Spirituality of Sport: Balancing Body and Soul

Whether you are a gifted athlete, a weekend warrior, or one who simply enjoys reading the Sunday Sports section, you will enjoy Spirituality of Sport: Balancing Body and Soul (St. Anthony Messenger Press, January 2004, paperback, 137 pages) by Dr. Susan Saint Sing. Saint Sing, a gifted athlete and inspirational coach, shares her own story of tests and triumphs as she shares her thoughts on the important connection between mind, body, and soul inherent in all play.

In this wonderful book, Saint Sing shares stories of heroism and championship — both her own and those of many other talented people. I loved this book for its emphasis on the fact that one’s journey in life is to be fully embraced and revered — that the reward comes not from winning the medal or having the fastest time, but from that wonderful connection of spirit, soul and body that gives glory to our Creator through our every action. As a back of the pack jogger, I don’t run the race to win — I run to give glory to God through my participation, counting the blessings that give me the good health to participate and to share the day with those around me. I was enthralled by Spirituality of Sport and am pleased to share the following interview with author and Olympian Susan Saint Sing.

Q: Please tell our readers a bit about your background and your own personal faith journey.

A: This would take pages, but briefly, I am from a small mountain town of Berwick, PA. It had great sports teams and I was lucky enough to have had great coaches and friends and very supportive parents. My brother Bobby and I played catch and football and shot arrows, water-skied, hiked, snow skied for our entire growing-up years. This stuck with me through high school and college athletics — later led me into coaching. If there was one pivotal moment for me spiritually, it was when I broke my neck and back in a gymnastics accident. It changed me. Also, I had a deep religious conversion at a prayer group at Penn State — Bread of Life. Two wonderful priests, Leopold and Joe were terrific spiritual guides for us, and I later went to Assisi, Italy — because of my love of St. Francis, and there I met Fr. Murray Bodo and Damian Isabel, who welcomed me as “Brother Susie” into their pilgrimage experience. I have been a lay Franciscan for over 20 years.

Parallel to this experience, I participated in sports and sport writing and coaching and pursued rowing to the highest level of the US National Rowing Team, in 1993. I also coached at Xavier University, Kent, and Penn State where we won a national championship. My athletes inspire me, and I consider it my privilege to coach them.

Q: What is the major premise of the book and what prompted you to write on this topic?

A: The premise is sport and spirituality. The book takes personal accounts of deeply spiritual moments in sport that contributed to athlete’s insights, faith, and Olympic experience. These insights are related to the reader in a non-religious manner — that is to say no one would be offended, as no religion per se is being “pushed” — just the spiritual nature of play, games, and sport.

Q: You discuss the Greek concept of “arête” — how does this sense of balance of body, mind, and spirit translate to athleticism and to spirituality?

A: It is a very ancient concept of grace and beauty in strength. I think this quality is lost sometimes in sport in our headlong pursuit of winning, or money. If one pursues excellence — arête — then you win more than just a medal.

Q: You describe sport as, “a communion, a sacramentality in several layers,” and yet many of the serious athletes with whom I’m acquainted shun formal religion. Why is this sometimes the case? How do you blend the two and how does sport enhance your own spirituality?

A: I don’t think the numbers of athletes that shun formal religion are any greater than any other group of society. Some people just are not into religion or any structured worship at all. But for me sport is an extension of the beauty of creation — it can be the perfection of the physical creation, and that is what inspires me.

Q: For those who are not seriously athletic (or even couch potatoes?), how can participating in a physical discipline enhance one’s spiritual life? How can someone who is not exercise oriented develop a regimen of balance of physical and spiritual activity?

A: Well there are many physical activities even a “couch potato” can enjoy — such as yoga, or reading about mountain climbing (a particular hobby of mine), walking, gardening, bird watching — all of these can be deeply satisfying life-time activities that bring one closer to nature and to fun — the essence of play.

Q: How do you make time for both prayer and activity with your busy schedule?

A: I meditate at night — usually when the world is quiet and still, I play my guitar. During the evening I try to walk on the beach.

Q: What message would you hope that readers would take away from their experience of reading your book?

A: I wrote the book hoping to share my privileged insights from the World Championships with others who might never get there. The journey to the Worlds was my reward — and I try to encourage others, especially young athletes to follow their journey and recognize it as the reward itself — rather than seeking only medals and fame.

Q: How can we, as families, teach our children to love and glorify God through play and through their experience of nature?

A: In the book I talk about this and, in my opinion, play is the essence of freedom and we are to play without fear, at the feet of our Father. I think if parents and kids can play games together, go on hikes, fish, whatever avenue your family enjoys as play, is a great way to make good friendships, enjoy being outside, be active. I think there might be too much emphasis on structured youth sports — to where the element of fun and spontaneity — like just going outside and shooting hoops — is lost because people are on the move in vans going to the next practice.

See also:

Spirituality of Sport: Balancing Body and Soul

[originally published 2005]

2011 Lisa Hendey)

Lisa Hendey, Catholic wife and mom, is the founder and webmaster of www.CatholicMom.com and the author of A Book of Saints for Catholic Moms: 52 Companions for Your Heart, Mind, Body and Soul and The Handbook for Catholic Moms: Nurturing Your Heart, Mind, Body and Soul. Lisa writes for several online and print publications, enjoys speaking around the country and hosts the Catholic Moments Podcast. Visit her at LisaHendey.com.