6 Ways the Catholic Church is Like American Ninja Warrior: And How Embracing These Similarities Will Help the World Understand Who We Really Are and Make Us More the Catholic Warriors We Are Meant to Be
I’ve been watching a lot of American Ninja Warrior (ANW) lately. I’m not saying I have a problem, but it has become a mild obsession of mine, and I think it’s because I’m Catholic. I am probably not the target audience for this show that features adults running through an over-the-top obstacle course. You’ll more likely find me reading Shakespeare than working out in the gym, but there is a special quality to this show that appeals to my Catholic sensibilities, appeals so strongly, in fact, that I realized ANW is in many ways like my beloved Church! Emphasizing these six main similarities, we ultimately can help guide others to Jesus and to reach spiritually ever higher ourselves.
1) People come from all walks of life to compete—Literally, it takes all kinds!
ANW features people whose lives on the surface are exceedingly disparate. Women, men, poor, rich, young, old, pros, rookies, all races, all creeds, all ethnicities, all skill levels…all! In every episode, the swath of humanity on display is dizzyingly diverse but not in a manufactured way. There are neither quotas nor concessions to special interest groups. The course is the same no matter who you are; the rules are the same no matter who you are. Though some in our culture may see this universal call with a universal high standard as injustice, on ANW, there is actual justice and true equality because of it! In a world of grievances, subjective truth, participation awards, and tribalism, ANW stands athwart it all. And it turns out that that is attractive.
Just so in the Catholic Church! All are welcome; all are called to holiness. We are truly universal and revel in it unapologetically.
Whether you are woman or man, young or old, Cradle Catholic or convert, naturally attuned to the Church or facing great difficulties, you are home! No matter your color, country, ethnicity, or socioeconomic standing, you are home! No matter your past, you are home! I have seen the richest of the rich sitting next to the poorest of the poor in my parish, and, at the sign of peace, they embrace each other as brothers. I have seen varied people dressed in their own culture’s traditional garb issue forth together to the altar to receive Jesus and return to their pews truly as one in Him! I have seen those who in the world would be pitted against each other join together against said World and for Christ. I have seen the most unlikely of people be the stalwart lover of God and man; I have seen the pious fall! What the Church does, when it acts as it should, is embrace all in their differences and troubles but, instead of leaving them adrift and alone, unites them in the Mystical Body as one. As it says in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
But there is objective truth here too that needs heeding. As ANW does, the course and rules in Catholic life will be the same. We all are called to meekness even if our culture tells us there’s virtue in arrogance. All are called to generosity though humanity is naturally selfish. All are called to chastity no matter our station in life or what our orientation is. All are called to weekly mass though some prefer worshiping God in nature. All are called to fidelity though some may be divorced. All are called to obedience though, unfortunately, our spirit rails as our first forefather’s and mother’s did….etc. Different circumstances, same course, same rules. This should be a point of pride for the Church, not an embarrassment. All are called to repent, whatever their individual sins, and join together as we live the Good News. Now THAT is truly good news and the kind of news that should be shared for it can attract many to Jesus!
2) The whole ANW community is in this together
It is fascinating to watch how united the ANW community can be. You have, of course, those who train together hoping for success, but then you see those who came to support one competitor cheer just as loudly for a complete stranger.
Add to that supportive dynamic the viewing audience at home screaming encouragements! Everyone pulls for everyone else. Everyone rallies. It is an individual competition, but there is little competition! No matter who runs the race, the hope for everyone watching is for that person to complete the course or at least go as far as he or she possibly can. AND some of the most heartening and beautiful moments on the show are when people with obvious disadvantages go out and try anyway with almost assured failure awaiting them. How can that be? Because they did their best and did more than even they could have imagined. And I think in them we see ourselves…our strivings, our ‘failings’, and our hope that we can go beyond even what we could have imagined.
So, too, it is with the Church. We are supported by our training partners, those I like to call “Church Buddies.” Usually family members or close friends, they know well the pains and effort that went into our spiritual training and know most intimately the suffering that come when we slip and fall (but also share most intimately in the joy of success)!
Then we have our parish family members who, like the crowds in the stands, cheer just as loud for us as they do their own family and cry with us just as much as if we were their own kin. And, of course, there’s the viewing audience of over a billion living Catholic fans and countless heavenly ones cheering us on. They cheer us to complete the race or at least go as far as we can at this point in our spiritual journey. They aren’t discouraged in their fandom when we fail so long as we try and try again, because with every failure they know that, as long as we live, Christ will give us another chance to try again. As Longfellow opined, “Defeat may be victory in disguise; The lowest ebb is the turn of the tide.”
3) But the groans!
There is a rhythm to ANW. A competitor tries, usually fails, and then the audience groans. Where is all that encouragement, all that hope, now? The groans are a natural reaction that comes directly from all the care for the competitor. To varying degrees, we who watch know how much ANW means to those competing. We hear of the effort, hours of training, injuries. We see it in their eyes, as they fall, the heartache and regret for making that one wrong step, that one misjudgment. We know how much they wanted to succeed and what it will take for them to try again. So we groan.
When people sin, we the Church, too, groan for the same reasons. It is because of the love for them that we groan IN LOVE. If you love someone, you don’t rejoice in his failings or setbacks; it’s natural to wish he had never fallen in the first place. The most unloving reaction would be to not care enough to groan, to not care that their paths forward will be harder, that in some instances they will have to begin from the very beginning.
The worst would be to tell them to stay down, drowning in the water of sin, that they needn’t get up, needn’t breathe air again, needn’t be free. That is why we instead cry out ‘repent’, out of love…not judgment. We yell ‘watch out’ when we see something dangerous in their way forward, not because we think we know better so much as we realize that from their vantage point they can’t see the danger that is there (that we as the Church can only see from a vantage point of over 2,000 years of experience). Ultimately everyone wants deep down to finish the race and be with God, even if they don’t realize it, and we groan when someone acts in a way that puts that deepest desire in jeopardy. Whether you think this right or not, the World should not impugn our motives or stop watching ‘the show’ when they hear a groan because…
3) Then come the cheers again!
Remember the rhythm of ANW that I mentioned? Well, it’s cyclical. Cheer, failure, groan, cheer! Even before the competitors have time to dry off or catch their breaths, in come the roaring cheers. They fell off some ANW obstacle but got back up. It may not seem like the most monumental of accomplishments. Surely, when someone finishes the entire race, the cheers are more uproarious. Sure…but only slightly. The overarching theme of ANW is, whether you succeed or fail, we’re here for you, and your story isn’t over! We are assured time and time again from ‘failed’ competitors that they will be back. They will train harder. This is not the last we’ll see of them. And in that we rejoice!
When the Church tells us to repent, to go to confession, to get right with God, it isn’t a condemnation but instead a way forward so that we can all rejoice together again, here and hereafter! Every time we go to confession we are saying, “My story isn’t over,” “This sin isn’t the end of me,” “I will try harder,” “I will put the effort in and will be wiser and more prepared next time,” and “With God’s grace, I’ll be back better than ever.” And the Church, the Body of Christ, will be there cheering each of us on! It’ll be cheering us (through our priests) as we confess our failings to God, accompanied in love. It’ll be cheering us as we rebuild our relationship with God in the Eucharist, accompanied with praise and thanksgiving. It’ll be cheering us in our vocations. It’ll be cheering us as we lie dying. No matter what happens, our Holy Catholic Church will be with each one of us as our biggest fan!
4) But the goal isn’t to fail but to succeed in glorious fashion!
Every competitor on ANW has two thoughts running through his or her head—“I am the next American Ninja Warrior” and “There’s a strong possibility that I’ll fail.” With new challenges every run, the competitors know that the odds are against them because they can never be fully prepared. They kind of wing it. With all the training engrained in them already and all the love surrounding them, they just go for it. With the ever-present timer, there is little time for navel gazing or minute strategizing. There is nothing else to do but trust, do one’s best and believe that, against those daunting odds, it is possible to end up atop Mt. Midoriyama.
How true this is for Catholics as well! We believe deep down that we CAN be with the Lord for eternity in heaven, but we also know that hell is a strong possibility! We will fail over and over and over again. But we will strive especially when all seems futile because we really believe in the universal call to sainthood. It is important to realize that the most successful on this spiritual journey to sainthood kind of just wing it too! They’ve been trained by God, honed, carved, and polished through good catechesis, the Sacraments, role models, prayer, spiritual direction, and life experiences. With all that preparation, they go with gusto into the world and live love at every moment! They are not self-referential or self-obsessed. They rarely if ever have it “all figured out” beforehand, and that ever-present timer is now the ever-nearing moment of death that comes to all. But, instead of it all paralyzing them, it fuels them forward. They don’t allow themselves to fall into the trap like Shakespeare’s Richard II who realized too late that “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.” These saints are not wasted by the shortness of life but find in it the impetus for extreme trust in the love that surrounds them, trust in their training, trust in their efforts, trust in their hope of life everlasting, trust in the Lord. And they go, and go, and go, always hoping in the end that they will be on that much higher “Mountain” with God!
5) But this glory isn’t Worldly
One thing that is so striking about ANW is that those who compete are often overlooked by society at large. There aren’t major celebrities, athletes, or politicians running these courses, subjecting their egos to this often humbling experience. No…no one gets particularly famous in the eyes of the World. They are normal people, and, though some do end up being recognized after their attempts, they aren’t seeking fame, fortune, pleasure, power, or really even honor. They go back to their not-so-glamourous lives when it’s over with simple gratitude in their hearts for their chance to do something extraordinary. Maybe they’ll be remembered, maybe not, but what they want is just a job well done, a life well lived. And ANW helps them do it! These contented competitors become heroes in ways that confound the World and inspire viewers to focus on what is truly important in life. Many who succeed also help train others and pass that gift of a truly meaningful life along to the next generation as a way to repay the good they’ve received.
It is in this great humility and continuity that I find connection to the Church in her adherents, and her saints. In fact, most of these heroes would be considered failures according to the World’s judgments. True, the World may consider some genuinely holy Catholics living today to be “successful,” but, oftentimes, by living so radically in love, they are still mocked for their piety. There are also some saints in the Church’s canon who accomplished mighty deeds and were honored by the World…at least for a time. Since their egos were kept in check by clinging deeply to the Lord, when (all too often) the martyr’s fate was laid upon them, they were sustained. Due to their living and dying in this way, though, these men and women are, still today, most often seen as failures by the World’s standards. And, because they didn’t live according to the World, the World accorded them nothing in the way of remembrance. So even the “Greats” who ran the race are little acknowledged outside of the Church. The World may never understand why these men and women of amazing potential even ran the race, facing so much strife for so little attention, but, focusing on Jesus (especially Him on the Cross), these “Greats” simply could not do otherwise!
How much more complete this World’s disregard is for the saints of the simpler sort, who eschewed attention from the World in every way. The “Little Flower” was little known. She sought nothing but the Lord. Her priority was just a job well done, a life well lived. Being content in that confounds the World, and her being declared a saint, much less a Doctor of the Church, shocks it! “This ‘nothing nun’ held so high?” “How could that be?” they ask. But, by seeking neither fortune nor pleasure, neither power nor honor, she now has all! And that upends the World’s priorities, changes the focus, and teaches it what really matters.
These saints pass on the great gift of knowing the way forward to us and from heaven they cheer us on, teach us their ways, and pray that we too may be able to say one day that “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). They pass on their experience and a better world to us and in that lies the sacred responsibility for us to do the same for the next generation so that they too might receive the greatest reward! Let us not shirk our duty!
6) But, if the reward is so great, why not lower the difficulty for the contestants so that all can win?
This is a phrase that would never be uttered by an ANW! If anything, they want harder, more challenging obstacles. They say, “Bring it on! I want to know what I’m capable of! I want to surprise myself!”
There is a brilliant joy in striving and a dark emptiness in mediocrity. If it is so effortless that anyone could do it, then why put the effort in at all? If everyone can be an ANW because it is so easy, then really no one is, and all the meaning is lost.This is a major problem with modern society. It sees the high bar of sanctity set by the Church as being something unfair or rigid to be thrown aside for the “much higher good of tolerance.” But, as Fulton Sheen said, “Tolerance applies only to persons … never to truth. Tolerance applies to the erring, intolerance to the error.” If we call everything that is a sin not a sin, we haven’t made ourselves sinless; we’ve simply deluded ourselves out of the Truth that brings light to life and vigor to our being. As a result of us doing this in our modern era, our society has lost all lasting meaning, true joy in life, and enduring cohesion between peoples. We have more conveniences than our ancestors could have hoped for and more free time than we know what to do with, yet we waste it away on fast food, drugs, celebrity idolatry, and glowing rectangles of technology. Sex has become easy but hollow. We have more Facebook friends but fewer true companions. We pose like peacocks before our phones and have social media “overlords” telling us we’re happy, but statistics (and the increase in therapists and psychopharmacology) show that we overwhelmingly are not.
So many are so miserable because so little is asked of us. As we’ve seen, if the bar is set so low, most people will question, “Why put in any effort at all?” If we want for nothing, then we naturally will want for nothing more. But we do innately hunger for more, no matter what the World tells us. That’s why the Church has a high bar, timeless rules, sturdy guardrails. For, as Newman said, well-defined banks are precisely what give verve and direction to a river. If we lower the bar or soften the banks (depending on the metaphor) till there’s only subjective “truth” left, we will leave those in sin in darkness, in the stagnant putridity of evil, and in the pain that sin inevitably will wreak in their lives. By asking so little, we have found ourselves the most prosperous of peoples who subsequently don’t prosper! But, by the Church asking so much of us, we all must strive beyond ourselves, must trust in God, and, even if we fall, we will be better for the striving. Living according to truth is difficult, but it is worth it! So let us go forward together, quoting Shakespeare’s Henry V, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!”
Finally, some may ask, “Then what happens to those who fall below the bar…who don’t finish the race…who never ‘stand atop Mt. Midoriyama’?” Well, I’ll leave that for God in His infinite wisdom and loving tolerance to tease out. He knows what people are capable of really and truly; He knows the disadvantages they face and the advantages that have been afforded them. Like the ANW contestant who only has one leg and completed “only” a few obstacles but fought to do his absolute best, we must, in our brokenness, strive for sanctity with all of our might even if we can’t go as far as we wish we could. This dedication means more to God than if we are prideful pharisaical persons who do monumental feats, for “many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you” (Matthew 7:22-23). And He won’t know them because the self-righteous never let themselves be known by God. Thank God it is not up to me to figure out who’s who and the specifics of each person’s soul, but I believe His mercy will overwhelm what is each our due, as it always has. We just have to put our faith in Him and do our part to “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling” as best we can. Thus, in order to avoid the sin of presumption, I’ll just say that my goal, as I pray yours is, will forever be to strive to reach the heights of faithfulness and cheer others along the American Ninja Warrior (and, yes, the Catholic) Way!