by Dn. Mark Oleynik
There are different ways that writers, songwriters, and poets tell the story of life. Some describe life as a tempestuous sea in need of a pilot. Others describe it like a battlefield full of danger and threat. Yet others describe life as a journey to be traveled.
But life is also a race. That is the way St. Paul looks at it in 1 Corinthians (9:24-27):
Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, 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. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
A phrase from St. John’s gospel helps us to picture St. Paul’s race when he writes that Jesus, “enlightens every man that comes into the world” (1:9) When life begins, God lights the torch. It is ours to live and run, keeping the torch burning. It was said that the ancient torch race was a symbol of all life. This torch is inside: in the same place where the still small voice speaks, a flame is burning. That flame is the light of life. On the altar of the soul, there is a fire which must not go out. Keeping the inner fires burning is about the hardest task in life and St. Paul suggests some ways to do it.
First, he says, “run that you may obtain it.” That is to say, get to the goal without letting anyone or anything else put out your light. Obtaining a worthwhile goal is attaining life. Rain and floods and wind come to extinguish the flame within the body’s temple where the Spirit dwells and must guard it.
Second, note that Paul also writes, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things.” If the first goal is to get to the goal without letting anyone or anything else put out your light, the second appeal is to “get there” without putting out your own light.
A person who lacks self-control puts out his own light. For each light that is blown out by somebody else, there probably are many more which are put out by one’s own self. We are both our own best friends and worst enemies. What people say about us often hurts more than what they do against us, but the thing that hurts most is what we do against ourselves.
It is important to understand that the more intense one’s life and light, the stronger the temptation will be to burn it out quickly. The higher the ideals, the keener the conscience, the finer the soul, greater are the temptations. If you have much light, you need much control. To be set free by Christ means that one’s own light will never be put out. Rather it will see us through.
Finally, this passage encourages us to choose a worthwhile goal in life and move toward it; to really to keep our eyes on the goal. Losing sight of a worthwhile goal frequently causes us to take the short view of life, which makes pessimists and spreads the feeling of defeat. Our faith enables us to see the present (that’s the short view) as only a page in the large volume of life (that’s the long view). One page may be splattered with tragedies, defeats and heartbreak, but it is the whole volume that matters.
To be a successful athlete it takes more than just showing up on game day or at race time. It takes preparation, discipline, sacrifice, smart choices, desire to win, and confidence. In St. Paul’s Corinth, a competitor trained and avoided all the things that might hurt his chance for victory. If he did this, he would win the prize of a pine wreath placed on his head—it was one of the greatest honors a Greek could receive. Likewise Christ wants us to endure, to fight to the end and beyond, to stand steady when all others have run for cover, and to hold aloft the banner of righteousness.