Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Restorative Power of Sports

Every runner knows that are runners you can run with and those you enjoy running with. My favorite running partners were those who shared a similar pace and cadence. Time spent running with these people was comfortable and yet it could be challenging—literally and metaphorically. On some days I wanted to be pushed to run harder. On others, I sought a dynamic exchange of ideas. The conversation fueled me. I sincerely miss some of my running buddies. Fortunately, golf is another sport an athlete can undertake with others or by your lonesome. However in the time I have played this cruel game, I have found true friends and companions who have helped me discover something I didn't expect. No it's not attention to detail, or the power of rules. It's an awareness and appreciation for what I consider to be an invaluable spiritual discipline. I could have practiced this very same religious ritual as a runner, but I never really did. It's not difficult and it requires little time and no money: it's the appreciation of nature.
Perhaps it is the very pace of golf that lends itself to taking in the beauty of one's natural surroundings or maybe it's the fact I spend money to play in beautiful venues, but golf almost inherently....lovingly and reverently invites me to ponder the majesty of God's creation. Because of my ardent concern for pace of play, I would be lying if I said that I make a point of truly appreciating and savoring my natural surroundings. Thanks be to God, my friends do.

One friend, a fellow JV girls' golf coach and I had the pleasure of playing on the Ocean Course at the Half Moon Ritz Carlton. Our 1:00 p.m. tee time meant that we were on the 17th tee box as the sun was setting. Though the majority of hotel guests were walking the grounds to take in the view—an infinite horizon against the Pacific Ocean, I easily could have kept my sights on finishing our round in a timely manner. Not Charlie. He told me that he wanted to take in what his eyes could behold. He paused, looked from north to south at the western sky and kept silent. He let the sunset speak for itself. 
I was humbled by my very place in the world at that moment: outdoors, standing on a cliff with the ocean crashing beneath me. To see that sight is human, to delight in it is divine.  I have played golf with Charlie but a few times and coached with him many others, but I know he has a habit of noticing and appreciating the sky, the rain, the trees, the vistas and the backdrops that a golf course affords. His discipline is a spiritual one. I've made a point to slow down and take in what I see because of his example.

I have always told my friend Paul one of the many reasons I enjoy playing golf with him is because of the narrative he imparts over 18 holes. Nature is one of his favorite subjects—and stories. In what was a typical day at the Olympic Club, Paul drew my attention to the fact that the coyotes were howling from their hidden dens. I suppose the frequency I was tuned in to was the sound of our golf balls off the iron (good...or not good), but once he called my attention to their cries, it was wild to imagine. Where were they living? How many were in the den? Paul often points out many of unique birds that frequent the property. The cover story of the club's magazine, The Olympian reported that "The official count by Audubon volunteers took place at Lakeside on Dec. 27, 2016. They counted 47 species (of birds)." Paul probably notices half of them. 

Due to the heavy winds and rains, I haven't played as much golf in 2017 as I have in the drought laden winters of the past 3 years. So, playing with Paul on Wednesday was something other than merely a fun round of play. We were witnesses to the storm's damage. I was shocked and saddened to see, nearly 10 to 15 magnificent, tall, and beautiful trees had fallen on the Lakeside course alone. One tree fell uphill; we didn't know that could happen. On another hole, twin trees fell together. Paul poignantly remarked that seeing these trees was like losing a friend you didn't know you had. What poetry. 

I carried the loss with me as I made a point that day of walking the fairways with me eyes raised toward those beautiful trees that still stand. I couldn't help but think of life and of death, seasons, growth, loss and change...the Creator and the created. We are one.

My Catholic faith offers me an abundant variety of spiritual disciplines. At my parish alone I can attend daily mass, go to reconciliation regularly, participate in novenas throughout the year, pray the rosary with young adults on Wednesday and much more. But the Catholic faith is a both/and tradition. Spiritual discipline is in no way limited to what transpires in the Church. Catholicism is both bible study and taking in the beauty at Half Moon Bay. It is is participating in the sacraments and finding the sacraments in the trees. 
In his article "Good Sports," Martin Seigel states "When participating in or watching sports, people are experiencing the essential harmony of great art that is hidden behind its diverse expressions. Nature (or the created world) is the most extensive manifestation of the Creator that humans can experience." I feel richly blessed that what I love to do puts me in touch with this manifestation on a regular basis and that I have friends that draw me into an awareness of its power—restorative, magnificent, healing and holy. That's a pretty good Church and a wonderful way to understand my community of faith. Blessed be.

Coaches: I invite you to consider in what ways you can get your athletes to practice the spiritual discipline of appreciating nature. Consider how your sport interacts with God's creation in a unique way. Take the time to delight in its beauty. Invite your athletes to raise their eyes to look out and around, instruct them to listen for the sounds of what surrounds all of us...including the voice of God. Amen.

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