That which you most desire

In our Catholic tradition, we esteem the saints of heaven and ask them to help us with their prayers. But along with the assistance brought us by their intercession, these brothers and sisters of ours awaken in us a dream, a dream that is sometimes dormant — the dream of becoming saints like they are.

The saints are part of the great crowd of men and women that the Book of Revelation describes as innumerable, from every race and nation, clothed in white robes and adoring the Lamb in the heavenly liturgy. Only God knows the name of every one of them. But many of them are perhaps people we knew or our own loved ones.

All of them motivate us to turn our gaze heavenward and they bring us to discover in the depths of our hearts the most sincere and authentic longing we experience: the longing to be saints.

Why can this desire for sanctity never be extinguished in our hearts? Because that’s how God made us: to be saints. This longing is sealed within ever spiritual “cell” of our souls. Because, as St. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourselves O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”

Sanctity is that which belongs only to God. God alone is Holy. Sanctity is the beauty, the goodness, and the splendor of God who is love. Only by contact with him can one become holy. Thus, sanctity can be understood as a relationship of love. This is also what we understand by “life of grace,” that is, a life lived in the love of God. Our hearts were made to love, and for nothing else. Hate does violence to our hearts. Thus, if you were to ask your heart what it most sincerely desires, it would unquestionably respond that it only wants to love, but that its thirst for love can not be quenched until it is full of Love itself, which is God.

St. Augustine has a rather daring phrase: “Love and do what you will.” But he adds immediately, “but love.” He is convinced that if we truly love God, we will not want to do anything that could offend him. That’s why the Christian life should not be lived on the defensive, concentrating on avoiding sin. Instead it should be lived in a very active way, seeking to love God more every day. To live each day, as St. Teresa of Avila said, “seeking to please my Captain in everything.”

The saints are those men and women who love God with their whole soul. And I am sure that you know one of these people personally. And I am also convinced that you want to be one of these people.

If you ever go to Los Angeles, visit the cathedral. Along the inside walls are beautiful tapestries presenting the Communion of Saints. One hundred thirty-five saints from all over the world are depicted there, including the canonized saints of North America. As well, there are 12 figures who are not identified, including children of various ages. They represent the anonymous saints who live among us — these ones that you meet every day. Who says this yet unidentified saint can’t be you? In fact, this is what you most desire in the depths of your heart!

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.