The other night at the fall formal, our lead missionary, Collin, asked an interesting question: “Is it okay to pray for sports?”
The idea being, Is it permissible to take something not seemingly directed towards salvation or the spiritual life, and treat it as worthy of asking something of God, particularly that my favorite team might win?
This is not the first time I heard this question but, on this particular occasion, I thought to myself: I wonder if I can find an answer within the work of St. Thomas Aquinas? When I searched Aquinas, I did, indeed, find two articles of his Summa that assisted me in understanding the answer.
The first question related to this topic is: Whether or not we should pray for anything in particular? God surely knows what we need and when we need it. Wouldn’t it be better for us to simply trust in His providence? Instead of asking for the things we need, Shouldn’t we simply make a prayer of surrender and accept whatever comes as being most conducive to our salvation?
In responding to this question, Aquinas makes a distinction.
There are some things, such as food, money, power and health, which can be good or evil depending on the circumstances. And there are some things that are always good no matter the circumstances, such as God’s grace and wisdom. In regards to the first, we should pray for lower goods to the extent in which they aid us in salvation and we should pray for the higher goods without ceasing. It is always good to call upon divine assistance, but it might not always be good to be given health or wealth, or other temporal goods, because they might not be what is best for us.
The second article deals with the question: Should we pray for temporal things? In this article, Aquinas draws a great quote from St. Augustine: “That it is lawful to pray for what it is lawful to desire.” Thus, if there are temporal things we can desire, and they don’t hinder us from seeking salvation, then it is permissible to pray for them.
We should always keep in mind that our desires are perverted and distorted under two conditions: If we desire that which is evil or not conducive to salvation, we sin. And, if we desire good things but, in such a degree, we make them our ends vs our means, then we likewise fall into sin.
Thus, the answer to Collin’s question can be answered.
We can pray for a positive outcome and for success with the understanding we should desire the outcome most conducive to our salvation. For athletes and for fans, there are circumstances in which a victory might bring joy and delight that refresh the spirit of a people. But, there are also circumstances in which defeat might give greater glory to God and assist those involved in their ultimate end.
For example, sports are a good thing for society because they enact the drama between good and evil. They take both our interior and our exterior conflicts and display them for us in a manner which helps manifest virtue and beauty. Through these manifestations, we are able to enter back into the world and understand the human experience in an enlightened way (with the caveat our participation in sports is understood in relation to our proper end) which is salvation. On the other end, it is possible sports could lead us away from God, as we have all seen. We can pray for sports in a distorted way if our ultimate happiness and our mental well-being is too attached to the outcome of the sporting event.
But, taking these two things in account, we should pray for sports because, in all things, we should call upon the divine assistance to bless our endeavors. Within this light, our Gospel is not completely disconnected from our discussion of sports. In the Gospel, we see a blind man asking Christ for a temporal thing. Like sports, his health could be a good thing that assists him in salvation or it could be a hindrance. (Think, for instance, of how common it is for people in the midst of prosperity and temporal joy to turn their back on God and seek the things of this world.) Could we not consider the man’s blindness a blessing from God? Would the man have sought out Christ if he was not infirmed? Would he have placed his faith in Christ if his belly was full and his schedule full of important events?
The man prays for what he needs because he is dissatisfied with this world and what it offers him. He can find no joy in this world so he seeks Christ to heal his wretched condition. As is often the case, the man wants to be healed and it is Christ who, not only heals the body, but gives salvation.
This should be both a warning and a sign of hope to us today. Seek thee first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added unto you. Pray for what you need, but realize that what you need, above all else, is to pray.
In this manner, you will save your soul.