To assuage the apprehension of those readers who don't care for football, this column is not about football, or at least not principally. Life after all, is not about sports, or at least not principally. But the occasion of a demoralizing loss does raise the question of why we intensely follow sports when it so often disappoints, and occasionally devastates, us.
Michael Novak, theologian and Notre Dame football fan, was at the game Monday night. More than anyone else recently, Novak taught the Christian world that the spark of the divine could be found in the mundane world of economics. He taught me that, and helped change my thinking, and subsequently the direction of my life. His work as a theologian of freedom was so important that in the 1980s it was translated and circulated by the underground resistance behind the Iron Curtain.
On the occasion of the national championship, I reread his 1976 book on the divine spark, not in our work but in our play, The Joy of Sports. Novak is a devoted fan of Fighting Irish football, and his book was chosen by Sports Illustrated as one of the top 100 sports books of all time (Ken Dryden's The Game was ninth on that list).
"Eternity, theologians say, is not extended time but altogether different, a different sphere of being, all-gathered-up simultaneity, presence, now," Novak writes. "Those who have experienced contemplation — in prayer, play, the theatre, painting, holding one's own infant in one's arms and, yes, in sports — have already tasted it. We will know, at least, what to look for when we die.
We say that Alabama killed Notre Dame. Except that they didn't; no one died. Sports is the arena in which we can say that, watch that, experience that, precisely so that we might taste that which would be too much for us in reality, yet that reality demands of us. We need to know about triumph and travail, the agony and the ecstasy, life and death. A life measured out in coffee spoons doesn't provide much of that, so sports can provide it, measuring out the adventure in manageable amounts.
"Most men and women don't separate the sections of their mind. They honour their country, go to church, and also enjoy sports. All parts of their life meld together," writes Novak.
"God is a sports fan," Novak concludes. "Certainly He is, if He likes to see humans straining to their utmost to be the best He made them, making moments of unperishable beauty.
Perhaps sports increases in cultural importance when only a minority goes to church, and even fewer pledge their honour for their country. Sports allows us to talk about things we ought to talk about, but don't. So we turn to sports for stories about something less real but more under our control. That's why a great sportswriter is something of a preacher, telling the truth not only about the game, but about those who watch it.
"Nearly every writer about sports lapses into watery religious metaphor," observes Novak. "Words like sacred, devotion, faith, ritual, immortality and love figure often in the language of sports. Cries like 'You gotta believe!' and ' life and death' and 'sacrifice' are frequently heard."
Life is meant to be lived fully, stretching past the limits of the world to that which is transcendent. Even a culture inclined to sit on the couch yearns for something more, and sports offers that. As a vicarious substitute for the great adventure of life, it becomes something sad. As a prelude, a motivation, a means to that greater realm, sports, like music or art, can raise our eyes beyond the horizon, even as an Alabama running back's eyes are always downfield, focused beyond the goal line. The striving of sports can bring a touch of the sublime, as the Crimson Tide experienced on Monday night, and of suffering, as was the case for the Irish. Both are essential to a complete life.
"God is a sports fan," Novak concludes. "Certainly He is, if He likes to see humans straining to their utmost to be the best He made them, making moments of unperishable beauty. Sports have to be among His glories. I am often reminded of Him, not least by deeds of excellence and beauty."
God made man who plays and watches sports. God is watching too, and sees that it is good.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
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