“Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Dr Johnson’s dry remark was actually made to protect the condemned man, a disgraced and embezzling priest, from the accusation that he was not the author of his own last sermon.
Johnson, with characteristic generosity, had secretly written it for him; but he wrote it too well to convince people that ‘Dr Simony’, as he was called, could possibly have done it. Behind every story there lurks another.
Maybe behind the headline story of the Olympics there hides another, also related to the sharper edge of death. Austerity Britain, fighting its economic Dunkirk, is splurging on a second global morale-booster within as many months. Before the big opening the whinging poms were complaining about the cost, the traffic chaos, the bad layout of the park. But, true to form, on the opening night the event was hailed as a celebration of all that is best in humanity and all that was best in Britain was being shared with the world. Let’s believe it while the buzz lasts. Before the final medal count, it does seem churlish, perhaps, to think how many libraries could have been kept open, how many homes could have been built or refurbished for poorer families, how many schools improved or emergency operations performed even for the cost of the fireworks. Maybe, though, it is good for morale and impresses foreign investors. Anyway, we have kept our triple AAA rating.
No one can win that debate. So let’s look at why the world invests so much in this mega sporting event that, like religion, has no direct effect on the material quality of life and arguably gives only a short-lived emotional uplift. Firstly, no doubt, it is a major relief from the insufferable tedium and angst of ordinary life. Culture itself is said to have developed as a break from the routine of hunting and gathering. Most of modern culture presents itself unashamedly as escapism. Religion, which grew out of culture as a major off-line activity, has to face the same charge; and sport, which was closely related to religious ritual in the ancient world, makes no bones about it: it is not only a break from the ordinary but better than the ordinary. It is the back pages that many people turn to first. Like war in a heroic culture, sport can reveal humanity at its bravest, noblest, most generous. The cowards and traitors of war (like the sportsmen taking prohibited substances) do not diminish the glory of the heroes.
So the Games are variations of the ‘eternal themes of art and song’ that allow us to rise above the mundane and the mediocre. These themes are not many and may be reduced even to two: love and death. Love affirms life and makes anything worthwhile. Death calls everything into question and rings down the curtain on the best. They go together, overtly or otherwise, in all human self-dramatisation, whether in Shakespeare’s Globe or the Olympic Stadium.
Sporting events weave love and death into an artificially intensified experience of human endeavour. The spectator is captivated not only by the dazzling affirmation of life, youth, health and beauty but is also entranced by the shadow it casts, within which death can be sensed. This is not as morose as it sounds. St Benedict knew that life was lived more intensely when death was ‘kept constantly before our eyes’. Nor is it merely about wondering if the athlete will survive the risks they are taking.
Every last whistle at a match, every loosening of the toehold on the edge of the diving board, every finishing line that springs the crowd to its feet plays with the fire of mortality, the deadline in everything that gives life focus and acuity – the sharp edge without which life is horribly dull and scattered. Someone said that the cure for boredom in anything is to keep doing it. But this is the narrow road that few take. The broader path is to construct a working model of the exciting and glorious and to concentrate on it while it lasts, enjoy its effect, and turn to the next event.
Nevertheless, sport is the last remnant of sacred theatre left to humanity apart from liturgy. And the stadium today seems to answer people’s need for that better than church. Is it an artificial stimulant that mimics ecstasy and rapture, an addictive voyeurism? Or is it a pure celebration of the heartbreaking beauty of human achievement and the fleeting nature of our happiness? As in all sacred ritual, the boundaries between life and art are temporarily suspended. And, to be honest, sadness is always mixed in with exultation, the salt in the tears of human happiness.
Laurence Freeman OSB
The World Community for Christian Meditation, of which Laurence Freeman OSB is director, has recently opened a new outreach program – “Meditatio” (www.wccmmeditatio.org)