Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Mens sana in corpore sano: An Apologia for Athletics in the Context of Preparatory School Education

Below is a talk I gave to the St. Thomas More Academy student body today initiating our weekly lecture series, which will continue through the entirety of the school year. I'm interested in people's thoughts, not only because I put an inordinate amount of time into this in the past week when I should have been preparing for classes, but especially because I'm slated to give a condensed and modified version of this talk at the Luddy Conference, an annual event for teachers at schools under the patronage of Mr. Bob Luddy.

Mens sana in corpore sano:
An Apologia for Athletics in the Context of Preparatory School Education
By Franz S. Klein
St. Thomas More Academy, Raleigh, North Carolina
August 26, 2014

While I was in graduate school at the University of Dallas, the public high school in the nearby suburb of Allen opened a $60-million, state-of-the-art football stadium. It seats 18,000 and has NaturalGrass Matrix turf, a 75-45-foot High Definition video scoreboard, a golf simulator practice area, and a customized weight room, in addition to a spacious press room and air-conditioned private luxury boxes. Despite the media attention that Allen Eagle Stadium garnered when it opened two years ago, it’s only the fifth-largest high school football stadium in the state of Texas.

Source: pbk.com

Not that people were objecting: Allen’s former high school football stadium, which seated 14,000, couldn’t accommodate the school’s fan-base, and its $60-million new stadium was funded as part of a $119-million bond package approved by a full 63-percent of taxpayers. Public support was so high, in fact, that construction continued even during the economic downturn of a half decade ago. It continued even as Texas lawmakers cut the state’s education funding by $4 billion a few years ago. In 2011, the Allen Independent School District faced a $4.5 million shortfall in its education budget, which is separate from its athletics budget, and was forced to cut 44 teaching positions and 40 support positions through attrition and voluntary buyouts.

In this context, the state-of-the-art facility opened for the Fall 2013 football season, and Allen High School went on to claim the large school state championship. Last winter, however, after just one football season’s use, inspectors discovered that the new stadium’s concrete structure was cracking extensively due to shoddy engineering and construction. Allen Eagle Stadium was closed immediately, and the football team was forced to find an alternative venue for this fall’s home games. Over the summer, the Allen school board authorized $2 million in bond funds to pay for repairs, and the school district and the construction company are currently wrangling over liability issues. It is expected that Allen Eagle Stadium will be open again for the 2015 football season, and yet I would argue that something is still broken, something besides the cracked concrete of an outrageously expensive Texas football stadium, something in desperate need of our attention and consideration—namely, our attitude toward, and our understanding of, the place of competitive athletics at institutions purportedly devoted to education and learning.

Let me emphasize at the onset that this is not a screed against sports. You all know that together with Mr. Kurz I coach the STMA cross country and track teams. I was myself a multi-sport athlete in high school, and even a multi-sport state medalist. I went on to run collegiately at the NCAA Division III level, and I love athletics and continue to treasure my high school and college experiences. It runs in my family, as my mother was a superb distance runner. At home I have a trophy from a race that she won less than one month after giving birth to me. One of my younger brothers just finished a stint on the amateur Mixed Marshal Arts circuit. One of my younger sisters has spent the last few years at the U.S. Olympic training facility for women’s wrestling. Another of my little sisters, a junior in high school, is a varsity scorer for one of the best large public school cross country teams in Wisconsin. They’re in contention for the Division I state championship this season.

So, I have always loved sports, as has my family, and I feel intuitively that they belong in the context of the formative high school years—even, perhaps even especially, at a classical preparatory school like St. Thomas More Academy that believes in the classical notion of the education of the whole person. Mens sana in corpore sano, Juvenal says. “A sound mind in a sound body.” The famous line is from the conclusion of his Satire X:

“You should pray for a sound mind in a sound body; for a stout heart that has no fear of death, and deems length of days the least of Nature’s gifts; that can endure any kind of toil; that knows neither wrath nor desire, and thinks that the woes and hard labours of Hercules are better than the loves of the banquets and the down cushions of Sardanapalus. What I commend to you, you can give to yourself; for it is assuredly through virtue that lies the one and only road to a life of peace.”

Juvenal Crowned: Frontispiece from Dryden's translation. Source: Wikipedia.com

The many student-athletes among you can attest that sports teach the discipline and build the character that Juvenal is talking about. Sports also provide the opportunity to burn off excess energy and give you a way to channel your natural competitiveness. In addition, they are beneficial academically. Two University of Arkansas researchers recently published a study that analyzed five years’ worth of sports winning percentages, sports participation rates, and graduation rates for all public schools in Ohio. Controlling for poverty levels and demographics, among other factors, these two researchers correlate participation in high school sports with vastly better academic performance.

So, sports indisputably have the potential to help form the whole person. Yet the student athletes among you also know that it’s a challenge to balance the demands of sports and academics, that it’s easy to get your priorities mixed up. What is more important—preparing for the race or the soccer game, for example, especially when your teammates are depending on you, or that big Latin test tomorrow? How do you decide when there are so many calls on your time? Wouldn’t it be better to keep sports outside the academic setting, like they do throughout most of Europe, thereby carving out a small oasis of learning in a teenage world bustling with distraction? Isn’t the very inclusion of sports in a purportedly academic setting, in other words, itself the origin of the mixed up priorities so blatantly represented in the supersized Allen, Texas, football stadium?

In case you think I’m condemning only the current moment, as opposed to some perfect era when students were angels and only cared about learning Latin without a second thought to sports, let me quote from sociologist James Coleman’s description of what a visitor would have seen upon entering a high school more than 50 years ago, in 1961:

A visitor “would likely be confronted, first of all, with a trophy case. His examination of the trophies would reveal a curious fact: The gold and silver cups, with rare exception, symbolize victory in athletic contests, not scholastic ones… Altogether, the trophy case would suggest to the innocent visitor that he was entering an athletic club, not an educational institution.”

What Coleman describes indicates mixed-up priorities already 50 years ago, before the age of multi-million dollar football stadia. His larger point—which, let me emphasize, I disagree with—is that there is a contradiction inherent in the very inclusion of sports at an institution that is not about sports but rather about learning. Rather, I would argue that sports properly understood are a necessary extension of the training of the mind that goes on in the classroom. Due to human nature, athletics, I am arguing, belong at a school whose focus is unabashedly academic, not as a begrudging concession to the youthful need to burn off energy, but as part of the formation of the whole human person. In other words, insofar as the intellect is inseparable from the body, it’s impossible for a school to lay claim to intellectual formation and, at the same time, not provide some sort of formation for the body as well—especially, I would argue, in a sports-addicted society like ours that gets athletics so very wrong.

Answering the “why” of athletics in an academically oriented school like St. Thomas More Academy has to begin with the question of “what.” In other words: What is the essence of the human being? What makes man man? Aquinas follows Aristotle in identifying man as a composite of body and soul. The essence of man is not to be found in the matter of which he is made and which changes over time, even as the man remains the same person; nor is man’s essence to be found in a his soul, as if he were merely “borrowing” a collection of matter, sinews, bones, and muscles, in order to move about and operate in the material universe while really yearning to rise into some Platonic world of the forms that is somehow more real than his lowly material existence. Rather, a human being is a composite substance comprised of matter and the immaterial part—the soul—which enforms it. The Church teaches, in fact, that at the end of the world our immaterial souls will be reunited with our glorified bodies. Matter is not somehow bad, or evil, something merely to be endured as part of our fallen human nature; rather, we will be composite substances not only in this life, but in the next as well.

Education of the whole person, therefore, which is what STMA is all about, cannot be focused solely on the life of the mind, for the intellectual life cannot be separated from our bodily existence without our ceasing to be human. When your teachers suggest that you get more sleep, for example, or eat better, they are concerned with your corpus sanum, the health of your body, in relation to your mens sana, the health of your mind. What you do to your body affects what you can do with your mind. Father Sertillanges, in his masterful book called The Intellectual Life, says one of the greatest pitfalls of intellectuals is that they too often forget that they are composite beings; that they need to exercise not only their minds, but their bodies as well. “For an intellectual,” Father Sertillanges says, “care of the body, which is the instrument of the soul, is virtue and wisdom.” On the most practical level, the idea here is that sports can make us healthier, more energetic, and more alert in the classroom. Athletic activity, coupled with enough sleep and proper nutrition, leads to better academic performance.

Father Sertillange is right, but I’m arguing for even more, at least in the formative years. Consider this example. Two years ago, a historically black, all-women’s college in Atlanta, Spelman College, eliminated its athletics program and began investing $1 million per school year into a campus-wide health-and-fitness program. The money that was being spent on Spelman’s 80 student-athletes now goes to teach all the college’s students how to live healthier, more active lives, which is certainly a laudable goal in light of America’s current obesity epidemic. Yet I find myself made uneasy by the Spelman College solution. For my cross country runners, imagine doing calisthenics and going for a run every day but never racing, never competing. Yes, learning to care for our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit, eating properly, exercising, etc., is certainly part of what high school athletics is about. But I think there’s something more—perhaps something even more fundamental—about athletics that helps us to guide our bodies and souls—our composite nature as human beings—toward a life of virtue, which is what Juvenal calls “the one and only road to a life of peace.”

My reflection is grounded, first of all, in the Phaedrus, where Plato, in the person of Socrates, lays out a tripartite vision of the soul by comparing it to a charioteer driving a chariot pulled along by two winged horses. The highest part of the soul—the intellect—is the charioteer, who directs and urges on the two horses. The two horses, in turn, represent the soul’s spirited and appetitive parts. First, the appetitive part is the ugly black horse on the left, with its base desires of hunger, thirst, etc., and its loves of pleasure, comfort, and physical satisfaction. The black horse is hard to control and constantly needs to be disciplined and mortified with the whip in order to get it to move in the right direction and with alacrity. The spirited white horse on the right, on the other hand, doesn’t need the whip. It is driven by the desire for honor and for victory. Its virtue is courage, or fortitude. It is self-driven, highly motivated, and naturally noble, needing only the charioteer’s expert guidance and firm rein to pull the chariot—that is, the soul—toward wisdom and truth. The spirited white horse is motivated and nobly minded, but he needs the firm guidance of the charioteer due to his potential excess of spiritedness.

Raphael's School of Athens, with Socrates, standing next to Aristotle, pointing toward the heavens. Source: Wikipedia.com

The Greek word for this type of spiritedness within the human soul is thumos. It is not a base appetite, like hunger or thirst, but rather the feeling that we have in association with the practice of what is right, true, and good, or perhaps our experience of the opposite in any particular situation—the feelings of injustice, dishonor, maliciousness that make us react and recoil. We might learn in theology or philosophy classes that certain ways of acting are just and others unjust. But it’s another thing actually to experience injustice and to feel the bile that rises up within us when someone has wronged us. That feeling that we have, that sense of right and wrong that we struggle to articulate, is the spiritedness, the thumos, of Plato’s white horse, who strives to pull the chariot of the soul towards the heavens, towards glory, honor, and victory. Thumos, in other words, naturally impels our souls toward what is good, just, and honorable in life, even before we can articulate why or intellectually lay out the reasoning behind it. But our spiritedness can be equally dangerous too, when not held in check by the logisticon, or the intellectual part of the soul. Think of the excesses of taking justice into one’s own hands and the potential of overdoing something in the heat of the moment. Of course, you can think of a sports field in this regard. How do you react in a soccer game when an opponent purposely kicks your shins, or in a basketball game when you are purposely fouled? Unchecked, our feeling of indignation might lead us to push back, but the truly excellent athlete is one who can keep his emotions in check and keep his cool, emerging victorious from even the most challenging of situations.

I would like to consider this Greek notion of thumos, and its relationship with the logisticon, or the intellectual part of the soul, in regard to Homer’s Iliad, which is the thumotic poem par excellence. You read the Iliad as freshmen—or you will soon—and who among you isn’t moved by the stirring opening lines?

“The wrath, do thou sing, O goddess, of Peleus’ son, Achilles, that baneful wrath which brought countless woes upon the Achaeans, and sent forth to Hades many valiant souls of warriors, and made themselves to be a spoil for dogs and all manners of birds.”

The Iliad is principally a song about Achilles’ feelings of great anger, which are the result of an injustice, a dishonor, done to him. It was a dishonor not only understood intellectually, but also an injustice deeply, thumotically felt by him that impelled him along a certain course of action, or, as it were, inaction. Homer’s poem, you might recall, opens with Agamemnon, the ruler of the Achaeans, having taken a woman named Breseis, Achilles’ war-prize, for himself instead. Achilles, in turn, wronged by Agamemnon, withdraws from the Achaeans’ fight against the Trojans. Achilles’ wrath is described as “baneful” because it brought “countless woes upon the Achaeans” in the form of the deaths of valiant warriors who might have gone home alive if Achilles had chosen to fight alongside his friends and comrades.

So, was Achilles right in following the promptings of his spirited part and refusing to fight alongside a man who had greatly dishonored him? In other words, was Achilles’ charioteer, his logisticon, the intellectual part of his soul, properly guiding the noble, thumotic steed of the spirited part of his soul? On the contrary, Homer’s poem, I think, is a vivid portrait of the thumotic part of the soul when it is not properly formed, when the leather reins are cracked and brittle due to disuse, so to speak, and the spirited part, freed from the intellectual part’s cool-headed guidance, is permitted to run free. I’ve discovered that this metaphor is very apt. I have two horses at home right now, and I’m working at training them. One of them—her name is Stella—is an excitable and highly spirited mare, and a few weeks ago she managed to work off her halter. When they feel threatened, horses stop thinking clearly, or at all, and flight instincts take over. It took me hours to trap her in the stall, lasso her, and talk her into letting me put the halter back on. Yet, when I got it back on, though she was still lathered in sweat, she immediately calmed down and responded to my guidance.

 Likewise, if a school is about the education of the whole person, then it needs to train not just the intellect so that it can guide and direct one’s feelings toward the good, the true, the beautiful, and the honorable, but it must provide some sort of safe training ground where this sort of guidance and discipline can be practiced and carried out. Some refer to this education of the whole person—the intellect, appetitive part, and the spirited part—as “soulcraft.” A school devoted to soulcraft needs not only to form the intellect, but also to provide a place where the rules and strictures that are intellectually understood are enforced as spirited young people like yourselves strive for honor and glory; where your feelings of indignation regarding injustices done to you can result in an appeal to the referees; where you are rewarded according to the excellence that you achieve in small matters so that you learn to order your soul to achieve excellence in the overarchingly important matter of the kind of life you will choose to live. Will you be a crook, a criminal, a jealous malcontent, or a saint? Will you be disciplined enough to maintain your virtuous composure under fire amidst the stresses and challenges of adult life? There are many ways that this sort of formation can occur and has occurred for young people, and for different ages it might have been apprenticeships in various guilds, hard work on the family farm, etc., but within the preparatory school context sports—that is, competition on the athletic field, with its lessons in victory and defeat, honor and fairness, teamwork and glory—is certainly a viable option.

Thumos itself, of course, is closely associated with war, which is fallen man’s primal encounter with honor, glory, victory, defeat, and death. And the first sports, of course, were a training ground for learning these warlike virtues before heading out onto the battlefield for the first time or, over the course of a warrior’s life, to keep his skills sharp. The first marathoner, according to Plutarch, was a Greek warrior who ran from Marathon to Athens to warn the Athenians of Persian ships that were headed in their direction. Wrestling is clearly useful in hand-to-hand combat, and you can imagine the usefulness of the shot-put, the discus, and the javelin throw. It’s no accident that Plato’s future guardians in the Republic—and the philosopher-king, who would be able to devote himself to intellectual contemplation—began their training not with a tablet and stylus in hand listening to class lectures, but living in military barracks and learning the art of war.

In the Iliad, though, the soul of an improperly, inadequately prepared Achilles is disordered, and his spirited part therefore proves too strong for the intellectual part of his soul and breaks free. In the heat of the moment, the safety of Achilles’ fellow Achaeans counts as naught in comparison with the dishonor that he feels when Breseis is taken from him. His overstrong feelings of dishonor and injustice lead to the death of people whom he loves, especially his close friend Patroclus. One of the final books of the Iliad describes Patroclus’ funeral, and in particular the funeral games. Among the funeral games, which include many of the warlike competitions I’ve touched on, there is a chariot race. No doubt Plato was intimately familiar with the charioteers of this famous episode, so it’s especially worthy of attention. I’ve always read the chariot race as being the place where Achilles, who presides over the games, finally sets the spirited part of his soul in proper relation to its intellectual part. In other words, it’s where the the thumotic steed is put back into its harness not in order to tame it, but in order that the charioteer, the intellect, the logisticon, might properly order its strong feeling toward the good.

A chariot race, depicted on ancient Greek pottery. Source: Wikipedia.com

My argument that Achilles’ soul is finally guided by its intellectual part, not its spirited part, is based on the way that Achilles distributes the prizes after the chariot race is finished. Rather than awarding the first through fifth prizes according to actual placement, Achilles takes into account each warrior’s arete. This Greek word connotes complete virtue, or human excellence, and is closely linked with the concept of all the virtues working in concert with each other. Think of the four cardinal virtues—prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude. The truly excellent warrior is courageous enough to attack but prudent enough to choose the course of action that is most likely to result in victory. Of course, finishing first in war-like competition such as a chariot race is an important determining factor of a warrior’s complete excellence because it shows that he has trained and disciplined his body, and thus Achilles rightly awards the first prize to Diomedes, who had won this particular chariot race despite the machinations of the god Apollo. But Achilles then awards the second prize—a mare—to Eumelus, whom he knows to be the most skilled charioteer of all the competitors, even though Eumelus actually finished in last place due to Athena smashing his chariot wheel. Antilochus, who actually finished in second place, is highly displeased that Eumelus has received the second-place prize. But, though Antilochus finished in second place, he is less excellent for having resorting to foul play, mistreating his horses, for example, and, at one point, cutting off Menelaus, who ended up finishing behind him. Even more remarkably than Eumelus getting the second-place prize, perhaps, is that the fifth place price goes to Nestor, Antilochus’ father, who didn’t even compete in the race but whose lifetime reputation for warrior excellence preceded him.

Now, obviously this redistribution of prizes isn’t quite the way things would play out in a modern track-and-field race, and in a high stakes meritocracy like our world today it might rub us the wrong way. A non-competitor like Nestor would not receive a prize, and a cheater like Antilochus would simply be disqualified. But that’s not Homer’s point, and the competition of life isn’t like that anyway. We can’t always point to the field judge and say, “He cheated!” in the course of living our life, and yet we must be able to keep our cool and maintain our own practice of virtue even in a world where virtue is considered outmoded. Homer’s point, I think, is that a life fully lived, that is, the virtuous life of human excellence, and a life worthy of the poet’s song and of immortality, is not the blind, hot-headed pursuit of honor and victory at all costs like Antilochus’ in the chariot race. Our reputation and our eternal glory are not only found in the ends that we achieve, but first and foremost in the means by which we achieved those ends. The Muses sing of Achilles’ wrath not because of its disorder and the disaster that it wrought in being allowed to rage unchecked by reason, but because Achilles learned from his mistakes and righted the wrongs as best he could. In the end, Achilles learned that true arete, true excellence, is only possible when one’s soul is properly ordered. As a leader among men, he orders the chariot race distribution of the prizes at the chariot race not only according to the ends but also in light of the means. For me, the most touching scene in the Iliad comes when Achilles tempers the wrath he feels at the slaying of Patroclus. You might recall that he recognizes the humanity of Hector, the Trojan who had slain his friend, and permits Priam, Hector’s father, to retrieve his son’s body. The Muses sing of Achilles’ wrath, I think, because he allowed it to cool. That practical application of the intellectual discipline of the spirited part of our nature—learned on the fly in Achilles’ case, and learned on the sportsfield for some of us—is part and parcel of soulcraft.

I’m also thinking of sports’ role in soulcraft in light of the life story of Louis Zamparini after reading a biography of this Olympic distance runner this past summer. The biography, called Unbroken, is by Laura Hillenbrand, who also authored Seabiscuit, and I thoroughly recommend Unbroken. Like Seabiscuit, this Hillenbrand book is destined for the silver screen since Angelina Jolie is producing a big-budget movie by the same name that is set to be released in December.

Zamparini’s story, in any case, begins in the 1920s in a small town on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Zamparini was an absolute terror of a child, stealing food and even alcohol from neighbors and local business and causing general mayhem around town. His favorite targets were the local bootleggers, since bootleggers weren’t exactly able to go to the police to report the theft of their contrabrand products. It got serious enough that Zamparini’s high school was about to expel him and the local police were considering sending him to prison. Through the intervention of Zamparini’s older brother, though, Louis Zamparini got one more chance—a spot on the high school track team since his older brother argued that he’d be able to channel his boundless energy positively if he participated in sports.

So, on the condition that he run track, Zamparini was permitted to stay in school. The older Zamparini brother would ride his bike alongside his younger sibling, forcing him to run and urging him to reduce the number of breaks he took during long training runs in order to chainsmoke cigarettes. To say the least, it was something of a slow start athletically. Then Zamparini beat someone in a race and experienced the exhilaration of having the crowd applaud his achievement. The next race he tried a little harder, and soon he was making the front page of the Los Angeles papers and setting high school records. He ended up successfully graduating from high school, and it was only a few years later that he would be competing at the Olympic Trials in New York, making the team for the 1936 Berlin Olympics against the expectations of the odds makers, who considered him too young and inexperienced, and competing in the 5,000 meters and winning the admiration of, all people, Adolf Hitler for the spunk he showed in coming from behind for a fairly respectable finish.

Zamparini running for USC. Source: Usctrojans.com

Zamparini’s true Olympic glory would have come four years later in 1940 when he would have been an older and more disciplined runner. But, of course, World War II intervened, and this is the part of Zamparini’s life that, in my estimation, demonstrates the strength of his character more than any track race ever could. Zamparini enlisted in the Air Force, and his plane ended up being shot down over the Pacific Ocean. He and two crewmates survived the crash and clambered onto a life raft. Zamparini took charge from the start, rationing the supplies and devising mind strengthening exercises. Despite the exercises, one of Zamparini’s crewmates literally lost his mind at a certain point, devouring most of the rations and eventually succumbing to the elements. But Zamparini gathered water when it rained and caught albatrosses and fish with his bare hands, and he kept himself and the other crewmate alive for a record of 47 days before they were captured by the Japanese Navy.

Not that their suffering ended at that point. Due in large part to Zamparini’s fame as a runner and Japanese plans to exploit that fame, they were kept at a secret prisoner of war camp that was not registered with the Red Cross and where, therefore, the Japanese were freer to employ torture and any number of sadistic practices. Zamparini endured near starvation and nearly unspeakable sadism on the part of one psychopathic Japanese officer, who seemed to have a special hatred for him because, as the title of Hillenbrand’s book suggests, the runner-turned-POW could not be broken. At one point this Japanese officer required every other POW to hit Zamparini as hard as he could, and the officer made them repeat their blows as many times as necessary to ensure that they really did strike their fellow prisoner that hard. Many prisoners died from starvation or from disease, or else lost their minds in these unspeakable conditions. Zamparini, on the other hand, survived, and he also remained lucid enough to resist every Japanese attempt to use him in radio propaganda messages that were broadcast to American listening audiences on shortwave radio.

Zamparini suffered tremendously from post-traumatic stress disorder in the years following his after the twin bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the unconditional surrender of Japan. Eventually, though, he discovered and embraced Evangelical Christianity, and his life stabilized. He died at the age of 97 just this past summer, a true icon of what some call America’s “Greatest Generation.” What struck me most in Zamparini’s life story was the strength of character that permitted him to survive mind-bending starvation and torture for years as a POW. Why could he bear the suffering and psychological torture while so many others couldn’t? I’m not suggesting that strength of character is only available to those with Olympic-calibre athletic abilities and pretensions like Zamparini’s. But the fact of the matter is that during Zamparini’s formative high school years, he discovered athletics and focused his boundless desire to improve himself into athletics’ system of strictures and rules. He learned to compete and to win, to play within the rules, and to discipline his mind and body.  It’s not as if the lessons one learns on the sports field are only applicable on the sports field. Rather, Zamparini’s story shows that it is precisely the opposite. Just as ancient Greek youth honed their skills at warlike games in order to be prepared for the real battles to come, so, too, Zamparini had honed his body and mind such that he was able to endure an almost unbelievable amount of privation and physical suffering without losing his cool even as the most egregious injustices were perpetrated against him. I would argue that Zamparini’s story is a modern example of the type of arete, complete virtue, or human excellence, that Achilles went out of his way to honor at the funeral games for his dear friend Patroclus.

Again, the inclusion of sports in a preparatory school setting is not a begrudging concession to our sports-obsessed culture and its mixed-up priorities. Rather, due to our body-soul composite nature as human beings, I have argued that sports properly understood are a necessary extension of the soulcraft that begins in the classroom, soulcraft that is even more necessary in those areas that the wider culture gets so egregiously wrong. Sports are a place where one can learn practically to order his soul toward the good, interiorizing the intellectual lessons of the classroom by means of practical application. Our natural human spiritedness should not be repressed or ignored in the process of the formation of human persons, and to ignore the physicality of that spiritedness, to pretend that it is merely metaphorical or that it can be redirected solely into intellectual pursuits, is to misunderstand human nature. True, most of us are not bound to do battle with the Trojans and be immortalized in the songs of the Muses, or to be tortured as prisoners of war, but all of us yearn for honor and for glory, and all of us are capable of achieving it in some realm. We don’t need a $60 million stadium to engage in soulcraft that makes this possible. Goodness, we’ve found here at STMA that we can do without locker rooms or a gymnasium. A soccer or a volley ball, or even just pair of running shoes and somebody to race against is really all that is required. Even the worst of high school athletes—the runner who strives to finish second to last instead of last, the basketball player who is only put into the game during the last few minutes when the lead is assured—nonetheless learns to order his soul properly and places himself on equal footing to the star athlete in the contest that really matters—the lifelong pursuit of human excellence.

Of course, I would be remiss not to conclude by saying that ultimately the victory that the spirited part of our soul so yearns for is the victory over sin and death, and we’re all called to achieve that victory together with Christ, who gives us the impossible command “Be ye perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” and the grace to live out this supernatural calling and share in the spoils of His victory. St. Paul’s sports analogy in First Corinthians is spot on:


“Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.”

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