It includes all ethics, as all ethical life is lived in a bodily way. 

Theology of the Body is really theological anthropology, a read of human identity and destiny in light of divine revelation. And as Sports Leader is all about the link between ethics (virtue) and the athletic discipline of the body, it is already a Theology of the Body.

The most fruitful link between Theology of the Body and sports is the link with the ascetical tradition that sees the discipline of the body as intimately connected with the life of virtue. We normally think of fasting or bodily mortification when we think of asceticism, but ascetical life was at heart seen by the Fathers of the Church as a form of play; a kind of ritualized/playful performance of martyrdom, which was itself seen to be the highest expression of Christian virtue.

Askesis, the Greek etymological root of our word asceticism, is closely linked with the other Greek word(s)  for an athletic contest. In many ways this is analogous to how we classically viewed sport in Western culture: a playful performance of real life, where we could rehearse the panoply of virtues required to successfully navigate life’s many trials and challenges. And, as in St Benedict’s well-known ‘ora et labora’ motto, the 'work' dimension of sport was seen as an integral bodily discipline that helped to keep in check the passions and cultivate the virtues needed to grow one’s spiritual life.

The medieval games of the knights were closely aligned with a highly stylized and ritualized culture of honoring ‘the woman’; and was seen as a via to tame eros and refine it into a higher level capable of preserving chastity and of showing honor to the beauty of the feminine. The medieval allegory, Romance of the Rose, stands as one of the highest literary expressions of this ‘courtly love’ tradition that links knightly virtue, sport and the struggle to conserve chaste love.

The missing element in contemporary sport is the absence of a core ethical meaning in sports. Here I don’t mean ‘sports ethics,’ but rather the notion that sport is the youthful rehearsal of an adult life well-lived; and inasmuch as it is a rehearsal, it is also the
very act of cultivating who we are and who we want to be as an adult. We might call this theology the Theology of the Athletic Body, or Sport as Soul-Shaping.

Incidentally, I recommend,
The Human Person: According to John Paul II, by J. Brian Bransfield. It offers a broader read of Theology of the Body that allows a wider field of influence.  Read this interview for a taste.

Thomas Neal, Ph.D.