Remember from last week that I pointed out how St Paul tells us that being a Christian is like running a race, like competing in the Games. (1 Cor 9:24-25) I spoke then of the need for athletes to have the right food if they are to perform well, and spoke of how we Christians, in a similar way, need to be fed by God if we are to run our race for him. Today I want to talk about something that all modern athletes stress as an essential part of their preparation. Following the advice of sports psychologists, athletes now work as hard on their inner preparation, on how to focus their minds, as on the outward preparation of their bodies.
This, of course, has obvious parallels with our race for God as Christians. We may go through all the correct outward observances, we may go to Mass, say prayers, sing hymns, eat and drink wisely, care for others, but it will not get us very far unless it comes from our heart, unless it is linked to a real inner relationship with God.
Of course, not all athletes believe in God, but they are all taught nowadays to believe in something that might be called “spiritual” that lies within us all, and that must be tapped if they are to perform at their highest level. Those of you who spent a lot of time watching the Olympics will have seen many of them showing all sorts of different ways in which this inner preparation shows itself. Many just shut their eyes and blot out the world focussing on the one thing that matters, their performance. Other more extrovert characters, like Usain Bolt, use extravagant gestures that draw the crowd into their preparation. But make no mistake, what he is doing is not just showing off; it is done to help him focus inwardly on the race ahead.
We Catholics are sometimes accused of having too much outward ritual, but if you look at something like the Olympic Games you see how outward ritual and inner spirituality are linked together. The outward ritual, to be real, must have an inner spirituality, but the inner spirituality is also helped and developed by the outward ritual. So you see athletes going through their own particular outward rituals, repeated on each occasion they compete, in order to be inwardly ready for the race.
In our 2nd Reading today (Ephesians 5:15-20) you might almost think that St Paul is talking to athletes rather than Christians! “Be very careful of the lives you lead….Do not be thoughtless… Do not drug yourselves with wine….be filled with the Spirit.” But he is actually talking to us! You might think that Christians do not need this kind of advice, but actually then and now, we do. We can all be careless about the way we live. We can often be thoughtless, and sometimes we can overdo the drinking or eating! And we often fail to call on God the Holy Spirit who is within us, relying instead simply on our own efforts and on outward observances.
Paul goes on to suggest one powerful way in which we can deepen our inner awareness of God. He tells us to “Sing the words and tunes of… the hymns when you are together and go on singing and chanting to the Lord in your hearts, so that always and everywhere you are giving thanks to God.” Nowadays, when we have so much music thrust at us everywhere, even when we are put on hold when we phone some Company or other, it is easy not to concentrate on, and use in our daily lives, the music that we sing to God. Notice that he doesn’t say we have to remember the words, just sing the tunes! So do try it, if you don’t already. Paul didn’t know the science that we know today; that music actually works in the other side of our brain from words and rational thoughts, but he knew it was true. Try singing a familiar song to someone with Alzheimers, or someone who is unconscious or has had a stroke, and you will often see the power of music at work. Though their speech is often confused, they can often still sing along if it is a tune they know.
This means making an effort to sing along in church, to learn the tunes even if they are new to us. I know some of you do not think you can sing, but you must let the music in, quietly mouthing the words or humming along, even if you are afraid to sing out like some of us do. God is not seeking perfection, he is asking us to open up more and more to him, whatever we are like. So leaving it to the choir, or to those who can sing, is not a good idea.
Do you notice that athletes use music too, walking in with their headphones on? I bet the music they play is not random but is something they know well and links their inner mind to the outward race ahead. For them or for us, it is the same message.