Whenever I find out a school has a wrestling team, my immediate response is "good." Many schools, including the one where I teach have eliminated this classic sport. When they do, I believe that something spiritual has died.
I have never intentionally gone out of my way to watch a wrestling match. I always thought the head gear and pinnies were rather peculiar looking. No one in my family has wrestled and I can't tell you much about the rules, but I do know that it is a sport that has a cult following. I know it was in the ancient Olympic games and because of its weight divisions it is accessible to athletes in a way that another winter sport--basketball--is not. I have often thought part of its popularity in the midwest, Iowa in particular, is because the extreme cold weather climate lends itself to an indoor sport that challenges its athletes to something much more than just physical competition! Wrestling demands great mental focus and preparation, skills that I believe are necessary in our faith lives.
A popular biblical story is one in which Jacob wrestles with an angel. The Book of Genesis says "Then some man wrestle him until the break of dawn." Jacob said "I will not let you go until you bless me" to which the angel replied "You shall no longer be spoken of as Jacob, but as Israel, because you have contended with divine and human beings have prevailed."
Living With Christ, a daily companion "for praying and living the Eucharist" says "There is something both fascinating and consoling about the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. Jacob wrestles through the long night. Sometimes we wrestle through the night too--not with an angel, perhaps, but with problems, decisions questions, fears, pain. Jacob is remarkably persevering in his struggle, refusing to let go of the angel until the angel blesses him. How persevering are we in our struggles? How persistent are we in our requests to God for help? Steadfast God, be with me in all of my wrestlings...." Praying with and reflecting upon this made me wonder To what degree might a wrestler be more adept at persevering in prayer? Maybe he (or she!) finds a spiritual role model in Jacob.
I have a sense the coaches and wrestlers at St. Louis University High School can speak to that. Hanging front and center of their well lit, welcoming and open wrestling room is a sign: SLUH Wrestling Team Principles. It drew me in. From it anyone can gain a sense of what wrestling demands--hard work, hustle, accountability, and attention to detail. But the first two principles indicate that there's something spiritual about the sport.
Wrestling on a team requires care for each other and the gifts God has given. Perhaps when your only equipment is your body, as opposed to a stick, racquet or club(s) you have a better sense of that. Many of those same principles are what Jacob, who renamed was Israel, lived by. They are ones worth considering as we face the decisions, questions and fear that life affords. Perhaps I will make it to a wrestling match later this year to gain a few tips on how I can do that....