The Gift of Perseverance Gives Us Joy

“The gift of perseverance gives us joy. It gives us the certainty that we are loved by the Lord, and this love sustains us...” —Pope Benedict XVI

Perseverance (photo: Tambira Photography / Pixabay / CC0)

“Do not lose courage in considering your own imperfections, but instantly set about remedying them — every day begin the task anew.” ―St. Francis de Sales

“Red light, green light, one-two-three!”

“Olly olly oxen free!”

“Tag, you’re it!”

I would hear those shouts echo across the schoolyard as I sat on the sidelines watching my classmates play. Too chubby to run and too clumsy to be a team asset, I was used to sitting out every activity that required movement more strenuous that the pressing of a Pop-O-Matic dome. 

By the time I was a senior in high school, I had bench-warmed my way through nearly 12 years’ worth of recesses and phys-ed classes. Then our easygoing gym teacher unexpectedly retired, and Miss Carol was hired to fill the position. Tough, burly and terrifying, Miss Carol was a Komodo dragon in a tracksuit.

During her first few weeks on the job, Miss Carol saw me gracelessly fall from the vaulting horse, pull an ab muscle while attempting to hula hoop, and lose my team a softball game by stepping off the base to scratch my foot. Despite Miss Carol’s steely determination and stellar phys-ed instruction, I managed to learn little about athletics in gym class. But I did learn about possibilities. I learned that it’s possible to get one’s face squarely smacked by an un-dodged ball in dodgeball, and that it’s possible to do a pullup if and only if someone else is pulling you up, and that it’s possible to make a gritty gym teacher cry.

One day, after a comically bad in-class experience involving a jump rope, I decided that I had embarrassed myself long enough. Thinking that I might make some progress if I practiced alone, I stayed behind after gym class. I picked up a basketball and tried to dribble. I was lousy at it, but I loved having the gym and its equipment all to myself. I lingered again after the next gym class and practiced walking the balance beam. The following week, I worked on volleyball serves. 

I enjoyed those solo practice sessions because there was no one around to see me fail. No one to see me botch a dribble and send the basketball crashing into the supply closet. No one to see me topple from the balance beam. No one to see me sprain my thumb on a fumbled serve.

I’d like to say that those many hours of gym practice improved my skills, but they didn’t. This Class of ’77 MVP (Most Valueless Player) managed to retain her title right up until graduation day.

I did, however, also earn academic recognition. At the graduation awards ceremony, I won the Language Arts award. And the Foreign Language award.

And also … the Physical Education award.

It turned out that Miss Carol was not only as tough, burly and terrifying as a Komodo dragon, but also as stealthy: She had secretly watched me practicing alone in the gym, and had been impressed by my persistence. She chose to give me the Physical Education award not because of any actual progress I had made, but because I’d never given up trying.

Physical stick-to-itiveness is undoubtedly a good thing, but spiritual perseverance is far more valuable. When we are striving for holiness, even our stumbles and falls become instruments of our spiritual formation. According to St. Francis de Sales, “God takes pleasure to see you take your little steps.”

“Perseverance is a great grace. To go on gaining and advancing every day, we must be resolute, and bear and suffer as our blessed forerunners did. Which of them gained heaven without a struggle?” —St. Elizabeth Ann Seton