Prayer as Athletics
By The Rev. Canon Glenn Spencer
Rector, All Saints Anglican Church
In basketball season we get excited over our favorite university. The colors come out, we “Google” the schedule and our collective blood pressure goes up – things get very personal. One basketball coach refers to his school’s student body as the team’s sixth player. But the fact of the matter is that a university known for its basketball program is not one in which every single student is good at playing basketball. Or take a different example: Imagine a city that is celebrated for its love and production of the arts, an unabashedly “artsy city!” They will have artists’ studios, well-publicized exhibits, maybe a weekly paper dedicated to the arts, and perhaps a special week everyone looks forward to that they call “The Festival of the Arts!” An “artsy city” puts the arts on a pedestal; the citizens respect and support the arts. But an “artsy city” isn’t one in which all the citizens are artists. The citizens may feel a personal attachment to “our artists and what they do for us,” but they are not all artists. Now all this makes sense in the context of universities and cities, but I want to suggest that it makes sense for the Church as well – with a twist.
A parish's vocation is the worship God the Father, through God the Son, by God the Holy Spirit. The Mass is the center of our community life. Whether it is a Sunday Service filled with worshipers, song and color or a weekday Low Mass with only you and a priest, you and he are participating in the center, the very heart of the Body of Christ. From that beating heart the Life of God is pumped into the whole parish and through her God’s life enters the whole world. For all our families, our guilds, our groups, committees, and ministers, our choir, teachers, students and cooks – everyone and every mission – from the Altar to the Ironing Board in the Sacristy, work becomes prayer, labor is love offered up.
A good basketball team is bound together by coaching, discipline, training, and a shared identity of being the representative team for their university. A good Choir and good Acolytes are also bound together by good coaching, discipline, training, practice and a shared identity with their parish. And parishioners naturally refer to “our Choir” or “our Acolytes” – “our Team,” because we respect them for the work they put into their gift. We are thus joined to one another in a bond of affection and worship.
All gifts and graces are perfected in community, but some, like art, require long periods of solitude that interrupt community to develop proficiency and to craft a donation to be offered back to the community. Prayer, as in a parishioner who is gifted, is less likely to be plainly and publicly experienced, though it may be sensed mysteriously. However, even though some Christians are exceptionally gifted in prayer, (and here is the twist) unlike all the other gifts, prayer is the vocation of every one of us without exception. So even if it is only you and the priest at a weekday Low Mass, at that time and in that place, you are our team! You are there in the pew to compete on behalf of this parish. Prayer, private or in the Mass, is an athletic event. Competition is unavoidable. What competes for your time, energy, and devotion? The proficient athlete will train and discipline herself to win and if she wins she receives, as St. Paul said, “a perishable crown” on behalf of her city or her university. But God’s athlete never loses in the Mass because Christ is her Prize! As she receives the Body and Blood of Christ, the imperishable Prize, she does so on behalf of her whole parish.