Friday, April 22, 2016

The Vocation of Prince: A Sports and Spirituality Tribute

Driving to the gym this morning, I heard multiple tributes to Prince, who died yesterday at the age of 57. Several radio spots summarized his body of work and the influence he had. Others discussed the pending details of his death and the outpouring of flowers, signs and memorials near his home. If I were to contribute a thought, I would like to weigh in on his vocation, yes—Prince's vocation. I would like to make the claim that this musician had one that brought joy, reflected God's glory, was and remains needed in the world today. Here's how. Here's why.
Last week at St. Ignatius College Preparatory, where I teach, we hosted our third annual Vocations Promotion Day aka VoPro Day 2016. Seniors at SI were able to hear the stories of young men and women who have responded to a calling, one to religious life from both the Verbum Dei community in San Francisco and Jesuit community in Berkeley. 

Though SI students aren't totally unfamiliar with religious vocations—we have several Jesuits in various stages of formation on campus—in order to prepare them for the purpose of the talk, they read the article "Three Key Questions" by Rev. Michael Himes. The reason for that is because, as Jim Heft writes in the article "What Does it Mean to Be Catholic?"

The Second Vatican Council made it clear that everyone is called to be holy. All of us, religious, priests and laity, are called by Baptism to be lovers of God in Jesus. All life's possible vocations ought to be sources of great holiness. The task for each of us is to figure out in which lifestyle God's love will flow through us most fully.    
Himes, a theology professor at Boston College states that anyone deciding on a career or seeking to determine a new way of living life to the full ought to consider holiness via answers to three key questions on where their life is going.  They are:
  1. What gives you joy?
  2. Are you good at it?
  3. Does the anyone need you to do it?
In a class like Sports and Spirituality, I asked my students what question they thought professional athletes might struggle with the most.

A few responded to the first. They felt the allure of money or fame could detract an athlete from a love of the game. They questioned if the pressure to win, sometimes at all costs, might detract from the joy of sport. I believe their claims were valid.

Others though not as many, thought the second question has bearing. What athlete doesn't struggle from time to time? Find him or herself in a slump? or struggle with injuries. Furthermore, the pervasive presence of social media weighing in on all things at all times is an unfiltered (an unwelcome) voice affirming or denying one's talent. It's no secret that certain sports towns will let their athletes know loud and clear whether or not someone is any good at something. 

The majority of the class (and me) identified the third question as the most poignant. And, it was the primary question of my lesson plan. Does the world really need a professional athlete? 
I shared with my class that I walked into The Masters and had a bit of an existential crisis. I traveled thousands of miles to arrive in Augusta, GA  to watch a bunch of men carrying sticks. I asked myself, What am I doing here? I am happy to say I can answer that question.

Ultimately, the class agreed the world does need professional athletes. We need them because they serve as a source of inspiration. It's hard not to be inspired when you hear the stories of countless men and women who rise above adversity, who serve as lights in under-resourced communities and prove what hard work, self-sacrifice and dedication can yield. Professional athletes and teams can bring entire communities together in the joy of victory and the agony of defeat. When I see their talents—the mental strength of Serena Williams, the speed of Usain Bolt, the versatility of Jackie Joyner Kersee, and the hops on Derrick Rose, it's hard not to marvel at God's creation.
And yet for me, the most compelling reason that I believe the world needs professional athletes is because I believe in what Dorothy Day spoke about quite often. She quoted Fyodor Dostoyevsky who said "the world will be saved by beauty." I find beauty on the golf course and on the gridiron. I encounter beauty when I see an ally-oop pass that a player intercepts to dunk. My eyes look up, my heart is lifted. 

While humanity has basic needs for survival, beauty is necessary for thrival. It's transformative power can draw us out of ourselves in communion with others. And it should go without saying that beauty is not limited to sports, but is found in the arts, in architecture and in music.

I'll let all the radio spots speak to Prince's contributions to music and the beauty of it. The breadth and depth of his work is astounding. Most music fans know that he wrote all of his own songs, but if you take just a few moments, you'll get a sense of how many songs he wrote for others. "Nothing Compares to You" be gone. Try Chaka Kahn's "I Feel for You" a great dance song that underscored a good bit of the mid-80s (thank you Stevie Wonder for playing the harmonica on that too). However, my favorite has to be the story that Stevie Nicks told about his assistance on her solo hit "Stand Back." Inspired by his song "Little Red Corvette," she was struggling to make it work. She placed a call in to Prince who came over to her in-home studio. He added the synthesizer (for which he is uncredited) and the rest is Rock n Roll history. I love that song.

Prince was good at music, he found beats and melodies unlike any other artist. Was he any good at it? So good that he wasn't willing to be exploited by record labels—an interesting chapter in his career. Does the world need his music? Over the course of the next few days, you will hear a lot of it. I'll let you answer that one for yourself.

Photo Credits
Kobe and LeBron

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