Catholicism: An extreme sport?

By Dave McClow

Every generation has had its version of extreme sports, defined as “any athletic endeavor considered more dangerous than others.” Today they feature a combination of speed, height, danger, and spectacular stunts. They include a wide variety of events on snow, water, land, bridges, empty swimming pools, etc. They require quick thinking with potentially fatal consequences. They jack up the feel-good neurotransmitters and natural narcotics, which can make them addictive. I am guessing the demographics are largely young men, with many mothers who can’t bear to watch them.

What makes extreme sports popular today? Potential suspects include: 1) marketing; 2) an anti-authoritarian posture toward the previous generation, though things like surfing and ice climbing have been around a long time; 3) evolution of knowledge and skills, which produce some amazing feats; and 4) probably the rise of fatherless children and “nones” — people who pick “none” for their religion — who are seeking that innate desire for an ecstatic experience of transcendence.

The Catholic Church
is extreme 

It always has been and always will be, if the Holy Spirit is involved. Think about it —we get accused of having too many children since we prohibit contraception, then, of having celibate and childless priests and religious. But I want to focus on some other extremes — sorrow and joy — using the Triduum as the launching pad.

“Let this holy building shake with joy!” is a beautiful line from the Easter Vigil. I thought immediately of families and evangelizing the world:  “Families, we need to shake the world with joy!” If we live out the love we have been given in our families, we will actually “shake the world with joy!”

Pope Francis has been emphasizing joy a lot — for instance, “the joy of evangelizing.” Can you hear the shock of Catholic men everywhere? “He wants me to evangelize?” After having to look it up…, “You’re kidding!  I’ll die for my faith, but talk about my faith? No way!” His latest exhortation is also titled “The Joy of Love,” subtitled “On the Love in the Family.”

So what is joy?  

From a psychological or experiential perspective, joy, like love, moves us out from ourselves toward God and others. The opposite movement, borne of fear and sin, is toward ourselves.  In fear we protect ourselves with a fight, flight, or freeze response.  If friends, spouses, siblings, or parents hurt us, and we are angry, hurt, or afraid, they feel like a threat, and we treat them like an enemy — as less than persons. Fear and sin turn us inward, separating us from God and others! Joy and love move us outward, with perfect love driving out fear.

Joy is also an encounter with the loving presence of God or others in our lives, especially in our suffering.  If we can run to our Father’s merciful and loving arms when we have sinned or are hurt, afraid, ashamed, or even murderously mad, we experience joy. It really doesn’t matter what happens to us if we stay connected with God and/or
others. Jesus would say it this way, “Joyful are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

Where are the extremes of sorrow and joy? 

They are found in the passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord. Holy Thursday night he knows he will be betrayed and executed. He is grieved unto death in the Garden of Gethsemane, sweating drops of blood, asking for a way out; but he remains connected, intensely praying to his Father.  He does not deny or avoid his deepest emotions. He runs to his Abba and then decides to do his Father’s will. Later he is mocked, spat upon, punched, beaten and whipped to within an inch of his life, then immobilized on a cross, dying the harshest of deaths, praying. So through his own tortuous suffering and death, Jesus demonstrates how to stay connected with Abba; it is the movement of joy …  even on a cross.  And how twisted or crazy is it for the Church to have used this instrument of extreme torture and death as its symbol of hope and joy. The crucifix is so commonplace today that we don’t realize how in-your-face it was to the Romans — extreme!

The resurrection of Jesus is the most extreme, joy-filled lynch pin for our faith. His resurrection swallows up death, our biggest fear. It was the joy of the resurrection through the Holy Spirit that transformed common men into fearless and joyful men no matter what — whether imprisoned or tortured. If you conquer the fear of death, what else is there to fear? That is how they became extreme evangelizers.

In 1913, long before our extreme sports craze, Father Robert Hugh Benson wrote, “(The) world turns away on Good Friday from the unutterable depths of her (the Catholic Church’s) sorrow, and on Easter day from the unscalable heights of her joy, calling the one morbid and the other hysterical.” His point: “The Catholic Church…is always too ‘extreme’ for the world.”

Men, let us once again shake the world with extreme joy.

Posted on April 20, 2016, to: