Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
Professional baseball players make the sport look easy. It’s not. Everything happens in fractions of a second: a batter decides to swing at a smallish ball traveling toward him at a speed faster than most cars are allowed to drive on a highway; a fielder decides how far to run in a particular direction for a catch, or at what trajectory he needs to throw the ball to his teammate; a pitcher suddenly hurls the ball to a baseman instead of the catcher in an attempt to throw a runner out. Watch the World Series game tonight if you don’t believe me. This game is hard. And yet, again, the pros make it look easy; or, more accurately, they make it look possible. When kids watch their heroes step up to the plate and knock a homerun out of the park, they often think to themselves, “I can do that.”
What those kids rarely realize is that the effortlessness they’re watching onscreen or in the ballpark is the result of years spent cultivating God-given athletic talent through training, hard work, discipline, and sacrifice. They’re watching the hours spent in the gym, the innumerable practices, the strict diet (in most cases), the intense spring training, the grueling travel schedule. They’re watching a lifetime of choosing one way over another for the sake of a desired goal. In other words, they’re watching a pretty good model for the life of Christian discipleship (you know, if you give the players the benefit of the doubt as far as performance-enhancing drugs and other illicit activities are concerned—it’s a good model, not a perfect one).
Where the model breaks down is precisely where it also breaks open. Whereas professional athletes, or musicians, or dancers, or actors, or teachers, or doctors all have specific God-given talents or capacities that they’ve chosen to cultivate through work and study, in the Christian life, God has capacitated everyone to become a disciple. Indeed, God has not only capacitated but called everyone to become a disciple, and not just any run-of-the-mill disciple, but a Major League Disciple—a saint. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).
We read in Lumen Gentium of this “universal call to holiness,” that “all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status are called to the fullness of the Christian life and the perfection of charity” (§40). Yet this sanctity is not something we can attain on our own through sheer capacity of will (sorry, Pelagius); that would be like someone with no athletic ability whatsoever dreaming that a career in Major League Baseball is possible if he simply eats enough Wheaties and works out enough. Rather, the capacity for sanctity is derived from the grace received in Baptism, from being grafted like a branch onto Christ the true vine. Just like the athlete or musician does not “earn” his or her natural capacities like height or a particular physical build, this grace—this capacity for discipleship and holiness and sainthood—is also a gift the Christian has not earned; yet, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes, the fact that the Christian has not earned this grace in no way reduces its value. Quite the opposite. This is a “costly grace” (The Cost of Discipleship, ch.1), and the price is nothing less than the life of the beloved Son, Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.
Accepting this gift of costly grace costs us something, too. Just as imparting the gift of grace cost the Son of God his life on the Cross, so too does our receiving his gift of grace cost us our very lives: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Lk 9:23–24; see also Mt 16:24–25 and Mk 8:34–35). The professional athlete knows that growing in his or her ability means saying no to some things in order to say yes to others. To grow in holiness, we must follow Christ, and to follow Christ means we say yes to one way of life and no to all others; we must say yes to him who is The Way (cf. Jn 14:6). Grace costs, both in the giving and in the receiving, but, as any professional athlete will tell you, the price of pain is worth the prize of glory on the field, and how much more so for the Christian, whose prize is the glory of eternal life with God in heaven.
Just as the pros make baseball look easy, in the Christian life, too, we find outstanding examples of holiness who almost make following Jesus look easy. Some of these men and women have been canonized as saints, and as we prepare to celebrate the Solemnity of All Saints this Sunday, we have to be aware of the reality that, in recalling the lives of these canonized saints, or even in thinking back on the lives of those holy loved ones who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, it can be easy to look at them with the eyes of children watching their favorite baseball players at bat—to see only the seeming effortlessness of the saints and to forget that their faith only radiates the life of Christ because it has been tried and tested and purified by fire (cf. 1 Pet 1:6). The effortlessness we see when we look at the saints attests to the mystery that they have attained what T.S. Eliot describes as “A condition of complete simplicity / (Costing nothing less than everything)” (“Little Gidding,” Four Quartets). Every day of the Christian life is a day in the crucible, but for those who persevere, for those who gaze at their Savior on the Cross and say, “I can do that” or better yet, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13), the glory of eternal life awaits.
Baseball is hard, but this is a good thing, for as Coach Jimmy Dugan reminds us in A League of Their Own, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” The reality is that, no matter how hard a person may try, not everyone has the physical, God-given capacities to play this sport well. The life of discipleship is infinitely harder, but it’s supposed to be hard, because Christ’s gift of self on the Cross that made this life possible was the hardest and greatest gift of all, and our only possible response to the gift of “costly grace” we receive in the waters of Baptism (where, as St. Paul reminds us, we are baptized into Christ’s death (cf. Rom 6:3)) is to offer in return a life of “costly discipleship”—a life that costs “nothing less than everything,” a life poured forth in love that gives unto the end. The hard is what makes it great. The hard is what makes us saints.