The Fire of Faith: Living in Christian freedom and becoming Saints

God’s grace flows through us like a river, washing us and nourishing his divine life in us. His grace flows freely when we let go of the attachments that dam us up, blocking grace’s entry points. If we are distracted by technology and do not make time to pray, are stuck in impurity, or consumed by work, we will miss what’s most important. Those dams not only block the grace from working within us, but they also block it from flowing out to others and becoming a source of light and strength to them.  

I used the common image of water, while the great mystic, St. Catherine of Siena (1347-80), preferred the images of fire and blood. Catherine lived in a tumultuous time, to say the least — the time of the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, and the Avignon Papacy that led to the Great Western Schism. She was an unlikely candidate for God to use as his agent for change in the Church and society: a young woman, still living at home and having spent years in secluded prayer.  Father Paul Murray, O.P., lays out the power of Catherine’s response to God, which opened her to true freedom, in his book, Saint Catherine of Siena: Mystic of Fire, Preacher of Freedom (Word on Fire, 2020).  

The call of St. Catherine shows us life’s first priority, creating a genuine freedom in the soul so it can receive the gifts of God. God becomes present to the soul as a refining fire, consuming what does not belong and enflaming real holiness and freedom. Catherine, writing to Stefano Maconi, shows that God wants us to become our true selves in him: “If you would be the person you are meant to be, you could set fire to the whole of Italy” (161). This is precisely what happened to Catherine. She experienced the fire of God in her soul and sparked it in others — criminals, merchants, mothers, monks, bishops, and even the pope.  

Catherine encouraged a deep knowledge of self, truly owning up to our own sinful weakness, coupled by a firm trust in God’s mercy. Embracing God, the One Who Is, overcomes the nothingness that we embrace through sin. To those facing discouragement from habitual sin, Catherine advised them to “live in the blood,” to trust God’s mercy that flows from the blood of Jesus. “In the blood we discover the fountain of mercy. In the blood we discover clemency. In the blood we discover devotedness. In the blood our sins are brought to justice. In the blood mercy is satisfied. In the blood our hardness is melted. In the blood bitter things become sweet and heavy burdens light” (“Letter to Don Pietro,” 166).  Father Murray paints a beautiful and compelling picture of what it means to live in genuine Christian freedom, with Catherine as a model of receptivity, set on fire with the love of God.  

Becoming a saint is not easy in any age, but in ours it has become increasingly difficult due to the rise of an anti-Christian culture throughout the world. The 20th century witnessed enormous oppression from Communism, with over 100 million victims; however, even in the midst of it, great lights emerged. When St. John Paul II returned to Warsaw after his election, he urged his countryman to live in the truth and to reject the lies of the Communist state, trying to pit family members, neighbors, and co-workers against one another. Rod Dreher has looked at the noble response of Christians under Communist regimes as a model for how to respond to a new kind of oppression that uses the media, consumerism, and identity politics to control the way people think and live in the West. It is a new and subtle form of control, a “soft totalitarianism,” as Dreher explains in Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents (Sentinel, 2020), by positioning itself at the service of oppressed groups and personal satisfaction.  

Dreher explains, “This totalitarianism is therapeutic. It masks hatred of dissenters from its utopian ideology in the guise of helping and healing” (7). It is akin to older forms of oppression in that it “seeks to displace all prior traditions and institutions, with the goal of bringing all aspects of society under control,” aspiring “to nothing less than defining and controlling reality” (7-8). Passive acceptance of a new way of thinking has happened through the distraction of technology and the ever-increasing desires fostered by consumerism. Individualism has led to loss of shared purpose and weakening of community that in turn has exposed Americans to the subtle manipulation of technology and social media (33, 76). “This technology and the culture that has emerged from it is reproducing the atomization and radical loneliness that totalitarian communist governments used to impose on their captive peoples to make them easier to control. … We are being conditioned to surrender privacy and political liberties for the sake of comfort, convenience, and artificially imposed social harmony” (92-93).  

Thankfully, the second half of the book looks at strategies for “how to live in truth” (95). Dreher tells amazing stories of Christians in Eastern Europe, who despite attempts at brainwashing and social control, were able to “see, judge, act” in order to resist pervasive lies and evil.  First of all, despite any social pressure, even torture, one can never accept lies as the truth, because a Christian has to live in accordance with reality. Second, we have to preserve a vital memory of tradition: “To perceive the critical importance of memory and the role culture plays in preserving and transmitting it is critically important for Christianity’s survival” (126). Third, we have to protect the family, the true bedrock of society, against constant attack. Dreher rightly recognizes it as the key “resistance cell” that teaches children how to think and live in accord with the truth and to create real community. He also recognizes the vital importance of faith to keep us focused on the true good (151) and to help us to stand in genuine solidarity with others, forming communities of support (ch. 9). Finally, Dreher exhorts us to be willing to suffer for the truth, the ultimate witness to a freedom that transcends raw power and the therapeutic.  

What is holding you back from being a saint? We face so many obstacles, both within and without. When we open ourselves to God’s grace, he makes crooked ways straight in us, turning us into conduits of his grace for our culture. The saints provide witness to the reality of God’s grace — that it is possible to be holy. St. Catherine witnesses to the true freedom that comes from the blood and the fire of God’s presence. Rod Dreher exhorts us to live within that presence, and the truth that it brings, no matter the obstacle. If we cling to God above all else, his divine life will flow through us, not only cleansing us but bringing God’s fire to the world.  

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.