I’ve been thinking about Lent and watching the Olympics. The motto of the Olympic Games is “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” The words of the motto were coined by Father Henri Martin Didon of the Dominican Order, principal of the Arcueil College near Paris. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a friend of Father Didon, heard him give a speech at the end of an interschools athletics meeting. The Baron, a founder of the International Olympic Committee in 1894, was struck by the phrase, and made it the Olympic motto, pointing out that “athletes need freedom of excess.”
In my opinion, the downside of this phrase led to the abuse of the body that we see in the Games today. Will the motto drive the Games to the quest for the next most exotic and daring event that lead athletes to death, brain damage, multiple and irreversible injuries and emotional trauma? Are we as sports fans expecting the athletes to deliver greater and greater thrills even at the risk of their lives? How much will be given up to go for the gold?
My thoughts led me to think of the past exercises of Lenten discipline in which spiritual athletes laid upon themselves daunting, rigorous practices to bring the body into submission to the soul. We might say that they, too, were practicing freedom of excess. The prophets of old always cautioned God’s people to look for the practices that truly brought transformation of soul. Think, for example, of the words of the prophet Micah:
“Does the LORD take delight in thousands of rams or in ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? No. God has told you what is good: And what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Spiritual excess and hubris or the truly difficult transformation required by living with justice, love, kindness and humility? I leave it up to you.