Tuesday, October 17, 2017

From the Nicest Place in America to the Nicest Team...

Gallatin, Tennesse a town of grit and grace just 30 miles outside of Nashville is the 2017 winner of the "Nicest Place in America." I have often thought that "nice" is trés generic...tan vanilla. (tan is Spanish for "rather'). I believed people who use the adjective "nice" need to develop a better vocabulary or study character education. In fact, I used to consider "being nice" an insult. The last thing I wanted to be described as is "a nice person." However, in recent months, I have come to value people who are well....nice...Places too. The world can be a callous and cruel place. Many people are out for themselves; they are rude, inconsiderate and not too nice. America needs Gallatin. We need to know there are communities (like the runners-up) that thrive on serving one another, extending hospitality, and celebrating our past, present, and future. 
According to Readers' Digest,
Gallatin, a farm-community-turned-suburb nestled against Old Hickory Lake in the Cumberland River valley was founded in 1802. Subdivisions now bloom where crops once grew, ringing an old town square dignified by stately brick buildings and a regal county courthouse. Twenty years ago, it was a sleepy community of under 10,000 residents and downtown businesses worked hard to stay afloat. Now, nearing 40,000, Gallatin’s 30-minute proximity to booming Nashville has given the town new life. Investors have moved in to develop downtown commercial real estate. Houses are springing up almost as fast as people from all over the country can move into them, and a hip new coffee shop in one of the town square’s premier buildings, just renovated to accommodate a wide range of new commercial enterprises, is a symbol of what’s become of this former small town. 
Gallatin earned this distinguished award for three important qualities: its emphasis on charity, its ethnic diversity, and the kindness of the community. 
When I learned what made Gallatin so special, I started to think about the school community where I work. In the fifteen years I have taught at St. Ignatius, we have only grown increasingly more diverse. As a Jesuit school, we are committed to a "faith that does justice." Serving others through acts of charity is much more than a graduation requirement. Charity is practiced regularly in our classrooms and as an institution. We have been richly blessed, we ought to give to those in need, and we do. But, I believe we could be a kinder community. In the same way we need nice, we need kindness....maybe...even more. 

Naturally, I shared the story of Gallatin, TN with my Sophomore students, but I also thought to share it with another group—the JV girls golf team. A friend looked at a picture of my team and said: "you resemble the United Nations." I smiled; I am grateful that I have the chance to work with such a diverse group of female athletes. We too practice acts of charity. Our team has grown closer in making sandwiches for the Thursday Morning Comfort Run. We are giving a donation to the Cancer Awareness club in gratitude for their gift of pink ribbons which will accompany our "pink match." I would like to do more and I will keep that desire as a challenge for the future. Lastly, with my team, I see acts of kindness every day. When a golfer fixes her divot, picks up a club a teammate has left behind, remembers to rake a bunker, or goes out of her way to rake it for another golfer, kindness is at play. Gestures such as these bring a different vibe to the game. It's nice! But the more I thought about our acts of kindness, the more I realized in the same way we challenge ourselves to improve in our sport, we ought to encourage one another to become kinder. What might that mean?

Level 1 kindness is not to be underestimated. No act of kindness is a given, but actions on this Level don't require much effort or sacrifice and yet they are critically important because one is not likely to extend Level 2 kindness if Level 1 kindness is missing.

Level 2 demands paying attention, noticing and really caring about another's feelings, stretching oneself and a strong moral fiber. On my golf team, I see Level 2 kindness in action when one playing partner complains about an opponent. It's natural to vent, it's kind to forgo fueling the fire. Level 2 kindness may be something as basic, but annoying, as cleaning out the van when you know the wrappers, Cheetos and other trash aren't your own. I saw Level 2 kindness at work just yesterday when a golfer carried my bag down in addition to her own down the Par 5 fairway so I wouldn't have to go back. I'm thinking more about Level 2 kindness and want my athletes too as well. Perhaps we'll discover and experience Level 3 as the season winds down.

Whether it's the community you live in, the place where you work our the team you are a member of, it's worth considering three outstanding qualities that characterize what makes you special...excuse me, nice.

Photo Credits

Monday, October 9, 2017

Thank you Cam Newton

While sports talk radio, social media and the Twittersphere has condemned Cam Newton for his comment directed at Jourdan Rodrigue a female sports reporter, I want to thank him. In a postgame interview, Rodrigue said,  “I know you take a lot of pride in seeing your receivers play well. Devin Funchess has really seemed to embrace the physicality of his routes and getting those extra yards. Does that give you a little bit of enjoyment to see him kind of truck-sticking people out there?” Rather than answer the question, the Carolina Panthers' starting QB  responded with a comment that it not only offensive and off-putting, it cost him a number of sponsorships (Dannon yogurt). Newton, a former league MVP smiled and said, "It's funny to hear a female talk about routes. It's funny." It's not funny....but I'm still glad he said it. 
The public's response has been one of disgust and disappointment. Rodrighe said that Newton "not only belittled me but countless other women before me and beside me who work in similar jobs." She is right. If one is unsure whether or not a comment is "sexist," this qualifies. Whether or not a person can and does talk about routes does should not be equated with whether or not they are male or female. Though Newton's intention was to compliment Ms. Rodrigue, his missive fell flat. His words were short-sighted and preumptuous. He regrets saying them and he should....but...what he said needed to be said and heard. Why? Because they have afforded the public with an important lesson. 

I believe a lot of men agree with what Cam Newton said. I also think a lot of women do too. I believe a lot of women think it's funny or weird when other women talk about sports. I know because I hear those responses at varying degrees quite often, the worst of which is when friends advise me not to talk about sports on a date. They have said, "Men don't like it when women talk about sports." to which I can only respond, "so you're telling me to talk about something I really care about. I can't do that." Assuming good will, they have probably met men that feel this way! Newton's offensive comment has allowed women who love sports to share similar experiences. 
However, just as a society should not judge a woman who wants to talk about pass protection, the I-formation on the field and physicality, so too should we not shun a man who doesn't. If a man doesn't like sports, and I know plenty of them, I hope others would not find that "funny" either. 
We all carry presumptions—to say otherwise is misguided. I don't think all assumptions are meant to be mean-spirited, sexist or inappropriate. For example, if you were to look at the principal of the school where I teach, you would never guess he speaks Mandarin. When he joined my class on our Urban Plunge to St. Anthony's in the Tenderloin a number of my students heard for themselves what Mr. Ruff studied in college. As they were giving out canned goods to seniors, he greeted a number of these patrons in their native tongue. All parties were nourished in the giving....and I dare say, surprised too. Yes, we ought to be cautious and consider what we assume to be true about anyone. When we do, we must share our thoughts with discretion, kindness, and respect. At our best, perhaps we can seek to open ourselves to the unique gifts and abilities of each individual person.
49ers WR coach Katie Sowers
The movie "Battle of the Sexes" aimed to teach the public about how far women have come. Football is no exception. Today, women are members of ownership groups (take for example the Williams sisters. Venus and Serena are partial owners of the Miami Dolphins). Women are very popular as side-line reporters. The NFL now has female referees. The 49ers even have a female Wide Receivers coach; it's her JOB to talk about routes. No longer are women confined to the sidelines as cheerleaders (why are there male cheerleaders in college but not in the pros?), but they are contributing as faithful fans and followers and some are even playing the game. And this month you'll see a lot of men and women on the field wearing pink, and that's not funny either. The League's support of Breast Cancer awareness is remarkable. They're working on other issues too....

Photo Credits
Female Ref
49ers Coach

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Grit Factor

I have yet to meet someone who—upon revisiting their high school or college—says something other than, "I hardly recognize the place. That's not the school I went to." Or, "It is so much nicer than when I was a student. I can't believe the facilities!" Capital campaigns have certainly been more successful than hindsight being 20x20. I'm sure there are schools that haven't gotten bigger, better or more beautiful. They must be out there—or maybe they've closed—but, I'd like to find them. Why? I want to know if they have held on to a singular quality that might get lost when we re-d0, remodel and expand.  It's a quality that comes at a cost—abeit one that is not necessarily financial. No, this quality requires patience, hard work, and perseverance. It's free and yet it comes at a price. It's a very popular four-letter word. Grit.
My beloved alma mater, the University of Notre Dame could have easily been the poster child for grit. Nestled in the ever-exotic South Bend, IN students woke up every morning to the fresh smell of...ethanol (gas made from corn). Students lived like sardines in their four-year stay halls, most of which don't have air conditioning. Given that the temperatures fall below the legal drinking age from November through May, one might be surprised to learn that the campus feels like a resident swamp June through mid-September. And when you have four to six men assigned to a room the size of a meat locker, fans can only help so much. But something else can: grit. I have to wonder, as the University has gotten nicer and the Dome even shinier, do any places like "Dirty Thirty" remain? (DT was the home to 30 men in the basement of Morrissey Manor, a men's dorm at Notre Dame. I have always loved knowing that NBA Coach and former player Monty Williams opted to stay/live in this section of Morrissey despite his height of 6'8" matching the ceiling).

Part of me believes ND will always have grit—a byproduct of its location, but it's not a given. Walk around the campus today and you'll see no stone unturned, no pathway that needs to be paved (across a quad), no item that hasn't been marketed with an interlocking ND. Undergraduates: are you still met by every third person with the words: Excuse me, where's the Bookstore? I can't imagine you are. Why? Hand cut wooden signs line every inch of campus. If one gets lost from God Quad to Mod Quad, that's their fault. The flora is always in bloom and the fauna springs eternal. The dens of iniquity are no longer. Is the grit factor, too? 
Though there are hundreds more walk and pathways, I do love the aerial view of God Quad
The heart that you see symbolizes the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Grit is a hot word, a buzz term in education and child-rearing. We want young people to have grit—also known as resolve, One can watch any number of Ted Talks about grit's importance and read Forbes' five steps for getting grit. I'm on board....but I believe that's missing the point. Grit comes from grime (not literally, just figuratively). Think gritty. I'll default to an un-sports and spirituality like resource here, the Urban Dictionary. It states
Gritty: harsh, coarse, rough and unrefined, as in film depictions that portray life as it truly is, without false distortions, stylizations, or idealizations. Often, the realism is exaggerated such that the culture or society being portrayed appears more coarse than it really is.
We want grit.  Or, maybe we think we do. What athlete doesn't want to be considered "tough" or what person wouldn't want to be known as "real." Yet, we've handled the harsh, eased that which is course, and made smooth a lot of the rough. Grit comes at a cost. The field has too many gopher holes, the weight room is sweatbox, the tennis courts have a crack or three, the gym is dank,  dead spots on the floor abound, and the differentiation between the fairway and the rough? there is none. Grit means that an athlete makes due with what he or she has. Grit is another reason we love sports. The team with the most toys or even the best ones doesn't always win the title. But many times the teams with grit—those do.
And what of a fan base that shows some grit? Do they enjoy the wins more? Take the losses harder? I'd like to think so, but maybe not. Just this week, I gazed at a banner celebrating the three World Series championships by the San Francisco Giants; I am still awestruck by that feat. We did it. AT&T Park doesn't have the same grit factor as Candlestick...but it has more than the new Yankee Stadium, which according to Brian Murphy has "Zero percent." 

I've asked myself the hard question: Would I have enjoyed the titles more if the Giants had earned them in Candlestick? Tough to say. In that way, I think Urban Dictionary is right—we exaggerate, we tell our tales of frostbite and fight nights in the Bleachers with a reckless aplomb. And yet my appreciation for AT&T, which does not diminish, must be more than those fans who grew up the most beautiful diamond in MLB. Why? Because I know from whence we came—a place that former 49er Wide Receiver Dwight Clark referred to as a "dump." He said, "it was a dump. But, it was our dump s0 we could talk badly about it. But we didn't want anybody else to talk badly about it." Fans were there for one reason: the product on the field. Not for the garlic fries, the give-aways, the vistas or the Splash Hits. We brought our blankets (I still do), drank our domestic beer and hoped for a win. We made due with what we had...and got a lot. Sounds like grit 101 to me.

I can't imagine the President or Principal of a school opting out of improving the plant for the sake of the grit factor. But it is an interesting idea.What can we leave much of what we have "as is"—even just "good enough?" Time and grime, sun and seasons will make things worse for ware, but maybe not for the grit factor. I'd talk more about it...

  • Five Grittiest Ballparks in MLB
  • Sports that require the most grit
  • Poster Children for grit (in sports)
  • Grit and Spirituality?!

Photo Credits
Yankee Stadium
Grit Girl


Monday, October 2, 2017

Are Sports Meaningless? Look to Matt Cain

At the conclusion of every baseball season, Major League teams make an effort to thank their patrons with Fan Appreciation Day. If you'd like to make an argument for San Francisco Giants fans "earning" such accolades, this would be the year. After an abysmal season—one that was met with high expectations only to be concluded with 98 losses—the Giants managed to leave their faithful with bright smiles and hearts full of gratitude. Despite being in last place in the NL West all season, the Orange and Black never stopped coming out to the Yard (take that Yogi Berra!). For those who did, they were able to honor the 1987 squad, allow Ryan Vogelsong to retire as a Giant and as witnessed on Saturday, September 30 bid farewell to three-time All-Star and World Series champion, Matt Cain. In the Player's Tribune "Forever a Giant," Cain wrote, 
I think it’s the routine that gets you. All those years of routine, all those years of waking up on my start day and going through the same set of pregame habits. There’s a real comfort in routine — I think that’s probably why we do it. But when it comes time for that last time … man, there’s nothing “routine” about it.
If I had served as his ghost-writer, I would add but one word: meaningless. That's right. When it comes time for the last time....man, there's nothing "routine" or "meaningless" about it.
As Cain was working through that routine, I undertook my own: sitting in my sacred space—which is, believe it or not—my desk. From this perch nestled inside a bay window, I overlook Fillmore Street in San Francisco. I open up my laptop to read the news, e-mails, and articles never without a fresh, hot cup of joe in hand. Though I seldom get through all I would like to read and respond to, the opinion piece in the Washington Post "The Whole Point of Sports is their Meaningless" gave me an added jolt, sans caffeine. 

Abernathy's reflection does not propose anything my students and I haven't discussed before. On the first day of Sports and Spirituality, I share what retired professional tennis player and former world number one Andre Agassi wrote in his autobiography, "Open." He said, "Part of my discomfort with tennis has always been a nagging sense that it's meaningless." Recent events in the NFL have invited this country to revisit the same concern, the same question with yet another dimension, another angle, a worthy nuance, and thoughtful voices. 

Abernathy quotes NBA Hall of Fame basketball legend Bill Russell who said, at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement, "I don't consider anything I have done as contributing to society. I consider playing professional basketball as marking time, the most shallow thing in the world." His words are biting. They reek of truth and yet, I wonder—I have to ask: Does he still believe that to be true?

And it's not just the athletes who hold this conscience qualm. The late sportswriter Frank DeFord admits, that he only got advice from Andre Laguerre, the managing editor at Sports Illustrated but one time. DeFord said "the time he gave me advice was when I wondered whether writing about sports was really substantial. Laguerre simply said Frankie, it doesn't matter what you write about. All that matters is how well you write. I suppose that has helped sustain me all these years." What if we were all to do what we do well (Age Quod Agis). Would we question its meaning? To what degree does the quest for excellence give a sport, a game, or a contest meaning?

I appreciate the voices that ask us to question our values and priorities. I understand their claims. On one level I agree. In the wake of several natural disasters, gun violence and threats of nuclear war, who wins the AL Wild Card isn't keeping the President up at night...until maybe it is. But to deem sports as shallow, hollow and a waste of time is more than a reductional mistake. Why? Because sports can and always will involve matters of the heart...the stuff that makes us human...passionate and joyful...and yes—at times irrational. But when sports involves beauty, excellence, joy and triumph—the spirit can soar. It's a powerful force. This is what fans were privy to with Matt Cain's retirement.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy emerged from the dugout after Cain threw his final out to be the first to greet and honor this Giant workhorse. However, all of AT&T Park beat him to it as all 42,000 on hand rose to their feet, to a thunderous applause. The cheering, clapping, whistling, did not dwindle. Cain raised his arms to recognize the fans...to celebrate a remarkable career...to take in one last time a perch that is the stuff of childhood dreams. The energy was electric...pulsating. Loyal fans and even the announcers got a little choked up. 

Cain exited the mound to then meet the Skipper and greet every single one of his teammates with his thanks. Those who know baseball and those who love it, know that much like a great concert, an encore must follow. Cain came back on the field. San Francisco in all of its mad beauty looked at one man. We looked back at what he did: the perfect game, the start in the 2012 All-Star game, Game 3 against the Phillies in the 2010 NLCS (we were underdogs—I STILL can't believe we won that game in Philly) and considered all that we learned from him. Cain will retire with a win-loss stat this is in no way reflective of how dominant he was on the mound. In 2010-2012, Giants fans would complain of getting #Cained. Matty would throw for seven or eight innings and give up but one or two runs. Another loss for #18 but an ERA that remained consistently low. His work ethic was admirable and impressive; he never complained. Ever. 
Injuries hastened his retirement and when he made the announcement the week before last, Giants fans—though sad to see him go—could not help but be happy for all that he has given. Named as the starter for Saturday's game, everyone knew this day would be the perfect occasion to remember and to celebrate. He wrote
That was the moment, I think, when I finally answered the question — of why it meant so much to me to play my entire career as a Giant. It wasn’t the first World Series, or the second, or the third, or the LCS against the Cardinals, or the LDS against the Reds, or one of the hundreds of Dodgers games, or the perfect game … or any other moment in between. It was the reaction that I got from those fans, on that afternoon, on my last day as a starter.  
It was a reaction that said, Hey — we know what you’re going through. And guess what: We’re going through the exact same thing. It was a reaction that said, You’re going to miss this? Well, guess what: We’re going to miss this — we’re going to miss you — just the same.  
It was a reaction that said, When you’re in this ballpark, you’re not just “Matt Cain, Pitcher.” You’re “Matt Cain, Pitcher, San Francisco Giants” — and you’re not on your own. We’re right here, with you, and we’re going to do this together.  
And that’s what happened. I walked out of the bullpen, and I took the mound — and I didn’t feel alone the entire time.
One can say that sports are meaningless, but we know that's simply not true.

We can say that sports are meant to be a distraction, but that's not true either. Our concerns, our challenges, our tears our losses emerge on the field...inside the stadium...in the locker room....and they are celebrated. And no one can do any of those things alone.

People are beloved and honored—many during their career others long after, some....Forever Giant. 

Photo Credits
Forever Giant
Thank you

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Derek Jeter Examen

Hard to believe that three years ago today, Derek Jeter played his final game at Yankee Stadium. I love what Jeter's former teammate Antoan Richardson wrote in The Players' Tribune: "My Journey Home" about that fateful evening.
At the time, I couldn’t believe what had just happened. But I suppose that’s what the great ones do, right? They leave the party in style. Sampras beat Agassi in a nail-biter in the U.S. Open final, Kobe messed around and dropped 60 in his last game, and now The Captain had delivered a walk-off single to say goodnight to Yankee Stadium! 
However, harder to believe is that my students know little to nothing about him. I suppose you could say San Francisco isn't exactly a stone's throw from the Big Apple or that our local team, the Giants have preoccupied their imaginations. I get that. Still, I was genuinely shocked that my question "What do you know about the Hall of Fame Yankee shortstop?" was met with silence. They needed to know who he was for the purpose of class material, but I wanted them to know about this legend for much more than the women he dated (someone did know that). I think we can all learn from his work ethic, his presence, how he was raised and what was expected of him. This is why I teach.

The Captain is a significant figure in Nine Innings from Ground Zero, a video we watch in Sports and Spirituality. In the wake of  9/11, New Yorkers turned to baseball—the American pasttime—for spontaneous rituals of grief and showcases for resilience and the restoration of normalcy. Jeter is at the heart of it all. Without "#2 there is "no catch"—the defensive play that saved the Yankees in ALDS against the Mariners. In the Yankees' post-season run for the World Series title, Jeter becomes Mr. November, he advises President George W. Bush to throw from the mound (they'll boo ya) and we learn of how he personally reached out to Brielle, the young daughter of one of the pilots killed by hijackers. What he did both on and off the field in 2001, merit discussion and appreciation. His retirement just three years ago highlighted these heroic acts as but one chapter in the treasury of his career.
Though I have written and taught about Jeter several times in the past, I have never included him in prayer. A course like Sports and Spirituality naturally.... inherently... and organically invites creative and new ways to interact faith and love of sport. I looked at a former blog posting "Jeter's Way: Life Lesson's from #2, Derek Jeter" and create it into an Examen. In Ignatian Spirituality 
The Daily Examen is a technique of prayerful reflection on the events of the day in order to detect God’s presence and discern his direction for us.  The Examen is an ancient practice in the Church that can help us see God’s hand at work in our whole experience.
This Examen would be a little different. I wanted my students to prayerfully reflect on what Jeter's fans and teammates value in him and how that might relate to his life. What you will see below is that method for prayer. I begin with factual, biographical information about DJ.  These insights, quotes, and stories spawn a question to reflect upon. Students are invited to pray with the response from both their heart and mind.
"FORTUNE ranked him the 
11th greatest leader in the world, 
22 sports ahead of Apple CEO 
Tim Cook."

Jeter said "One of the biggest things about is you have to get to know your teammates. You have to get to know who you're leading because there's different buttons you push with different people. Some guys you can yell and scream at, and some guys you have to put your arm around. You can do that only if you get to know them as people."

In light of Jeter's philosophy on leadership, how do you get to know those you are trying to lead? "Asking questions" and "spending time with someone" are obvious answers. But what are some practical things a good leader adds to the mix?

Optimism vs. Negativity 
"I always hear people say I give the same answers or I don't give you much. No, I just don't give you much negativity. When people are negative a lot, it starts to creep into your mind, and then you start having doubts, and I don't like that. If there's another way, show me. My job is to stay positive. My job is to limit distractions. And if you get annoyed by that, I don't expect you to understand because you're not in my shoes."

How much negativity is in your life? 

Do you make an effort to stay positive? 
How do you limit distractions?
Mentoring/Having Fun
Tim Raines, the one Yankee who could laugh off a slump or needle Paul O'Neill about being up a water cooler, became another influence,” writes Verducci.

"I learned from him to have fun," Jeter says. "He had fun every day. That's a big part of being able to play all those years: to enjoy yourself?

How or when do you enjoy yourself at work or school?

Can be intentional about finding time to enjoy yourself every day?
Is there someone or something that makes your work/school fun every day?How do you seek them out?

A former teammate, Matt Ruoff, this month told The Press Democrat of Santa Rosa, CA 'You always wanted to sit by him. I know that sounds weird, But Derek gave off a presence."

Have you ever sought out the company of another because they give off a presence? Describe it. What type of presence might you give off?  What type of presence do you hope you give?
Can-Do Attitude
Jeter's parents, Dot and Charles, "never permitted Derek to use the word can't around the house. Anything was possible with hard work. There is no doubting whence come his distaste for negativity." 

How often do I say "I can't?" 

How can I change my point of view?
How can we help my friends and teammates work hard and appreciate its value?

The Dream
"I always dreamed of playing in the major leagues. But everything that comes along with it couldn't have possibly been part of the dream. Because it's been much better."
Concluding Prayer
Lord, thank you for the people in our lives who lead us to be our best selves.
We are grateful for their ability to keep us focused and to see the good.
Help us to appreciate our time with these leaders and the way their presence makes a difference.
Strengthen our own will to preserve, to do our best, to remove the words “I can’t” from our mindset. And assist us as we pursue our dream and your dream for our world.

Photo Credits
Mr. President

Monday, September 25, 2017

What I've Learned from Pro-Athletes and My Pastor....

Although you can place a bet on who will win the tourney, most patrons—including yours truly—anticipate the American Century Golf Classic for the remarkable setting, the 17th hole antics, the list of celebrities and the chance to interact with them. Indeed, the four-day event is a sports fan's paradise. One can get up close and personal with former MLB, NFL, NHL, NBA and tennis greats. We fans don our team colors, jeer at the enemy—no matter how long ago the rivalry took place—and marvel at the height, fitness, athleticism of the players...or what's left of it. But, what keeps me talking about this mid-summer classic, weeks, months and years later, isn't who won and by how many strokes (ok some women in my group do...Mark Mulder is now a three-time champion). Nor is it the planned and unplanned shenanigans, although I have to admit a few are highly entertaining. No, it's the human touch. It's what happens when the people we admire and appreciate connect with one another and with us. And, I've noticed, once you have you make a point to find "a little of that human touch," you'll see it everywhere.
How's that? It shouldn't be a surprise that sports fans arrive at this tourney with memorabilia, hungry to get it signed by some high-profile athletes (in recent years, that includes Steph Curry, Andre Igoudala, Aaron Rogers, etc). However, fans are prohibited from bringing in
  • Sports Memorabilia or Collectibles (jerseys must be worn or they will be confiscated)
  • Baseballs, Basketballs, Footballs or Hockey Pucks
Consequently, most fans seek out an opportunity to take a photo or selfie, an autograph on what they are wearing and/or shake their hand. Typically, the fan initiates the encounter; I am impressed by how gracious and engaging the celebrities are with the men, women, teens, and kids who come their way. This outreach, however, is not always a one-way street. My crew has a few stories but Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young comes to mind.
So I'm just a little big of a fan of this group...Tim Brown ND '87 and 49er legends Steve Young and Jerry Rice
When I see the lefty, my mind feasts on memories of Young to Rice for a touchdown...for a win...for the Super Bowl championship. Young loves playing in the tourney with Jerry Rice and another NFL friend or former foe. This is an easy group for fans to follow, especially Bay Area brethren, as they are spirited and enjoy one another's company.

It's not an understatement to say that being a great QB requires astute vision. I saw that in action beyond the football field at the tourney when Steve Young caught sight of a 10-year old boy on crutches among the throng of fans. He looked at this young man with this gaze that indicated he had been there before...he understood what it meant to break a bone...to be injured...to be less mobile and in pain. Young initiated the contact and extended that human touch. He put his arm on the boy's shoulder. I don't know what they talked about...I don't need to. The heart understands. And as Steve Young walked away, this boy's smile said even more. I think some internal healing took place.

I was reminded of this small act of kindness just Sunday at mass when I sat behind a man whose foot is in a sophisticated cast and boot. He too walked into Church on crutches and sought out a pew that allowed for easy access and space for his leg. I realized taking communion might be difficult for him. It wasn't. When the time came for the congregation to line up. the pastor left the front of the line to bring the Eucharist to an elderly couple sitting toward the back. They are rather immobile—no matter. Father Ken brought Christ to them....and then he offered Jesus' body to the man sitting in front of me...and to another elderly person. In fact, he does this at every Mass, I just needed to connect the dots. This simple act isn't difficult to do. It requires vision and perhaps some empathy, but what happens in the process of extending a little of that human touch is some sort of healing.

What that each of us were to go out of our way for the elderly or injured? What if we were to reach out to those who are broken and in need of healing first? What if we made time for the immobile and those in pain by simply extending a little human touch. And it's not the sole responsibility of the pastor of a parish or a pro-athlete (although it is—as we look to their example). No, this is a call for all Christians. Such actions are what the Gospel proclaims and reveals: it is in the giving that we receive....in serving we are served. Let us all in these divisive times, make some gesture of outreach to one another. 

Photo Credits
Great 3 man group

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Power of Ritual: A Case for the Prayer Circle

I displayed this photo in Sports and Spirituality, an elective course I teach to seniors, several of whom are in the photo. The prayer circle was taken after the second football game of the season between two non-league rivals: Marin Catholic and St. Ignatius College Prep. I already knew:
  1. who won the game. 
  2. the athletes in my classroom were not unfamiliar with this ritual; they had joined in a prayer circle after a league game the season prior.
  3. in both instances, the opposing team initiated the invitation to pray together following the contest.
What I knew and what I wanted to know however prompted me to ask them about their experience of this postgame ritual. I was aware that when the football team prayed with their opponent after the game last year, SI won. This year was different. I was sensitive to the fact that seeing this photo would remind the players in my class of a game they believe should have gone the other way. I was curious to hear what it was like to pray after a defeat...besides the victor....or to some, the enemy. Was that tough to do? Was it strange? Was it meaningful? Is there power in this ritual?

These questions, this experience reminded me of the weekly column I read in Catholic San Francisco but the Canadian Oblate, Father Ron Rolheiser. In "The Power of Ritual" he writes, 
I don’t always find it easy to pray. Often I’m over-tired, distracted, caught-up in tasks, pressured by work, short on time, lacking the appetite for prayer, or more strongly drawn to do something else. But I do pray daily; despite the fact that I often don’t want to and despite the fact that many times prayer can be boring and uninteresting. I pray daily because I’m committed to a number of rituals for prayer, the office of the Church, lauds and vespers, the Eucharist, and daily meditation.
Perhaps he could have added after a loss or in times of disappointment as examples of when it's not easy to pray. So why partake in this ritual? Could a prayer circle really make a difference? He writes
And these rituals serve me well. They hold me, keep me steady, and keep me praying regularly even when, many times, I don’t feel like praying. That’s the power of ritual. If I only prayed when I felt like it, I wouldn’t pray very regularly. 
Ritual practice keeps us doing what we should be doing (praying, working, being at table with our families, being polite) even when our feelings aren’t always onside. We need to do certain things not because we always feel like doing them, but because it’s right to do them. 
And this is true for many areas of our lives, not just for prayer. Take, for example, the social rituals of propriety and good manners that we lean on each day. Our heart isn’t always in the greetings or the expressions of love, appreciation, and gratitude that we give to each other each day. We greet each other, we say goodbye to each other, we express love for each other, and we express gratitude to each other through a number of social formulae, ritual words: Good morning! Good to see you! Have a great day! Have a great evening! Sleep well! Nice meeting you! Nice to work with you! I love you! Thank you! 
We say these things to each other daily, even though we have to admit that there are times, many times, when these expressions appear to be purely formal and seem not at all honest to how we are feeling at that time. Yet we say them and they are true in that they express what lies in our hearts at a deeper level than our more momentary and ephemeral feelings of distraction, irritation, disappointment, or anger. Moreover these words hold us in civility, in good manners, in graciousness, in neighborliness, in respect, and in love despite the fluctuations in our energy, mood, and feelings. Our energy, mood, and feelings, at any given moment, are not a true indication of what’s in our hearts, as all of us know and frequently need to apologize for. Who of us has not at some time been upset and bitter towards someone who we love deeply? The deep truth is that we love that person, but that’s not what we’re feeling at the moment. 
If we only expressed affection, love, and gratitude at those times when our feelings were completely onside, we wouldn’t express these very often. Thank God for the ordinary, social rituals which hold us in love, affection, graciousness, civility, and good manners at those times when our feelings are out of sorts with our truer selves. These rituals, like a sturdy container, hold us safe until the good feelings return. 
Today, in too many areas of life, we no longer understand ritual. That leaves us trying to live our lives by our feelings; not that feelings are bad, but rather that they come upon us as wild, unbidden guests.  Iris Murdoch asserts that our world can change in fifteen seconds because we can fall in love in fifteen seconds. But we can also fall out of love in fifteen seconds! Feelings work that way! And so we cannot sustain love, marriage, family, friendship, collegial relationships, and neighborliness by feelings. We need help. Rituals can help sustain our relationships beyond feelings. 
Dietrich Bonhoeffer used to give this instruction to a couple when he was officiating at their wedding. He would tell them: Today you are in love and you believe that your love can sustain your marriage. But it can’t. However your marriage can sustain your love. Marriage is a not just a sacrament, it’s also a ritual container. 
Ritual not only can help sustain a marriage, it can also help sustain our prayer lives, our civility, our manners, our graciousness, our humor, our gratitude, and our balance in life. Be wary of anyone who in the name of psychology, love, or spirituality tells you that ritual is empty and you must rely on your energy, mood, and feelings as your guiding compass. They won’t carry you far. 
Daniel Berrigan once wrote: Don’t travel with anyone who expects you to be interesting all the time. On a long journey there are bound to be some boring stretches. John of the Cross echoes this when talking about prayer. He tells us that, during our generative years, one of the biggest problems we will face daily in our prayer is simple boredom. 
And so we can be sure our feelings won’t sustain us, but ritual practices can.
So what did my students say? To a large degree, they said what I thought what they would say...and what they should say. They were uncomfortable. The ritual was in thought a nice gesture, but tough to do. I asked them if they were required to participate in the prayer circle. They said no, they were invited to join the other team. So why do it? They said it helped them center themselves. They are grateful for the opportunity to play in a game knowing a lot of people give of their own time to make that possible. I asked them if they would do it again. They said "yes." Do rituals sustain them? Perhaps more than they know...
Another important ritual, ND football players run to the end zone and take a knee
before the game to offer a personal prayer—indiviually, though collectively.
Thinking about my own prayer life, I know how often I go to God with requests for help, petitioning God's intercession for healing and more. I make an effort to offer prayers of gratitude; these are easy to say. But, when I have lost and feel defeated, the last thing I want to do is pray. But as Rolheiser mentions, anyone can be polite, can do the right thing and can pray when it's easy, when we encounter a person we like, or when we win. But when we are tasked with being kind to someone we dislike, when the right thing is hard to do, and when we lose...not so much.

Defeat, disappointment, and loss are a real part of life. We will have those experiences as the person next to us is celebrating and filled with joy, which is why a ritual like this one might be important. Even the victor who is in the prayer circle is aware that not everyone feels that same way. He or she can express gratitude at that moment and yet hold humility in their heart. Why? It can and does go the other way.

God can handle it all; the question is can we? A team and a ritual, they are not to be underestimated in getting us there.

Photo Credits