The Olympics have just ended. I wasn’t able to watch much of them, but did see the highlights most nights. What a curious, paradoxical mixture of things these games are. What’s all too evident, almost as a leit motif, is ego, brute competition, the cult of the human body, arrogance, strut, drugs, and a crass commercialism that exploits the athletes themselves. That’s one view on things. There’s another: Just as evident is a beauty and a grace that’s enough to take your breath away.
Each night, as I watched the day’s highlights, I was overwhelmed by the beauty, grace, and radiance of these young men and women, with their near-perfect bodies. What the Olympics present us with is not just an athletic event but the final showcase of beauty, the human body in all its glory. The Olympics is the ultimate fashion show on earth, near-perfect bodies vying with each other for applause, with the whole world as audience. Not an insignificant event at all.
What’s to be said about all of this? Is God smiling or frowning as this goes on?
One temptation is to look at all of this, see it against the horizons of world suffering and eternal life, and denigrate it, especially given its commercialism. It’s easy enough to see how what’s less pure stains its beauty. Most of these athletes are not the meek that are destined biblically to inherit the earth; the human body, no matter its health and beauty, is destined to sickness and decay; the vanity, pride, and ego present are like sets of dyes that smudge everything around them; and in the great scheme of things, this, the Olympics, at best, is a minor distraction, fireworks for a little distraction.
Things can be seen in this light, but, to my mind, that’s not the proper religious perspective. Why? Because despite everything that’s compromised and superficial what is exhibited is still real beauty. Beauty is beauty, wherever it appears. The object speaks. Nothing changes that and we must never, especially in the name of God and value, downplay such a wondrous manifestation of the beauty and glory of God. We can’t have God fighting God. God is the author of all beauty, especially the beauty that is so overwhelmingly evident in a young, near-perfect body. When we disparage this we are, at best, in denial; at worst, we are exhibiting envy and unhappiness at our own less-than-perfect bodies and situations.
I remember a particularly poignant comment that I once heard from Camille Paglia. She said something to this effect: “You know what’s wrong with us, mature adults in midlife and beyond? We’ve achieved so many things, including maturity, and now we can’t accept the fact that when a twenty year-old walks into a room there is (at least in one schema of things) more power and raw beauty in a twenty-year old body than there is in all our achievements and maturity. And we shouldn’t fight that. We should honour that beauty, because it’s real and it’s transitory.” Bravo, That’s correct, from both a human and a religious perspective. The beauty of a twenty year-old body is like the beauty of a freshly-cut rose. It won’t last long, but that’s precisely what makes it even more precious, more to be honoured, more beautiful. Plastic roses are not momentary and for this reason they aren’t of much value.
Quite by accident, the church’s readings during the last week of the Olympics were from Ecclesiastes – that old, existentialist preacher, Qoheleth: “Vanity of vanity, everything is vanity!” One wonders if he didn’t have the Olympics in mind when he wrote that, in the end, “the silver cord is snapped, the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is cracked at the fountain.” But, despite comments like this, we must be careful not to too-quickly psyche-out the old prediger’s attitude on all of this. “Vanity“, for him, means vapour, the wind, the breeze, something that’s here today and gone tomorrow. But that’s also true for the freshly-cut rose and it’s what makes it all the more precious.
I think this is true too for the beauty of our Olympic athletes and the pageant that they create in their coming together. It’s all the more precious because it’s fleeting, vapour, so wondrous and so soon gone.
Maybe it was the pagan in me, but I suspect it was the Christian, but looking at all those young athletes with their near-perfect bodies, drawn straight from God’s designer catalogue; seeing in Marion Jones’ smile an icon so beautiful that no human artifact can hope to approximate it; and seeing the event itself as one magnificent, though fragile, freshly-cut rose, I, for one, was touched in those parts of me where I yearn to be better person. After watching those wondrously beautiful young athletes, my yearning was to pray, to seek deeper communion with a God who is the author of such beauty and grace.