In the movie Chariots of Fire, British athlete Eric Liddell was torn between his dream of participating in the 1924 Olympic Games and his religious convictions when he learned that his first heat of the 100-meter dash was scheduled on a Sunday. He met with the Prince of Wales and the committee to share his painful decision not to run in that event. As the meeting became more and more tense, another athlete knocked on the door and graciously offered for Eric to take his place in the 400-meter run on Thursday. All agreed to this solution.
As they were leaving the meeting, one committee member said to another, “The lad almost had us beat.” The other member responded, “He did have us beat, and thank God he did. The lad as you call him is a genuine man of principle. We were seeking to sever his running from his core as a human being. Nothing is worth that, least of all a guilty national pride.”
This week, we and the world have watched and listened as United States gymnast Simone Biles made her decision to withdraw from the Olympic Games as a participant. She was courageously open about mental health issues and said, “My mind and body are simply not in sync. Physical health is mental health.”
Thursday was the feast day of Mary and Martha of Bethany. Mary intensely listened to Jesus as he taught, while Martha complained in the kitchen that she was having to do all the work by herself. Jesus calmed Martha and said that Mary had chosen the better way. By that, I don’t think Jesus is saying doing is wrong. On the contrary, he commissions us all to do everything we can to feed, heal, and nurture the world around us. But he is saying that our doing needs to be connected to and flow from our inner core – our mind and spirit.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus encountered Mary and Martha again when their brother Lazarus was dead. Martha gave one of the deepest and most powerful confessions of any of Jesus’s followers. She said, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” For Martha, mind, spirit, and body were becoming one.
Eric Liddell went on to win the 400-meter run. More important than his medal was a little scrap of paper given to him just before the run by a member of an opposing team. It said, “Those who honor God, God will honor.” Eric thought, “Now when I run, I feel God’s pleasure.”
Simone Biles is finding her way to wholeness by doing everything she can to cheer on and encourage her teammates. She has also brought into the open a much-needed conversation about the tremendous pressures placed on athletes by external and internal forces. My hope for Simone and for all of us is that we find a compassionate path to wholeness and that whatever she and we do in the future flows out of a rooted and grounded connection to her and our inner core. That is how we will all together stick the landing.