Now that we are about to enter into the summer Olympics season in Tokyo, our Archdiocese has just celebrated its bicentennial, and we have just celebrated the 4th of July national holiday, my memory was brought back to the nation’s bicentennial celebration in 1976. It was a time of great celebration and red, white and blue was everywhere. We even painted my brothers’ bedroom with a giant flag on one wall, taking up the whole space from floor to ceiling. Lots of contact paper stencils for stars. We didn’t repaint the room for over decades, so we had a visual reminder of that bicentennial for years to come.
But something else stood out about that year as well. The summer Olympics were in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. This was before the constant distractions of cable television and the Internet (hard even to remember those times now!), so the whole nation was fixed on those games, and especially a young girl from Romania, Nadia Comaneci, a gymnast who took the world by storm. She was the first gymnast in Olympic history to be awarded a perfect 10.0 score. I remember especially her grace on the balance beam – that impossibly narrow plank on which she seemed to float effortlessly with impeccable grace in every movement.
Like many people, once we hit middle age, I began to realize just how much we take our sense of balance for granted, as it diminishes over time. I even had a bout several years ago with vertigo that lasted a couple of weeks, which attacks the balance in the inner ear. Not fun. Once the balance goes, everything else is affected. That’s a good image for the Christian life as well. Our life of faith is not just about making sure we don’t break the Commandments, that we get to Mass each week, and so on, as important as those are. It’s also about keeping everything in spiritual balance and harmony. The saints are those who teach us how to do that. Many commentators remarked how effortless it appeared for Nadia to balance on bars and perform maneuvers on the mat – so that it looked like pure fun. The reality is that she trained for endless hours with a grueling schedule (that no one except her trainers saw) so that it could be done automatically and gracefully.
It is much the same with the spiritual life. If we are to live a joyful, balanced Christian life, that necessarily involves an immense amount of discipline: daily prayer, self-mortification (deliberately giving up good things and sacrificing them for the Lord or those in need), regularly examining our consciences to ask the Lord where we are and aren’t following His will, and so on. If we don’t attend to that, we “fall off the beam”, so to speak, into sin and vice. If we do, we can provide a joyful and beautiful witness to the world what life in Christ is like, so that the perfection of that life is even visible to others.
There are many “pitfalls” – areas where it is easy to fall out of balance. One of these is getting to understand how God the Father is both perfect justice and perfect mercy. Some people go so far into overemphasizing God’s justice that they think of Him as “out to get me”, with a vindictive desire for punishment, and they act accordingly. (They give up on trying to serve God, because they think He won’t or can’t love them anyway, because of their sinfulness). Many others go to the other extreme and overemphasize God’s mercy, and act accordingly. For example, they go about their business, doing whatever pleases them or whatever the world approves of, not caring if they are breaking God’s commandments because after all (they think), God is merciful and will just take me into Heaven no matter what.
Reading and praying the Scriptures and meditating on the prayers of the Mass help us restore that very tricky balance. For example, those who overemphasize God’s mercy might meditate on St. Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 7, wherein Our Lord says, “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” One wise priest told us that passages on the torment of self-imposed separation from God (Hell) because of our lack of love for Him, help serve as the ultimate motivator to set our relationship with Him right. On the other hand, those who overemphasize God’s justice might do well to meditate on the love that God shows to the repentant sinner in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), where the Father tells the elder brother, “My son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
But perhaps the most important “balancing” reflection we should have is to compare the words of the 4th Century Creed we say weekly at Mass, “I believe … He shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead” with our reflection on just how much Jesus the Divine Judge wants to save us, as He did Dismas the Good Thief on the Cross, who repented in his death throes, privileged to hear the Lord’s glorious words, “Today, you will be with Me in Paradise.”