A friend took me to lunch at the Harvard Club in New York City some years ago. When the food arrived, he looked around at the Masters of the Universe, he said: “Let’s shock the locals.” He then proceeded to cross himself and a say a blessing. I was shocked unto tears by something similar, which was viewed by hundreds of millions at the end of Tour de France last weekend.
The hardest sporting event in the world, the Tour de France sees 194 cyclists ride hard across more than 2,000 miles of French roads, including tens of thousands of feet into the Alps and the Pyrenees. Then – terrifyingly – they go down the other side.
The race is divided into 21 stages. The rider with the lowest cumulative time across these 21 individual races wins the Tour. On Sunday, Egan Bernal, riding for the Team Ineos (a maker of chemicals), became the youngest man ever to win the 116-year-old Tour.
Unless you’re a rider, it’s impossible to understand just how difficult it is to win even a single stage of the Tour de France, let alone the whole thing.
They ride at speeds up to 60 mph down mountainsides, packed like sardines next to their competitors. An errant tap on the brakes, hitting a small rock, a wet patch, can pitch grown men wearing little more than lycra underwear onto hard asphalt. Quite remarkably, even when it happens, most of them get right back up, bleeding and broken, and resume the fight.
All of this is fruit for the interior life. Acedia is a kind of sadness about the long and daily grind of prayer and practice that we as Christians must undertake. Consider the soul-crushing thoughts of these men as they ride more than 100 miles on Monday, wake up the next day and do it again, and again, and again, for 21 days across more than 2,000 miles.
The final stage is a roaring race into Paris with final death-defying laps up and down the Champs-Élysées and around the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile. Bernal didn’t win this stage. He didn’t have to: he won the Tour.
When the champion crossed the finish line, press and handlers surround him. Up comes his mother, brother, and girlfriend. What happens next makes me tear up just writing this down.
Bernal is only 22. His little brother, maybe 15, stands in front of his older brother with wonder on his face, tears in his eyes. The brothers hug for a long time. Bernal takes his little brother’s face in his hands and kisses him lovingly on the forehead.
Then they do something I’ve never seen before: they bless each other using the sign of the cross. And it’s so perfectly done, so perfectly choreographed, that it’s clear this is something common to them. Bernal then does the same with his mother. I’ve watched it over and over.
I filmed the moment from my television and put it on Twitter. The video has been viewed 55,000 times; it has 2,400 likes, and an outpouring of emotion from those who comment.
Bernal’s is not the only story like this from the Tour. Many riders, like Vincenzo Nibali of Italy, cross themselves before each stage. A spectator handed a rosary to another Colombian rider, Nairo Quintana, on Stage 18. Quintana went on to win that stage of the race.
All this puts me in mind of the Norman Rockwell painting “Saying Grace,” which appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post’s Thanksgiving edition in 1951.
An old woman with a flowered hat sits in a diner with her head bowed. She clasps her withered hands in front of her. Her scrawny grandson, head bowed, sits next to her. He’s scooched on his chair just a bit closer to her and a bit further away from the two older boys seated at the same table. They’re probably teenagers but already men. One smokes a cigarette. They stare intently at grandma and grandson.
Over their shoulder, a rough-looking man needing a shave looking down at the scene. In the foreground, yet another man, smoking a cigar, watches. Out the window, you can see grandma and grandson are in a part of town not common to them.
It’s the world of working men who gaze respectfully at a family praying without shame over a meal. Are these men remembering similar scenes with their own grandmothers? Are they thinking they ought to get back to church? From the expression on their faces, something marvelous has happened.
Crossing ourselves at a public meal may be among the most revolutionary act of our time. It’s the public square that seems increasingly closed off to us, but something even the Left cannot take away from us.
My wife and I do this with our daughters. My friends and I do this together in restaurants. I admit feeling a little squirrelly about doing this when I am alone. My failing.
But it is a revolutionary act, and whether those nearby look intently at us like the rough men in that diner, you can be sure someone will notice. We’ll never know until the General Judgement the effect that revolution will have achieved.
[Photo credit: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Getty Images]