They see the goals. They lose their minds when you scream the ball past a helpless goalkeeper, when you launch a forehand return past an unprepared opponent, when you somehow have more left in your tank after two-and-a-half grueling miles of cross country. They see the points, the goals, the records, the medals, the first-place finishes, the three-point off-balance shot that never should have gone in. And they love you for it.
They see the result, but they’re blind to the process. They aren’t there when you’re on your third bench press repetition by the time the sun shows itself. They’re not on their feet while you’re studying game film. No one’s applauding the moment you decide to forego dessert in favor of another salad. There’s nothing attractive about curiously empty bleachers during practice.
The spiritual parallels are undeniable at best, unavoidable at worst.
The Catholic Church is not, has never been and never will be typified by a cheering section, to applaud your Mass attendance. Nor is it characterized by a body of believers who exist to laud the health of your prayer life.
No, if you’re going to practice the faith, it will often be without external motivation. The sidelines may very well be empty the next time we awake at an uncomfortable hour to begin our day with the Eucharist.
The question then remains: why do you play the game? Do you compete for the love of the game or for the love of those who watch it? Attention fades. Recognition for vehement pursuit of upright Catholic doctrine is largely non-existent. The fact that we may be more than neglected, that we may be instead despised in our pursuit of the faith is a benefit to our beliefs. Neglect clarifies our intentions in that your faith must stand the test of time and the weight of worldly disapproval alike.
The way you practice is the way you play. Your dedication on the field of play when absolutely no one is watching will bleed seamlessly into your style of play come game time. And those who fill the stands to watch you witness to your sport or to your faith are looking for a show. Athletes and believers are alike on the fact that they cannot deliver what they do not possess.
No one practices in anticipation of a loss. How much more should we be practicing our own faith, given the fact that we know Christ has already won?
Would you still put on the uniform if you knew you were hated for it? Would you still take the field if you knew that many in attendance were only present in anticipation of your imminent failure?
Pray that your answer is yes. Inasmuch as there’s nothing inherently enjoyable about waking early for practice, just as there’s little inherently lovable about waking up early for Mass, the necessity remains. With respect to Allen Iverson, “We talkin’ ‘bout practice.”