The Catholic Thing
The Tour de France and the Interior Life Print E-mail
By Austin Ruse   
Wednesday, 08 July 2009

Last Saturday the greatest sporting event known to man began in Monaco. One hundred and eighty men mounted bicycles and began a race that will take them clockwise around the whole of France. The race will finish July 26 on the Champs Elysee in Paris, after 2200 miles in twenty-three days with only two days off.

Imagine getting on your bicycle and riding constantly at the highest rate you can muster for, let’s say, 120 miles. After several hours, the pain in your legs cuts like a knife. Your feet are bleeding from painful blisters, your thighs are chafed raw – not to mention the pain in your behind. You lie down that night with so much pain that you cannot sleep.

Then, you get up early the next day and do it all again. Only this time you might have to ride up and down the Alps or the Pyrenees, roughly like riding up a wall for ten, twenty, even thirty miles.

You do this in the company of 180 other men so you ride in a pack. This pack of riders – muscle, bone, and metal – is called the peloton, a very dangerous place. You ride literally elbow-to-elbow at terrifying speeds. The tire right in front of you is only inches away. A gentle tap on the brake and you may end up in a bloody heap. You hit the ground at 20+ miles per hour wearing little more than your skivvies. Bones break, collar bones mostly. At the very least skin will be torn right off hands, ankles, legs, chests, and bottoms. Some riders have died.

The Tour works this way. It is a stage race, meaning each day is a separate race with an individual winner, but there is only one overall winner. The rider with the lowest cumulative time over all twenty-one stages wins. The Tour demands a special combination of speed, endurance, and an ability to climb miles of mountains faster than most people can ride downhill. And you need courage.

The Tour is a monument to physical strength and stamina, but it is also a monument to mental toughness. A course of similar length in America would mean riding a bike from Portland, Maine to Butte, Montana, including twenty mountain-passes through the Alps and Pyrenees.

The Tour rider gets up every single morning and faces that challenge: in intense heat, driving rain, even blizzards. It is a sport of the body, but even more of the mind.

Jesus praised the dishonest steward and said the children of this world are more prudent than are the children of light. For simple human glory, the men of the Tour have sacrificed everything. They are physically ravaged. They look like prisoners on a chain gang – gaunt, drawn, haunted. And for most of them, the greatest reward they can expect is simply finishing. The children of light have much to learn from these men.

We are called to a kind of perfection far beyond that of even the mighty Lance Armstrong who won seven Tours in a row. The kind of perfection we are called to – each of us, not just priests and nuns – is the perfection of the Father Himself. The Beatitudes are not just a pretty poem. They ask for effort that will hurt.

What we can learn from the men of the Tour is physical and mental toughness, and an almost overwhelming dedication to duty and a spirit of self-sacrifice with one goal in mind, perhaps to win, but always to finish.

The Church teaches us to live continuously and deliberately in the presence of our Father God. For this the Church provides for us certain tools: the Mass, the Eucharist, Rosary, mental prayer, Scripture.

Succumbing to a sense of sadness is one of the dangers for the Tour rider and for us in our interior journey. The Tour rider cannot allow himself to imagine the miles in front of him, or he will wilt. He thinks about the little things; the next bend in the road, the lift of the wind, his heart-rate on the monitor, the man in front of him. In the same way, we might wilt if we imagined the immensity of a lifetime of Mass, Rosary, Scripture and all the rest. And so we do not think of the lifetime, we think of Mass tomorrow morning, Rosary tonight, a few minutes of Scripture before bed.

In the end, these are our thin bicycles and we are called to use them strenuously every day. The interior life is our mountains and our flats, our heat and cold, our driving rain, and, as St. Paul reminds us, it is up to us to finish the race – no matter what.

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washinton, D.C.-based Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy.

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Comments (9)Add Comment
existential intimations
written by joebissonnette, July 09, 2009
Why are death-defying, all consuming physical feats ennobling? Our physical strength is of a much lower order than our intellect, and yet we admire those who are singularly dedicated and persevere. To strive, to push past for its own sake is nothing more than existentialism but the Tour de France or Sisyphis are ennobling because they show the mettle of the will. When its for it's own sake it's not labour, which is instrumental, it is art, courage and dignity.
Feast of Chinese Martyrs
written by debby, July 09, 2009
Austin! What an excellent reprise from Holy Mass this AM-on the Feast of the Chinese Martyrs! Our priest's homily included the recounting of the 18 year old Chai (spelling?) who was flayed alive, & as he was bleeding to death, one slice of his flesh at a time, he cried out, "In every drop of my blood, every bit of my flesh you will hear - I am a Christian." What a finish! thank you, brother for this article.
Thank you, Father God, for giving what grace we need, over & above!
written by John McCarthy, July 09, 2009
Seems a little hard-boiled to me . . . In so far as possible, life is meant to be enjoyed.
Just a Thought
written by Willie, July 09, 2009
An interesting piece. I agree everyone should look deeply into his interior being in a effort to get get closer to that Divine summit. No doubt that journey entails sacirifice and periods of spiritual darkness. Implicit in this article may be the suggestion that one strive for martyrdom and severe physical anguish in order to reach the top of the castle. If martydom comes, so be it, but to wish physical suffering and death sounds more Islamic than Christian. Look to John of the Cross or Teresa.
Fathers for
written by Brian Caulfield, July 09, 2009
Well said, my friend, Austin. St. Paul said the same about the runners in the stadium bringing their bodies into subjection for a laurel that passes; how much more should we for en eternal prize.
written by Bob, July 10, 2009
I think this is a well-thought and well-written analogy. The moral of both physical and spiritual pursuits is: never never never give up!
written by Austin Ruse, July 10, 2009
No purely human endeavor is "ennobling", if by ennobling you mean assisting us to Heaven, but each moral human endeavor which is done expressly for love of God is certainly ennobling including riding the Tour de France. Just before Lance, a good Catholic named Miguel Indurain won five Tours in a row and I suspect he rode for the love of God. But that is not my point. My point is that we who seek after Heaven have much to learn from those who sacrifice singlemindedly for the things of this earth.
written by Jacob, July 12, 2009
It never ceases to amaze me how pedantic and didactic people are in the comments they leave to thoughtful articles.
Thank You.
written by Innocent, August 24, 2009
This is a very beautiful article on perseverance. Just what I needed to read when I was slipping into self-pity today. Thank you very much.

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