God on the Strip

I don't know about you, but as a Christian fencing bear, it really bothers me that all the best advice about preparing oneself mentally and spiritually for a fencing bout would seem to come from outside the Christian tradition. You know, all the great wisdom about how to concentrate without concentrating, being always in the moment without expectation but ready to respond, the Zen and the Tao and the Yoga of detached attention, no-mind, union, what have you: none of this teaching would seem to be available from within Christianity. Sure, there are the mystics who talk about achieving self-annihilation in love of God, but that doesn't seem to be quite the same thing. Nor does praying the Office or reading the Scriptures or saying the rosary seem to be a way of preparing for the kind of attention that fencing demands. Perhaps if I could get on strip and say to myself the "Ave Maria" I would be better able to see when my opponent is planning to attack, but I doubt it. The whole point of concentrating without concentrating is not to fix on any one idea or plan, but rather simply to be ready for anything, which I wouldn't be if what I were holding in my mind was Gabriel's greeting to Mary. (Or would I?)

Nor does it seem right simply to pray for success: "O Lord, help me beat my opponent. Crush my enemies under foot, all those who mock me with their superior abilities." Ha. If only. But neither does it seem appropriate to turn the other cheek: this is a sport, it's not as if we're really fighting. She wants me to try to hit her (well, sort of) so that she can have the opportunity to try to respond. And simply letting her hit me, well, that would rather defeat the whole point of the exercise, now, wouldn't it? I've tried being humble, not giving into my pride, but I rather think there is more to being a Christian fencer than that. Christianity is about praising God for his goodness in creating us as human beings, giving us a world to live in, and redeeming us for our failure to give thanks to Him as we should. But if God loves us--all of us--that much, so much so that He will not suffer even one hair of our head to perish, what difference does it make how well one or the other of us fences? Apparently, none at all. Which doesn't really give one much incentive, does it? Not to mention much insight into how best to prepare.

But how can this be? How can centuries of monastic discipline in praying to God have nothing to say about how to prepare one’s mind for combat? Okay, so monks by definition don’t tend to go into battle against human enemies, but what about all those demons they went into the desert to challenge? Surely there are lessons to be learned there. Yes, of course, at least metaphorically: the demons of Pride and Anger and Impatience and Self-doubt are always ready for us, lurking there on the strip. But, again, being able to name them is one thing; being ready to deal with them wholly another. And, practicing yogini that I am, I’m still really not comfortable telling myself that my fencing—any more than my writing, my cooking, my traveling, my teaching, my drawing (intermittent as it is)—has nothing to do with my being a Christian or, rather, that my being a Christian makes no difference one way or another to the way in which I fence.

St. Paul would say, “Put on the armor of God” (Ephesians 6:13-17). Well, fine. But, again, what do the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the shoes of the preparation of the gospel of peace have to do with whether I can keep my mind properly relaxed so as to be ready to make an attack or to parry? Metaphorically effective though it might be to imagine myself wielding “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” while I write, I really can’t see any use for it on the strip other than to honor my opponent as a fellow creature and human being. Which, of course, is a good start, but it isn’t going to do much good when I find myself stuck making the same action over and over again. Nor is it really a question of WWJD. Okay, so Stephen Sawyer may be able to imagine Jesus as a boxer fighting and interceding on our behalf, but I don’t think it will help me much to imagine myself as God when I get on the strip this afternoon. My actual opponents are other women, not demons or sins. And, besides, Jesus probably wouldn’t even need a weapon to deal with them. He’d just use the Force and convince them to put their weapons down.

Apples and oranges, you will say. The disciplines of Yoga and Zen were specifically developed to deal with the movements of mind that distract us from realizing our true selves (or not-selves), whereas Christian doctrine is more about affirming the worthiness of the exercise in the first place. To wit: that we are made in the image and likeness of God and therefore not only worthy of salvation, but endowed by our Creator with the corollary capacity to create--if not, of course, ex nihilo, nevertheless by example—artifacts, thoughts, and lives worthy of Him. I only wish He had seen fit to give us better instructions. “Don’t lie.” Fine. “Don’t steal.” Okay. “Don’t kill.” Right. “Don’t covet your neighbor’s ox—or medal.” Gotcha. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Working on it. But what am I supposed to do when I’m struggling with trying to find that next sentence or read my opponent’s actions? How am I going to know what to say or to do? Other than in my response (anger, frustration, doubt) such actions are morally more or less neutral, at least, insofar as I am really not trying to kill or hurt anyone either with my sword or my words.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (more on my thoughts about converting to Catholicism some other time): “God created everything for man, but man in turn was created to serve and love God and to offer all creation back to Him.” So perhaps I should think of my fencing as a way to offer something to God? Yes, that sounds promising. God has given me both this body and soul to make something of. It is my responsibility to develop them both to be the best that I can. Hmmm…. I’ve heard that before. Not wasting one’s talents and the like (Matthew 25:14-30). But what if the best I can do on strip will never be very good? Do I thereby insult God’s trust in me to be the best steward that I can? See, I need more specific guidance, not just generalities about “doing one’s best.” I want to be in there with God guiding my actions, showing me how best to outwit my opponent. I want to feel the Force flowing through me, like Luke Skywalker going for the target, trusting myself to know when and where to make the attack. I want to tap into that Spirit that enabled Peter to walk on water and the apostles to speak in tongues. I want to be inspired when I fence, not just exercising my body and mind.

Is that really so much to ask?


  1. The Templars and the Hospitallers were warrior monks who presumably drew upon the Christian traditions for inspiration with regard to combat. I wonder if any of their pertinent records are still preserved?

    Ha, unfortunately though, the Stephen Sawyer link reminds me of the gawdawful modern revival of "muscular Christianity" ala Chuck Norris et al's wingnut ravings. In disturbingly quasi-erotic terms, their Jesus is gleefully perceived as, basically, a marginally righteous bully administering merciless physical beatdowns to anyone who doesn't love Sarah Palin.

    I don't know what to make of it when I see athletic competitors making outward religious signs while engaged in their given sport. Seeing someone I'm about to fence crossing him- or herself makes me wonder if they simply assume as a matter of course that God is going to be a) vitally engaged in their athletic prowess and b) actively seeking my demise? Personally I feel that it seems presumptuous to think that the creator of the universe gives a crap whether they, or I, win in what is as you noted a mere sporting event. Plus, who are they to think God doesn't want ME to win, anyway?? I suppose I should give more thought to the idea that they have a healthy attitude like yours, and just want God to help them be all they can be, not to use God as some sort of supernatural weapon against me. But too many such athletes that I've seen have personal bearings that include so much apparent hubris that I'm doubtful!

    Good luck in Dallas!!

  2. Frustratingly, mostly what we have from the Templars and Hospitallers are records of their property holdings, not so much about their interior lives as either warriors or monks. There are the rules that they lived by, but, again, these simply specify the regulations for their communities: clothing, discipline, prayer schedules, and the like. Nothing along the lines of Takhuan Soho's advice to Munenori.

    Yes, I know what you mean about "muscular Christianity."

    I think most of the time when people pray before an event, it is for help overcoming their own weaknesses, not for victory over their opponents per se. Because, of course, as you say, why should God help one competitor and not another? But it seems a good prayer to ask for the competition to bring out the best in both opponents.


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