In my previous post (Athletic Spirituality and Competition, Part I), I discussed the idea of “The Competitive Christian” and God’s call to use our competitive nature on our journey towards heaven. We recognized our opponent, identified the importance of practice, emphasized the transference of competition to the spiritual realm, and touched on the idea of striving for greatness in all walks of life.
In Part II, I would like to expand on that last point- Greatness. It is an interesting topic because everyone has their own definition of what greatness looks like, how we achieve it, and its application in spirituality. In my relatively short journey as a Catholic thus far, I have found that striving for greatness is a main underlying theme in the Church’s message to its constituents. It may appear in different forms- holiness, sainthood, etc- but we can be sure of one thing: the Church expects great things out of us. The Church wants us to be holy. In fact, its entire mission is to make saints!
And when faced with this idea, the necessary questions arise: “What is greatness? What does chasing holiness look like in everyday life?”
The Universal Call to Holiness
“We come to a full sense of the dignity of the lay faithful if we consider the prime and fundamental vocation that the Father assigns to each of them in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit: the vocation to holiness, that is, the perfection of charity. Holiness is the greatest testimony of the dignity conferred on a disciple of Christ.
The Second Vatican Council has significantly spoken on the universal call to holiness. It is possible to say that this call to holiness is precisely the basic charge entrusted to all the sons and daughters of the Church by a Council which intended to bring a renewal of Christian life based on the gospel.” Pope Saint John Paul II
It is easy to get caught up in the idea that holiness and sainthood are only for bishops, priests, pastors, nuns, and monks, but the entire point of Vatican II was to encourage the laity to be involved in their salvation by striving for holiness every day. We may not all have the time or capacity to devote hours on end to pray and draw ourselves closer to God, but we are still expected to chase holiness in our jobs, relationships, actions, and words, because “Holiness is something greater, more profound that God gifts us. Indeed, it is by living with love and offering Christian witness in our daily tasks that we are called to become saints. And everyone in the particular condition and state of life in which they find themselves” (Pope Francis).
Although we are called to holiness, it is important to remember that we cannot achieve it alone. Nothing we do on earth can earn salvation or closeness with God; it is solely by his grace and love working through us that we are able to accomplish anything at all. Rather, if we open our hearts to the “founder and perfecter of our faith” and allow his power to be infused into everything we do, holiness is at our fingertips.
The Allure of Greatness
Okay, so the Church wants us to be holy and great as everyday people in our everyday jobs and relationships. But how does this play out in our lives? Because the honest truth is that it is difficult to feel like the tiny things we do every day can contribute to our search for holiness and unity with God (tiny things like cleaning dishes, filing expense reports, grocery shopping, conducting quarterly reviews, etc). Most people, especially former athletes, need to experience achievement to feel fulfilled. Athletic achievements like hitting a home run or sinking a game-winning shot or hitting that perfect drive make us feel like we are on the cusp of greatness enough to tantalize us and leave us desiring more- something bigger. This feeling manifests itself into more searching in order to bring us closer to the ever-present longing to experience greatness in what we do.
But being “great” in our daily lives, spiritual or material, can be extremely difficult because if our eventual goal is heaven, we cannot see the immediate effects of our strivings- the everyday victories that, as a whole, constitute a life of greatness and holiness.
We all want achievement, victory, and a sense that transcendent greatness is among us- these are natural desires. Why else would we passionately follow our favorite sports team or idolize amazing athletes like Lebron James or Michael Jordan or Tom Brady or Wayne Gretzky? Because we want to experience something that is bigger than ourselves, something that arouses our own inner champion and inspires us to likewise strive for greatness.
The Impossible Image of Sainthood
But along the way, many of us either grow despondent and fall into mediocrity because of the hard work and seemingly impossible journey of becoming great, or we simply relegate ourselves to living vicariously through the greatness of our favorite athletes or saints. And who can blame us? Look at the examples we have to follow. We are commanded by Jesus himself to “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). So the expectation is to be perfect?? The Church calls us to be “saints”, and Leon Bloy even said, “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint”, but the way saints are portrayed in the Catholic Church makes it easy to become discouraged and think, “There is no way I can measure up to Mother Teresa or St Francis of Assisi or St Joan of Arc, they accomplished big, amazing things, I don’t think I have the capacity to do that!”
As a result, we erect a mental blockade that prevents us from seeking or striving for greatness because of our hopelessness, fear of failing, fear of standing out and being persecuted, or the many other excuses that keep us from living the full, great life to which we are called.
But, as we would expect, Pope Saint John Paul II has something to say about tapping into our desire for greatness:
“Dear young people, do not be content with anything less than the highest ideals! Do not let yourselves be dispirited by those who are disillusioned with life and have grown deaf to the deepest and most authentic desires of their heart. You are right to be disappointed with hollow entertainment and passing fads, and with aiming at too little in life. If you have an ardent desire for the Lord you will steer clear of the mediocrity and conformism so widespread in our society.” Message of the Holy Father at XVII World Youth Day
“Do not be satisfied with mediocrity. The kingdom of heaven is for those who are determined to enter it…Do not be afraid to be holy! Have the courage and humility to present yourselves to the world determined to be holy, since full, true freedom is born from holiness.” Message of the Holy Father to Youth Meeting in Santiago De Compostela
Not everyone is meant to start the next worldwide charity organization or win six Super Bowls or contribute to the end of Communism in Europe. These are amazing achievements that I’m sure were extremely fulfilling for the individuals who accomplished them, but we must understand two things about the great/holy people that we look up to: their greatness did not happen overnight; the beginning of all greatness is little things.
One of the phrases that stuck with me from my college baseball days was one my coach repeated constantly: “Never Satisfied.” This was a way of expressing that, even if we won the game or I hit a home run, we can never be content with our performance, we have to continuously strive to continue improving and getting better every day. Likewise, we can never be satisfied with our spiritual lives- we have to have the desire to reach for more, to know God better, to seek heaven more fervently in everything we do.
Enter exhibit A- Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. An Italian who died from polio at age 25, “PGF” is known for his constant desire for holiness during his short life. He organized young adult groups, hiked and skied the Alps, attended daily mass, tended to the poor and sick in Turin, and inspired everyone he came in contact with because of his “sanctified existence” and his mentality of constantly striving upward “toward the highest of what it means to be a man” (his unofficial slogan is Verso l’Alto: “to the heights”). His example is extremely relatable to us because he was a normal young person with normal ideals and dreams who lived a holy life one tiny act at a time in the course of his day. Nothing he did was overtly “great” but he was able to take his natural desire for greatness and use it to honor God in his everyday actions.
The Little Way
Speaking of living a holy life one tiny act at a time, enter exhibit B- St Therese of Lisieux. The originator of “The Little Way”, St Therese knew she was not capable of great and mighty things, so instead, she chose to go about her daily tasks with love and sacrifice, no matter how tiny or seemingly insignificant they were. This allowed her to accomplish great things every second of every day because, since God is “through all and in all“, each task she completed was infused by the Holy Spirit! Due to her revolutionary mentality, Father Robert McTeigue labeled St Therese “the most dangerous of saints”:
“Therese is a danger to those who’ve resigned themselves to spiritual mediocrity. She’s a threat to every soul that will not dare to aspire to holiness. She’s the mortal enemy of the lukewarm.
Therese takes away every excuse, dismissing every good reason we can give for not being holy, for not at least striving after sanctity. She’s proof that great holiness is possible for every soul.”
The many things that demand our attention in this life make it difficult to determine the true path to greatness. As a result, many of us get caught up in the world’s ideas of what greatness is or what exactly we should be striving for.
As I mentioned in Part I of this series, the devil knows our weaknesses and exploits them in order to get us focusing on the wrong things. So what are we striving for? What type of greatness are we seeking?
Excelling at our jobs and hobbies are important and it is true that God calls us to seek greatness in all that we do, but if these are our main outlets for achievement and fulfillment then we are missing the point. Spiritual greatness takes a much different form than what the world tells us- Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant.” Following his example, let’s commit to treating everyone as if they were Christ himself instead of competing with them for worldly gains; let’s prioritize loving our families as best as we can instead of using our energies selfishly; let’s focus more on knowing the ins and outs of our faith rather than the stats of our favorite players; let’s read uplifting articles and books instead of watching trashy movies. God has placed us in this life to enjoy it and engage in it, but our actions need to be ordered towards the ultimate good or else greatness will escape us.
Do you feel the desire to accomplish big things- to be great at something? Do you admire those who are able to rise above adversity and transcend our concept of greatness? You’re not alone.
Each person has the innate desire for holiness and heaven, we just need to tap into it. It is easy to get bogged down by mediocrity and despair when accomplishing great things seems so far out of reach, but we just need to remember Pier Giorgio Frassati, St Therese, and many others, who, through simple acts of love and service, were able to reach for holiness and aspire to be closer to God more and more every day.
So, what is greatness? What does holiness look like? Not much to the naked eye! But through God, anything can become great if we allow him to direct our actions.
“Heavenly Father, give me the courage to strive for the highest goals, to flee every temptation to be mediocre. Enable me to aspire to greatness, as Pier Giorgio did, and to open my heart with joy to Your call to holiness. Free me from the fear of failure. I want to be, Lord, firmly and forever united to You. Grant me the graces I ask You through Pier Giorgio’s intercession, by the merits of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.” Prayer for the Courage to be Great