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Originally published Friday, August 10, 2012 at 5:31 PM

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How joy transforms spirituality and sports

A brief theological history of the Olympic Games and the common thread between holy people and sports — joy.

Special to The Seattle Times

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The famous Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin once said, "Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God."

If we image God as grim, judging, condemning — that's not God. God rejoices in creation and all the more in human beings, "made in his image and likeness." God is a joyful God!

Likewise, holy people are joyful. Why? Because holiness brings us closer to God, the source of all joy.

The Rev. James Martin recently explained the origins of his new book, "Between Heaven and Mirth." As he was giving talks around the country on the influence of Catholic saints on his life, he recounted, "wherever I spoke, what people wanted to hear about most was the way the saints were joyful people, enjoyed lives full of laughter, and how their holiness led inevitably to joy."

"It was almost as if they'd been waiting to be told that it's OK ... to be joyful believers."

With summer now fully upon us, joy and playfulness are bursting out all over. Last weekend's Seafair activities alone included the Blue Angels roaring overhead, a torchlight run and parade, hydroplane races, a milk-carton derby, a triathlon, a scholarship pageant, and the fleet arrival and tour — something for everyone.

At the same time, the 2012 Olympic Games have been under way, and what a spectacular, exuberant — and joyful — event it has been.

Among the American athletes alone, we've been treated to the amazing Gabby Douglas, who became the third consecutive American woman to win the Olympic all-around gold medal in gymnastics. We've marveled at the aquatic Michael Phelps garnering an all-time high of 18 gold medals. And Ryan Lochte, Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin, and Nathan Adrian (of Bremerton) likewise raced through the pool to reap medals.

The original Olympics in Greece made explicit the profound relationship between the divine and the human, between the sacred and outstanding human physical prowess.

Eventually, the Games were suppressed, probably by the misguided Theodosius II in A.D. 435 as part of a campaign to impose Christianity as a state religion. But sport did not die, even though some, such as Thomas Aquinas, had a less rosy view of it.

"It appears," he sourly commented, "to be carried on without any purpose, without a proper end. But after our minds have been somewhat relaxed through them we may then be better able to do serious jobs."

In reality, life is not compartmentalized but rather a holistic blend of dimensions — physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. Sport can advance all four.

When we are relaxed and at peace with God, we are able to concentrate on the present in which God is present. After watching great sport, it is difficult not to praise God for the sublime beauty of Creation, and in particular for the capabilities of our bodies when pushed to the limit. "The glory of God is indeed the human person fully alive," as St. Irenaeus proclaimed.

Even the Mariners seem to have briefly sprung to life, chalking up victories.

While recovering from knee-replacement surgery in recent weeks, I have been doomed to watch them. So imagine my exuberance — and no doubt the healing balm it released — when the Mariners defied expectations and stacked up a string of seven wins in a row — truly a joy to behold.

Fr. Patrick Howell SJ is the rector (religious superior) of the Jesuit Community at Seattle University and professor of pastoral theology. Readers may send feedback to faithcolumns@seattletimes.com

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