Sports and Philosophy, a Journey to Christ

Foto: Pixabay / Auguste Rodin: Thinker, 1904.

In my hometown, people were gathering with their family to celebrate Christmas‘ eve, knowing it was a special moment to be with family. But if one walked past the St Catherine Cathedral of Utrecht, and pressed their ear for a second, they could notice that, amongst the hugs and best wishes, someone said „God bless you“ and „He is Born“. The air was cold around the canals.

In the students‘ residence near Lepelenburg park there were more guests than usual. The lights in the tree were sparkling and dinner was special. One could definitely tell it was no ordinary day. What few people knew, that Christmas Eve of 2019, was the moment when I finally took the step.  I made the firm decision to lay my life in God’s hands.

Three years later, under the burning sun of a summer in Sicily, I met Samuel. We were at the beach near Palermo, each one with a copy of McIntyre’s After Virtue in our hands, for the summer seminar we were attending. But instead of reading, we told each other our stories. Here is mine.

Growing up in the Netherlands

To properly understand my story, one needs to first travel to the country where I was born and raised, and take a look at the last fifty years. The Netherlands is a very particular place. Every town and city from the south to the north is ordered, clean and beautiful. There are few homeless people and most of the Dutch have access to a high level of education. At the same time, people are rich enough to be independent of communities to survive, resulting in a rather fragmented and individualistic people.

Historically, the country has deep Catholic and Protestant roots. The Netherlands as an independent nation was founded after the independence war with Spain. The northern part of the country became predominantly Protestant while the south remained Catholic. Of course, two religions coming together in one relatively small country created a large tension between both sides. During the 20th century this tension built up to a point where the country saw a pillarisation. This meant that if you were Catholic, you would only go to Catholic butchers, be part of Catholic societies, and send your child to Catholic schools. The same would be seen if one was Protestant, socialist or liberal. During the 1960s, around the time of my parents birth, the pillars fell apart. Both Catholics and Protestants do not recall this as a loss. Instead, they felt it as the liberation from rigid societal expectations.

Within these societal changes, both my parents were born. My mother has a liberal Catholic background, and my father comes from a likewise but Protestant family. My mother was raised in the reminiscents of the Catholic pillar, within a (still) strong Catholic community, although there was no profound catechesis. The church was still the center of her world, and most of her friends were Catholic. My grandparents would invite priests to come over for dinner every once in a while. Faith was seen as something that ties communities together.

My father was raised in a Protestant family, and was part of the Protestant youth of his church. At home, they would read the Bible everyday, and would do so from cover to cover. This meant that every two or three years, they would finish reading it. Whenever this happened, they would have a small family party. And then start again. But this tradition of reading Scripture did not come with dogmatic belief, and they did not believe in miracles, not even those in Scripture.

My adventure commences

My parents met each other in 1995. Just a year later, they were married and had received me.  I was baptized in the church where my Catholic grandparents would go every Sunday. During my youth, we would sometimes go to church, but it was something of community and not of confession. This was even visible in the Sacraments. Namely, when I received my first Communion, there was a small party, but I do not recall any special formation beforehand. When I was four, we moved to a new city. The parish in the new city was not as nice, and we would go less and less frequently to Mass, until after sometime, we stopped going altogether.

I never recall having any discussions about Faith at home, not even regarding the important celebrations. My parents would make every effort to make Christmas and Easter big family moments, but it always was about the family, and not of confession. I do not discredit my parents in any way. They just passed on what they had received, and did not pass on what they had not received.

Even though I was baptized and received first Communion, I now considered myself to have received a very shallow religious education. Because of that,  I did not care too much about the Faith at all. Of course, my grandparents would go to church, and my parents did try to pass on the ‘ideals and values of faith’, but this did not hinder me from dropping it at the first moment I could.

As I was growing up, I caught myself looking at an increasingly secularized society, where only a tiny fraction of the population remained believers. It made me question: why do some people hold on to their Faith and others leave it? I had to find an answer. I looked around me in society and saw that everyone could be roughly divided into two groups: strong, smart, and modern people, and those that need fairytales to be able to live. The first group is atheistic, the second religious. I figured,  in a rather Nietzschean fashion, that reality is a place that not everyone can bear. Some people are strong and smart enough to face reality as it is, while others resort to religion to handle it. Only when smoothened by the fairytales of religion are those people able to live. This was relatively coherent with what I saw around me. I did not believe in any objective values, and held that the meaning of life is what you make of it, although I did not give it much thought.

Living in these ideas, I was raised under a somewhat liberal background.  I was allowed to play a lot of videogames and look at anything the internet had to offer. I swallowed a lot of what I found online and websites such as Reddit and 4chan supported me in my nihilistic and relativistic views. I came to believe that since everything is relative, the only thing that mattered is how thrilling an event is; how much of an internal reaction something provokes. Later on God would use this worldview to guide me towards Him, but for now I was still wandering around. 

From nihilism to rowing

Since I did not really care about anything, I always received mediocre grades and did not excel at anything. But this changed radically when I started at university, although not because of any academic endeavor. Rather, I applied to the rowing association. Since I was searching for the biggest internal thrill, I applied for the competitive freshmen’s eight. Rowing comes with a lot of physical suffering, but you are called to persist despite the pain to achieve what you want. This was very satisfying for me. The first year I did not make the freshmen’s eight, but then, in the second year, after a lot of hard work, I got in the team.

Rowing 6-8 times a week, having a sleeping schedule and an eating schedule really changed something inside of me. I came to realize that by working hard, one can achieve goals worth achieving. The work required would give the value of a certain pursuit. From a nihilist I turned into a spartan workhorse. No longer did I think that nothing had value, I now thought that something that is struggled for has more value, and the more one works for his achievements, the higher their value.

This changed view of life’s goals meant a fundamental change in all my activities. My grades improved, I became a friendlier person, and I set goals in everything I undertook. Also, turning from a slightly chubby teenager into a rather fit competitive rower, I suddenly received a lot of interest from the women at the rowing club.

A friend that helped me see

In September 2017, my fourth year of rowing, and my second to last year at university, I enrolled in a course that involved a group internship. In my group, there was a man, who, as I realized after talking to him a few times, was very smart and friendly. The shock came later, when we were driving back from our internship company: he was Catholic.

Since it had been raining hard and his train was delayed, I invited him into my car. In the car, we discussed the deeper questions of life. He told me that his religion was the foundation and highpoint of his life. He even felt a vocation to come to the Netherlands, thereby crossing the entire world. I was shocked by this. This was the first time I came across a person that was both smart and religious at the same time. After our talk, he even invited me to dinner at his home, an all-men Catholic student house.

That was when I came to Lepelenburg. The first time, I did not know what to expect. A speaker of an economic topic was invited, and there was a deep intellectual discussion afterwards. For me, in the middle of one of the most secular cities in one of the most secularized countries, I suddenly found a group of Catholic men trying to live a holy life. I was shocked. These students placed Christ in the center of their life (as they told me), were good people, and had a rich culture. They loved discussion, and I was allowed to ask any question I wanted about the Catholic faith, no matter how stupid or blasphemous it was. After this first time at the student house, many times would follow. Even though I was not yet interested in anything religious, I did realize that being religious is not equal to being stupid.

While going to the student house roughly every other week, my studies and rowing progressed. I was still living in the idea that the more one works for his achievements, the higher the value of those achievements. After four years of working like a maniac in both studies and rowing, I had to pay for it. I was giving every minute to either rowing or studies, and it was not sustainable. I broke down and could no longer handle the immense pressure that I was putting on myself. I was perplexed too. I had chosen my goals, studies and rowing, and was giving my everything to it. Both were going extremely well, but I am still unhappy. What is going on?

To recover, I decided to quit rowing for some time, or so I thought back then, and went on an intellectual quest to find out where I was wrong. Reflecting on the past, I realized two things. Since my life blossomed when I gave it away to my goals, I realized, my life is meant to be lived in full dedication to a goal. Secondly, I became increasingly unhappy the more I worked towards my self-chosen goals. I realized it might not be up to me to decide which goal I live for. But there has to be one goal to live for! I was certain of that because I saw how my life clicked when I gave it away to rowing and studies. I reasoned: the goal that I will dedicate my life to is not something that I can choose myself, rather, it is something within my life that I have to find; something that will integrate everything of me.

The quest for Truth

I set out to discover what I was doing everything for. Now, where was I to find that? I looked around in my life and saw the Catholic student house, of which many of the residents were by now friends. I was not really open to their faith because I still thought it was irrational. What they did suggest to me was to follow a humanities course led by a foundation very close to the student house. In this programme we had four classes: rhetorics, literature, philosophy and history. The most important course for me was philosophy.

During the philosophy course we read Plato’s Republic. Plato describes in great detail what his idea of the good life is. His work was of foundational influence to my quest for Truth. During the read, Plato felt like my companion on this quest. The most important contribution that I took from reading the Republic is that philosophy is valuable and true. I realized that philosophical inquiry can make valid and definite claims about reality, and it is within our human reasoning to reach objective truth. Applying that to my quest, I reasoned: by thinking, we can make conclusions about the goal of our life. This was the foundation on which I could build my philosophical and later theological house. Plato helped me to become a real philosopher, and I thought I will dedicate my life to knowledge and philosophy, because in there I can find my goal. Everything life has to offer can be found there.

And so I read more of Plato, and also Aristotle. I did not like more modern philosophers so much, because they do not set on this quest for truth. It reads rather as if they conduct late-night thought experiments to pass some time than that they set out to know the reason for them being alive.

From Plato’s cave to Mount Tabor

After becoming a philosopher, I had achieved a major insight in life. It contained many riches, contemplation, hierarchy of values, following a tradition. It gave many answers to questions such as: Who am I? What is a culture? Which life is lived well? But after some time, I realized that even philosophy does not encompass everything I needed.  I have a body, I exist in time and space, I have feelings, I am part of a family, a culture, and a shared adventure and most of all, I do not want to think all day on what I should do. Philosophy did not help me much in integrating all these aspects into my life. If I persevered making philosophy the highest goal of my life, it would mean exiting society to end up as a contemplating philosopher stuck on top of a hill in a small house reading books all day. That was not the fullness of life that I set out on.

Even though the philosophical life is not everything, I also saw that this life is very close to Truth itself. The one life I was searching for had to incorporate all the good aspects of a life of philosophy. That was another insight that helped me on my journey: philosophy alone is not the goal in life, but the one thing that is the answer to life does incorporate a lot of classical philosophy. This insight would be the biggest reason for me to embrace the Catholic faith, and not another religion.

Even though I had read the Greeks and studied what human reason can comprehend, I remained unsatisfied. The Catholic student house would once again help me. They explained to me that human reason is limited, and some truths cannot be reasoned but only accepted. Once we have accepted these self-evident truths, or dogmas,  the world as we see it makes more sense. My friends also pointed to books and authors that could help me in understanding this better. They recommended Ratzinger, Lewis and Augustine.

By reading these authors, I slowly came to accept those things that were beyond my human capacity to understand. It helped me to remove the intellectual barriers to accept the Catholic faith. I learned to accept the existence of dogma’s by reading Ratzinger, the authority of the Pope by Newman and Augustine taught me how God will fulfill our hearts.

In the end, I realized it is more in line with reason to accept the Catholic doctrine than to reject it. Simply said, someone who refuses Catholic teaching will at one point fail to find answers to questions and hence has to stop asking. Someone who accepts Catholic doctrine is able to have a rough sketch of an answer to all questions, although most answers to big questions remain covered in theological mystery.

To take the step

After reading the authors of our intellectual tradition, I no longer held any intellectual barriers to embracing the Catholic faith. But that is not to say that I was willing to take the leap. In fact, I was very reluctant and I did not want to convert. Converting would imply acknowledging that everything the Church teaches is true, accepting that I am no longer the authority of my life, repenting all the sins of the past, and distancing myself from family and friends. Of course this is something that I would not want.

But I could not continue living with a soul split apart. My head was Catholic, but my heart remained relativist and could not repent yet. God would ultimately help me, by giving me the clear invitation to join the Church and the trust that it would work out.

It happened while I was in St Petersburg, the city of Rembrandt’s The Return Of The Prodigal Son. I was on a course at the same humanities institute, and we were reading Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevski. During the stay, I heard many beautiful stories and experienced the beauty of the Church. What ultimately made me decide to go for the Faith was the experience of the infinite forgiveness of Christ. I read and discussed Forgiveness in the life of Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s masterpiece and I saw Forgiveness in the parable portrayed in the Winter palace. I felt how converting and repenting implies living a life in unity with Christ, which brings the highest joy we can experience here. I realized that, whatever the cost, I have to do this. I have to say sorry for my past and be there, there in the Church.

Back home in the Netherlands, I was still fearful of accepting the Church as my mother. Since I was baptized and had received first communion in my youth, I only had to confess and repent my life to join the union of the Church again. But confessing 24 years of modern secular hedonism comes to a big list, and I was afraid of the priest’s reaction.

It was on that cold Christmas eve, in 2019, when I felt it was time. I finally took the step out into the unknown. After dinner, I collected myself, rose from my seat and went for confession. As I came in, I remember feeling quite nervous, but after speaking out my list, the priest gave me the absolution, and when we came out of the confessionary, he hugged me. I was not condemned for my actions, I was forgiven. With that, I entered the new decade as a Catholic.

The life of a convert

Immediately after that Christmas, many things changed. From the outside I might have looked tranquil but within me there was a lot of chaos. It felt as if the carpet under my entire life was violently wrapped away, and all my activities, goals, desires and strengths were up in the air. Everything felt like a rollercoaster. Everything felt new and simultaneously the same. This lasted for some months. Slowly, all the aspects fell into their place in this new life. I had chosen to serve Christ and more and more, it would become the ground of my life. In September 2020, I received Confirmation by our bishop, and the friend of the car conversation became my godfather.

As I am writing this now, three years later, I realize that conversion is the biggest choice I will make in my life. Since then, spiritually, I am at home. Since I converted, my convictions about the Catholic Church being the true bride of Christ have not changed, only deepened. My heart and mind feel at home in the Church, and I hope to serve her in any way I can.

Since that Christmas in 2019, many wondrous things have happened to which I can only humbly say thanks to Christ and our Church. I have come to be amazed by the infinite mystery of the Holy Mass; I discovered Gregorian chants which inspired Catholics for over ten centuries; I have been able to witness the beauty of medieval, gothic churches, which I no longer see as a museum, but as a home to our Lord. I studied more of our amazing intellectual tradition and read the heroic lives of the saints. And most of all, I am dating a girl in a wonderful Catholic relationship.

Called to love

In my country and throughout Europe, many people have left the Faith. It strikes me how in the Netherlands, within two generations, Catholicism turned from the dominant religion to a small minority. Am I that weird to be marveled by all the beauty the Church offers? Or am I unique in discovering the Truth in Her teachings? Is it something only for the weird, or the intellectual, or the day-dreamers?

I think not. To conclude, I would like to reflect on  deeper trends that I see hindering people of the modern era – and which certainly hindered me – from starting to live a Christian life. My story highlights three hurdles of these times: modern nihilism, the appeal of meritocracy as escape from nihilism, and the aversion towards traditional ways of life.

With modern nihilism I refer to the conviction that holds: “there is no path laid out in front of us, all choices are of equal value. We are free to decide what we like ourselves.” Within this conviction, there is no objective truth and no boundaries, and as a result, we have to make our own story. I often hear my generation say that “life is what you make of it”. But if we are really called to be the protagonist and creator of the same story, then its narrative will never reach beyond ourselves. Furthermore, someone who is under the impression that the only standard that he should adhere to is his own judgment will not adhere to any objective standard at all. His conviction sets him for a downward slide towards meaninglessness, towards a life only lived for pleasure.

An impulse to move beyond the misplaced role of creator of our own life story has to come from an external goal. Something external has to break in, something to which we bow down. We need to experience how the presence of clear external goals makes our lives worth it. For me, sports was this clear example, this external goal and set of values that gives my life meaning.

At the same time, we are not saved by external goals. Instead, those that run away from modern nihilism are at the risk of falling into a second trap. If we escape nihilism by setting goals in our life, we suddenly create another problematic narrative. I call this the meritocratic game. The more goals we set in our lives, the more meaning our life creates. And this is prevalent around us. We know the societal ideal of the self-made everything; a great career, a job at a big 4, a strong resume record, constant proof of ourselves, a beautiful family, and next to that, sports success, healthy eating, good looks and a smile for everyone. The more we can achieve, the more ‘meaning’ our life receives, and the more ‘happy’ we become.  But this game ignores the boundaries we have, and brings the risk of mental and physical exhaustion. Where this narrative becomes dominant, burnouts appear as an almost logical effect. In the Netherlands we even speak of my age group as the burnout generation.

Moving beyond the narrative of forced personal destiny creation and subsequent unavoidable failure requires at least two admittances. First, we have to acknowledge that we will never be good enough in this game to fully accept ourselves. Second, we have to acknowledge that we are already exhausted from the chase of these ever increasing goals. Only then can we start building a narrative that is closer to how reality really is. It requires the recognition that we do not make our own story; it is handed to us. The story that we live in is not acquired by achievement. It is a gift. And our inability to accept gifts brings us to the third modern barrier.

What I see as the most fundamental barrier for embracing Christianity is the radical rejection of tradition in Western Europe. I do not mean teenage rebellion against what their parents are telling them. Instead I recognize, in my parents’ generation, a deep distrust against anything old that puts a claim to our lives. It is the refusal to acknowledge that we are living in a common story. Parents are unable to pass on a living faith because they have never seen the value in it. They never saw faith as the all-encompassing story that unites all humanity in a common goal. They experience a fundamental distrust in this claim of traditions, as it can overtake their acquired modern liberty. But as a result, we are floating around in a life without tradition and therefore without understanding time, space, and meaning.

If there is one thing Catholicism brought me, it is the integration of my life into the bigger story. It started with a value recognition of the objects that stand beyond what I personally am, of what was handed to me through tradition. The tradition handed me another world that I had to get to know at first. But only by engaging in this old world, was I able to discover that it offers a viable way of life. One that is beautiful, filled with virtue. It is a world that even helped me to find answers to the challenges of life. For example, Plato helped me personally to see that the existential questions that we face have not changed since his time. I had to recognize that the questions that I had, are questions that have been asked by humans of all times; and that generations have helped each other in finding answers to those questions; and that this sharing between those generations is what can rightly be called tradition. At first these traditions provide us answers in abstract. Later, we may be able to give a personal answer as well. But this takes another step.

For providing a personal answer we have to, in a sense, internalize the tradition. If we want to step beyond the meritocratic game and the distrust of old wisdom, tradition has to infuse our lives. I should not, for instance, choose a traditional relationship of chastity over a modern casual relationship because the Church told me. No, the Church invites me to another world which contains much more wisdom than what I could have ever come up with in my life. And by opening myself up to that world, and accepting that my own reason is fallible, I accept this message and internalize it.

For me personally, the orthodox Catholic formation within Opus Dei helps me to live this every day. It provides concrete actions that help me to transform my life from its sinful, individual, modern, and meritocratic orientation towards a wider view that follows the wisdom of the Church. With that discovery, this story returns where it started. My quest for finding the reason why I should get up every morning has joined the united quest of many others over centuries. Together, we try to fulfill God’s will every day, while united in the body of Christ.

Paul van Vulpen

Študoval ekonómiu, fyziku, IT-technológie a manažment na Utrechtskej univerzite v Holandsku. Momentálne na univerzite študuje na oddelení softvérových systémov v rámci štipendia od spoločnosti Centric. V Centricu, ktorý je najväčšou Holandskou firmou na predaj softvéru, aj pracuje ako líder decentralizovaného technologického výskumného tímu.

After studying economics and physics as undergraduate and IT and management as master at Utrecht University, he studies under the Centric scholarship in the software systems department at Utrecht University. At the same time, he works at Centric where he leads the decentralised technology research group. Centric is the largest Dutch software vendor.

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