March Madness has lived up to its name. It's the first time since 1979 that a number one, two or three seed failed to make it to the Big Dance. On a personal level a former student who wasn't even recruited out of high school has emerged a star—leading his team to their first Final Four appearance. Go Aztecs. As exhilarating and memorable as the 2023 NCAA basketball tournament has been, I've missed one person: Sister Jean. Perhaps you feel the same way.
Sister Dolores Jean Schmidt, BVM has been the team chaplain of the men's basketball team at Loyola University of Chicago since 1994. She writes, "In 2018, I reached a level of notoriety that I never could have imagined when my Ramblers made a Cinderella run to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament." She caught our eye with her maroon and gold scarf and Nike trainers. She stole our hearts with her presence at the sidelines, offering sweaty hugs, and leading the team in prayer. Although the Ramblers did not make the 2023 tourney, she is still with us and going strong. So strong in fact, that she managed to write a book Wake Up With Purpose! What I’ve Learned During My First Hundred Years. (co-authored by Seth Davis).
There's no need for me to write a review of this book. There are many of them—she's a hot topic. However, I would like to share her motto and why she thinks she's a sensation. She is!
Her Motto: Worship, Work, Win
Although the book is entitled "Wake up with Purpose!" It easily could have been named "Worship, Work, Win." That motto reflects Sister Jean's philosophy on life and athletics. She writes
As the school was making progress on our new practice facility, the Norville Center, Coach Porter suggested we build a “wall of culture” in the weight room. He asked the players, coaches, and others around the athletic department to come up with words and phrases that would be painted on the walls. The idea was to inspire the guys while they were pumping iron. I was asked to contribute a phrase. Three words popped into my head: “Worship, work, win.”
Her use of alliteration for a motto is smart; it helps us remember. The second "w," for "work" makes sense. No one gets to the Final Four without work, hard work. And Sister Jean's work ethic speaks for itself; she has yet to retire. Sister Jean believes work is a way for us to use our gifts and talents. Furthermore, she links work to purpose and adds, "I do think having a daily, consistent purpose has kept me not only alive but young and vibrant." Noted.
The third "w" for "win." A longtime coach and former player herself, Sister Jean says, "win is the payoff for all that effort. It’s a wonderful, joyful feeling. As the saying goes, there’s a reason they keep score. So long as there’s a winner and a loser, I’d much rather win." Amen.
What I found interesting and inspiriting is that Sister Jean isn't afraid to pray for a win. In the book she shares the prayers she has offered with the team. They are specific, authentic and honest. Not a bad recipe for prayer.
“Good and gracious God, yes, we do want to win tonight, and we know that with Your help we can do it. But we understand that we must play as a team, play with our heads and our hearts, give our best every moment we are on the court. We plan to share the ball, direct it to the team member who is ‘hot’ tonight. We know that every shot from the charity line is important. If we can’t make the perimeter points, we must work under the basket. Jeff, be careful. Don’t foul the best shooter on the team. We ask You, God, to help us play well, to avoid accidents, and to win. Amen.Sister Jean doesn't mention "worship" in the formal sense of going to Mass or to church for Adoration. That's not to say communal worship is unimportant. Rather, she reminds us worship begins with prayer.
When asked if the prayers she offers as the team chaplain work, she answers the question with another question as well as her motto "Worship, work, win." She says,
That (question) suggested that somehow my prayers made that ball defy the laws of gravity and go in. Is that true? Who’s to say that it isn’t? That’s the beauty of God—we never really know what He’s doing, or why. We have to trust Him to do His part, and then it’s up to us to do ours. Those players worked hard for that victory.
Sister Jean's wise motto reminds me of an adage attributed to St. Ignatius. He said “pray as if everything depends on God, and work as if everything depends on you.” Sounds good!
When it comes to Sister Jean, once could easily ask 103 questions that begin with the same word: Why. Why did she join a religious community out of Dubuque, Iowa? Why does she love basketball? Why have we as a nation been so taken by her. According to an article in The Athletic entitled "Sister Jean has swag for days, and other lessons learned writing a book with her
The most common question asked of Sister Jean is why she thinks she has lived so long and so well. Clearly, she has been blessed with great DNA (many of her family members lived into their nineties) and a lot of good luck, but I also believe her longevity and mental acuity is a testament to the life-giving power of work.
Sister Jean technically retired from Loyola in the early 1990s, but she never stopped grinding. She rises each morning at 5 so she can meditate, recite her morning prayers, and prepare for a full day’s work.
Besides regularly meeting with students in her office at the Damen Center, she attends many campus events, offering invocations, posing for pictures and altogether spreading good cheer. She spends her evenings at The Clare calling people, emailing, writing notes, and reading. And of course, she goes to all the basketball games.
The last thing she does when her head hits the pillow is try to think of all the good things she has done that day, so when morning comes she will wake up with purpose once more. “Everyone needs to pat themselves on the back once in a while,”she likes to say.
My parents always say they grew up in simpler times. Reading Sister Jean’s book, it’s hard to disagree (and she's actually a generation older than they are). Certainly, times have always offered challenges, but her simplicity, clear values, strong work ethic, selflessness and love of God suggest we all might benefit from letting history—and this living legend—be our teacher.
Perhaps her greatest lesson is one that she offers in light of her own success. When she was asked, Why do you think you have become an icon? she said, "I’d like to think people were interested in me because, whether they realized it or not, they wanted to be closer to God. They knew I had spent my whole life serving Him. We hear so much about the negative aspects of human nature, but my ride through the 2018 NCAA tournament revealed just how much goodness there is in people. I hope we never lose sight of that."
What a purpose. Thank you, Sister Jean for all you have given to the world, the Church, to basketball and beyond.