March Madness and the Spiritual Life

The internet is a weird place, but sometimes it does great things.  This week, my Facebook “On this Day” has been showing me pictures and memories of last year’s Holy Week.  Mixed in with memories of our last Holy Week of Darkness, I’ve also been seeing lots of updates and stories about March Madness.  So after a couple of days of that, I got to thinking about the mix between the two.

I’m not the biggest basketball fan in the world, but the NCAA tournament at the end of the college basketball season is always a fascinating event. Teams which get a bid to the tournament have to play intense games on a tight schedule with a decent amount of travel involved.  This is especially true for the teams that will make it to the Final Four, as they’ll have to travel to a new location for the last two games.  What’s more, it’s high stakes: one loss and your tournament trip is done.  See you next year, if you’re lucky.

That’s really intense pressure!  Even for an outsider with exactly zero sports ability (read: me), it gets me excited imagining how thrilling that ride must be for a player.  When you add in the possibility for amazing last second heroics, it’s instantly entertaining.  Check this for example:

Anytime something like this happens in sports, people immediately want to know more.  You can guarantee that years from now, these Villanova players will be in a documentary telling the rest of the story.  They’ll fill us in about things like their summer training camp before that season, discussions they had during practice months ahead of time, the decisions they made during timeouts, and of course how that final shot went down.  They’ll also, ten or twenty years from now, finally be able to understand how big that moment was for them, and what it meant.

One of the things I always find fascinating about championship runs with college teams is learning how the team developed and formed.  I love ESPN’s 30 for 30 films, because they give such awesome perspective on some of these teams.  And while I haven’t seen every episode, one consistent theme is that great teams, and even great players, have to learn to trust one another.  They have to develop, in other words, a way of working together, of being a team.  That element of trust is what makes some of the imperceptible and unpredictable moments possible.  The coach has to trust and believe in the long-term strategy.  You don’t get to the Final Four and suddenly change your warmup routine or approach to game-plans.  A championship run hangs on a lot of things going right, and you can’t force it.  In a way, it has to be your year, but  you have to be ready to respond and roll with the punches to get there.  Check this story out, from Rip Hamilton, for a quick example of this principle.

In a certain way, this has parallels in the spiritual life.  Perhaps not in the ordinary experience, but in the lives of saints, we see some similar themes.  Most of us are probably used to approaching our spiritual life and prayer life in short spurts and trying to do better in the immediate future.  I know that’s been my life for a long time.  I like to imagine at least that as I get older, I’m getting more patience and am realizing the value of consistent practices rather than temporarily effective over-zealous approaches.  Because that is the mark of the saints.  They don’t become holy because they tried super hard for three weeks.  In fact, they don’t ever become holy because they tried.

The great saints show us that holiness is more received than achieved.  Don’t get me wrong, of course there’s effort, but it’s mostly an effort to truly entrust ourselves to the divine will.  Fulton Sheen for instance, despite perhaps having a penchant for being flashy, and enjoying the public eye a lot, kept up his daily Holy Hour for years.  I once did some rough math and determined that Sheen spent over three years of his life in adoration.  Three. YEARS.  He also prayed the Rosary daily and of course the Divine Office.  This went on for decades.  But yet if you read his autobiography you’ll see that he finds towards the end of his life he realized that he hadn’t fully let God into his life.  That is, he looks back with some shame about the way things went.  But he knows, as he wrote his autobiography in the months leading up to his death, that as he became less and less “useful” and was confined more and more to his simple apartment that he retired in, he was finally allowing Jesus to mold him into a saint.  For Sheen, all his success and fame wind up, in the end, not mattering terribly much.  But his consistence in prayer and in adoration finally pay off.  This becomes what his life is ultimately geared toward.  And he would die in his chapel. the place he most loved to be.

Another great example is Mother Teresa.  Or, as she’s “officially” known, St. Teresa of Calcutta.  Reading her personal letters regarding the founding of a new order and the growth of the Missionaries of Charity, it is abundantly clear how much help she had to receive and how little she could do, on her own, to advance the work God had planned for her.  She had to wait, and depend on others, and ultimately trust that God would work out His plans on a much different schedule than she hoped for.  Mother Teresa had to place incredible trust in her superiors to get approval for her to leave her order as a nun in order to strike out on this new path.  If you think winning the NCAA tournament is tough odds, you have got to read about the formation of the MC.  The odds were at every turn really difficult.  And if you know the end of the story, how many houses would open up around the world, how many sisters and eventually even brothers would join Mother Teresa in serving the poor, it’s even crazier.  She left Loreto for India with almost no money, no place to live or house her sisters, and with no other people in her order.  It was just her.  But of course we know the rest of the story.

So, all that to say, basketball is cool and all, but the saints offer some pretty sweet finishes of their own.

God Love You!


Posted by Luke Arredondo

Luke Arredondo earned his B.A. in philosophy from St. Joseph Seminary and an M.A. in Theology at Notre Dame Seminary. He is currently a PhD student in the Religion, Ethics, and Philosophy track at Florida State University, where he studies Catholic sexual ethics and Catholic moral theology with Dr. Aline Kalbian. He also writes at his own blog, at Ignitum Today, and Aleteia. His most important work, though, is as a husband to his wife Elena and a father to his three daughters.