Monday, 17 October 2016
Spirituality (Pastoral Formation):
Spirituality and Sport
Spirituality (Pastoral Formation),
The Chapel, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute,
9 a.m., 17 October 2016.
Opening Hymn: Fight the good fight (No 566, Church Hymnal, 5th ed).
Opening Reading: II Timothy 4: 1-8.
Some years ago, I was staying in Ealing Abbey for two weeks, taking courses in Liturgy and Liturgical Latin. When I arrived, I was given a monk’s cell where I would spend the next fortnight. On my desk, there was an old cutting from the Daily Telegraph – a feature in which the writer claimed that the Benedictine tradition is so rooted in English life and culture that: ‘Some claim to see the Benedictine spirit in the rules of Cricket.’
I tried to follow this up later, and also found the actual Laws, the official rulebook of the International Cricket Council, also include a clause about the Spirit of Cricket:
‘Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game. Any action which is seen to abuse this spirit causes injury to the game itself.’
What do we mean by the Spirit of a Game?
What do we mean by saying someone is a Good Sport?
Why, for many people, does their relationship with sport have an almost religious quality to it?
The figures for the UK are staggering: 15.74 million adults play sport weekly – that is about a third of all adults in the UK. The number is higher in the young-adult bracket where 55.2% take part in at least one session of sport a week, and even higher among 11 to 16-year-olds where it is 86.6%.
The figures include Northern Ireland, but I imagine a similar survey in the Republic of Ireland would produce proportionately similar results.
If we had those figures for church attendance week-by-week, many of us would be very happy. But Sport is also often seen as a rival to Church in many parishes on this island.
Parents regularly give the excuse that they are not in church on Sunday mornings because their children are playing cricket, rugby or hockey on Sunday morning – and that in church-linked schools.
Truth to tell, that is probably so for mothers in car pools, while the many men who grumble that church services start too early on Sunday mornings have no problem about being on the out on fairway by 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning.
But these figures pose interesting challenges in other ways: If the church is even partially a representation of these demographics, then it would mean that sports players are arguably one of the largest groups in any church. But how many of these Christians playing sport are Christians in sport? In other words, how many Christians do not just play sport but actually see that their sport and faith are integrated? Not separate areas – ‘I go to church on Sunday and play sport during the week’ – but integrated – ‘I play sport as part of a whole life view of worship.’
Even if you are not a sports fan, and this topic this morning causes you to roll your eyes, you will find how quickly in parish life you become involved in local sporting life. You will be invited to say grace at rugby, golf, cricket, soccer and even GAA club dinners, be invited to pray before key matches, and even receive tickets for key fixtures. Thankfully you will find the further south you go in Ireland the less the sectarian divisions are when it comes to sport.
And all of this not because people are being generous – but because they want you to pray with them and pray for them.
It may be a surprise to some, but I think of sport as part of God’s good gift of creation. Sure, human beings invented sports, but where does our playfulness come from? The creativity, the desire for human relationship, and the instinctive desire to play that all people, of all ages, across all cultures, have are all part of what it means to be made in the image of God (Genesis 1: 27).
God is the Creator and so being made in his image makes us creative with the talents to strike a ball, see a pass, or swim quickly. Equally God is a relational God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and so our desire to play with others pushing them on playfully in competitive sports comes from God. Sport is not some area outside of God’s good creation, it is an integral part of it, a gift to be enjoyed to his glory.
The Apostle Paul urges us to ‘offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, this is your spiritual act of worship’ (Romans 12:1-2). That means that sport is an area of life that can be offered to God as an act of worship.
In his epistles, Paul frequently draws on sporting images: the runner in races, the boxer in the ring … reading last Thursday’s lectionary reading, I was reminded once again that Saint Paul must have been a good swimmer too (see Acts 27: 27-44).
Yet so often sport is not seen as a gift from God. It is often seen as being bad, full of drugs, professional fouls, violence and cheating. There may not see much evidence of spirituality at a soccer match, with 22 men running around a field chasing a ball and another 50,000 men shouting and gesticulating at them, using crude language for the referee, descending to racist taunts at opposing players, and singing songs with crude and demeaning lyrics.
Certainly, I find it difficult to regard two men throwing punches at each other in a boxing ring as good clean sport. As someone who learned to ride a horse at the same age as I learned to walk, I take no pleasure in seeing a horse being whipped by a jockey as they race around a track. The allegations of ticket-touting and drug-taking at this year’s Olympic Games and the corruption at the top in FIFA not only paint sports governing bodies in bad lights, but totally demean the whole body corporate of sports.
But sport is also a human right.
The well-known Latin aphorism Mens sana in corpore sano is usually translated as ‘a sound mind in a sound body’ or ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body.’ In the western world, it is used in sporting and educational contexts to express the theory that physical exercise is an important or essential part of mental and psychological well-being.
The phrase comes from Satire X of the Roman poet Juvenal (10.356). It is the first in a list of what is desirable in life:
You should pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body.
Ask for a stout heart that has no fear of death,
and deems length of days the least of Nature’s gifts
that can endure any kind of toil,
that knows neither wrath nor desire and thinks
the woes and hard labours of Hercules better than
the loves and banquets and downy cushions of Sardanapalus.
What I commend to you, you can give to yourself;
For assuredly, the only road to a life of peace is virtue.
The original Latin reads:
orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano.
fortem posce animum mortis terrore carentem,
qui spatium vitae extremum inter munera ponat
naturae, qui ferre queat quoscumque labores,
nesciat irasci, cupiat nihil et potiores
Herculis aerumnas credat saevosque labores
et venere et cenis et pluma Sardanapalli.
monstro quod ipse tibi possis dare; semita certe
tranquillae per virtutem patet unica vitae.
Juvenal probably drew his inspiration from the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales:
τίς εὐδαίμων, <<ὁ τὸ μὲν σῶμα ὑγιής, τὴν δὲ ψυχὴν εὔπορος, τὴν δὲ φύσιν εὐπαίδευτος>>.
What man is happy? ‘He who has a healthy body, a resourceful mind and a docile nature.’
The sports equipment company Asics takes its name from an acronym of a variant of this aphorism: anima sana in corpore sano, ‘a healthy soul in a healthy body.’ Mensa, the High IQ Society, derives its name both from the Latin word for table, mensa as well as a pun on the phrase mens sana.
Indeed, there is a pronounced, though sometimes hidden aspect to sport, so that it is possible to say– depending on your understanding of spirituality – that the desire to experience spiritual well-being is one reason people play sports.
There is an important connection between mind, body and soul that is inherent in all play. In sport, the reward comes not solely from winning the medal or having the fastest time, but from that wonderful connection of spirit, soul and body that gives glory to God through our every action.
According to the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, sport is important because it is one of the most readily available ways of generating the state of being he calls ‘flow’. This is the state we experience when our attention is completely absorbed in an activity, and our awareness of our surroundings – even of ourselves – fades away.
It is not the passive absorption of watching television or playing computer games, but the ‘active’ absorption we experience when we fully concentrate and make powerful mental efforts – when we perform challenging, stimulating, creative activities like learning a foreign language or a musical instrument, painting or playing sports.
‘Flow’ allows us to take control of our own consciousness, and step beyond the psychic entropy that is our normal state, when worries, desires and other kinds of chaotic thought chatter run through our minds. We experience an inner peace, and a sense of being more ‘energised’ or alive than usual.
A chess player told Csikszentmihalyi that when he plays chess, ‘I have a general sense of well-being, a feeling of complete control over my world.’
Similarly, a dancer told him that during her performances, ‘A strong relaxation and calmness comes over me. I have no worries of failure. What a powerful and warm feeling it is! I want to expand, to hug the world. I feel enormous power to effect something of grace and beauty.’
We may debate whether these states are genuinely spiritual or not, since they do not involve experiencing any transpersonal or transcendent reality. But we can think of them as a kind of ‘base level’ spirituality, the point when spiritual experience begins.
Indeed, sport can sometimes enable us to reach higher levels too. Once a sportsperson is ‘locked into’ a state of flow, unusual things may happen, and sportspeople occasionally experience these. They often speak of being ‘in the Zone.’ These are moments when suddenly everything ‘clicks’ and they shift to a higher level of performance and become capable of astounding feats.
Experiences like these are usually temporary, but it seems that the best sports players and athletes are always ‘in the Zone’ to a degree.
Many individual athletes and teams find prayer and spirituality can play a significant role as coping tools in such a high-stakes atmosphere. In many changing rooms, teams pray before going onto the field and some even have a team chaplain to pray with the players and to provide them with spiritual guidance. Prayer and spirituality are known to make positive contributors to mental health and well-being.
In sports, especially as the stakes increase at professional levels, spiritual well-being must be considered as athletes struggle with expectations, injuries, disappointments, losses, and other emotionally charged events.
I was involved ten years ago in a forum discussing the needs for chaplaincy for British teams at the Beijing Olympics. It was not about providing religious services or blessings, but about how do you provide the support for athletes and their coaches, particularly for athletes who, for example, come fourth – there is no medal for those who are pipped for a bronze by a fraction of a second – for those who fail to get through the qualifying heats, and for their coaches. And we often fail to remember that without proper support, the majority of Olympians, athletes and coaches, can come home wondering whether they are failures, not knowing most of us think the very fact of being an Olympian is a major achievement and success in itself.
A recent study in the Journal of Sport looked at people involved in diverse sports, including football, basketball and others. Through a number of different rating scales, they found that many inner aspects of competitive sports, including coping with adversity, freedom from worry, goal setting, mental preparation, confidence, achievement and motivation were more robust in the ‘high spiritual well-being’ group.
They found certain aspects of spirituality in athletes may add to the array of coping mechanisms they have to deal with adversity, as well as to serve as a buffer against stress.
Does this translate into improved performance on the field?
That is hardly the purpose of any discussion of spirituality and sport.
But, at the end of the day, prayer and general spiritual well-being appear to offer additional coping mechanisms for adverse situations and help to contribute to stress reduction, all of which can add to the ‘mental toughness’ aspect of athletes.
Some of you are early morning joggers, but I doubt that you run to win: running keeps you in touch with the body that God gives you, a body made in God’s image and likeness, and running or walking around the block here puts you in touch with God’s creation in a way that you know is never experienced by driving around the block.
Athletes make enormous sacrifices for a miniscule chance of victory. So they are not motivated solely by the gold medal. Instead, their motivations have more to do with the meaning of taking part and personal growth, says Dr Nesti. He adds that many philosophers and psychologists have noted that when we are playing, we are in love with what we are doing, and this means that sports are more important to individuals than merely learning the skills associated with it.
Being a sport means you are willing to play. Willing to play means you are involved or alive to the situation in which you exist.
It is said that what made the Australian cricketer Don Bradman – who was by far the best batsman who ever lived – so much better than everybody else was the amazing amount of time he seemed to have to play his shots. Although he never committed himself until the last moment, he always had more than ample time to position himself and find the correct stroke, as if the fraction of a second it takes a ball to reach a batsman from the arm of a fast bowler contained more time for him than for others.
Yet, when people get involved in sport, as players or spectators, they often get entangled with a system that can depend on delusion or hallucination that will look and feel real. We hope for the miracle, we believe in the impossible, we risk misery and suffering.
If you want to play a game, you must have the fire of wanting to win but also the balance to see that if you lose, it is okay with you. You never play a game to lose, you always play a game to win, but if you lose, it is all right with you. The sacredness of a sporting event is that individuals rise beyond their limitations, achieving a state of abandon that is usually known only at the peak of spirituality.
Sport is a way not only of balancing body and soul, but also as a way of breaking through to an experience of the Divine. The determined athlete can find that this determination and discipline allows him or her to break through the limitations of the body into the world of the soul where body and soul have become one.
Access to sport must be seen as a human right. It is about the right to having a healthy mind and a healthy body. There is a television promotion at the moment that plays on this right. But when you watch it in detail it turns out that it is not about access to sports but about access to a pay-to-view television channel.
Despite those statistics, access to sport for the majority of people is about access to being a passive spectator than being an active participant. And access to active participation often depends on money and social class.
On the other hand, I do not want to downplay the value of being a spectator. The fervour this summer around the Olympic Games and the UEFA European soccer championship over the summer months, illustrated the power of sport in bringing people together.
The attitude to sport has not always been positive on the part of the Church. In 1531, the Puritan preacher Thomas Eliot argued that football caused ‘beastly fury and extreme violence.’ Later in the 16th century, in 1572, the Bishop of Rochester, Edmund Freke, demanded a new campaign to suppress this ‘evil game.’
In his book, Anatomy of Abuses (1583) Philip Stubbs argued that ‘football playing and other devilish pastimes ... Football encourages envy and hatred ... sometimes fighting, murder and a great loss of blood.’
But history shows that young men refused to accept any attempt to ban football. In 1589, Hugh Case and William Shurlock were fined 2 shilling for playing football in a churchyard during the vicar’s sermon.
Ten years later, a group of men in a village in Essex were fined for playing football on a Sunday.
Attitudes towards football began to change in the 19th century. Thomas Arnold, who became headmaster of Rugby in 1828, emphasised the importance of sport in young men’s education. Like most public school headmasters, Arnold believed that sport was a good method for ‘encouraging senior boys to exercise responsible authority on behalf of the staff.’ He also argued that games like football provided a ‘formidable vehicle for character building.’
Like so many football clubs that started in the late 19th century, Aston Villa has its roots in church activities. (yes, I am a fan, and I regret it was just a 1-1 draw against Wolves yesterday [16 October 2016]). The club was formed in 1874 by four members of the cricket team at Villa Cross Wesleyan Chapel in Handsworth. From as early as 1867, the chapel was known as Aston Villa Wesleyan Chapel. Local lore says the four founders of the club met under a gas-light in Heathfield Road to set about forming a new club. As cricket players, they were looking for something to keep them occupied during the winter, and they chose football after witnessing an impromptu game on a meadow off Heathfield Road.
The first match for the new side was against the local Aston Brook Saint Mary’s Rugby team on Wilson Road, Aston. As a condition of the match, the Villa side had to agree to play the first half under rugby rules and the second half under football rules.
William McGregor, a local draper, helped make Villa a successful and prestigious club and is also remembered as the creator of the Football League. At his funeral in the church in Wheeler Street, Aston, where he worshipped for more than 40 years, the Revd WG Percival, said that the best thing about him ‘was not so much the genial, kindly, honest sports man, but it was the Christian behind it all.’
Birmingham City’s origins are found in church life too. It was founded in 1875 by members of the choir at Holy Trinity Church, Bordesley, who had formed their own cricket team four years earlier.
To keep fit in the winter of 1875, half-a-dozen members of Holy Trinity Cricket Club decided to try the new sport of Association Football. But because the choir alone could not provide them with enough players, they thought a new name might broaden their appeal and the Small Heath Alliance Football Club was born. When they moved to Muntz Street and bought the lease to the ground in 1895, they changed their name to Birmingham City Football Club. They moved to new grounds at Saint Andrew’s, near Saint Andrew’s Church, in 1906 and have been there ever since.
Everton was founded in November 1879 at a meeting called by Saint Domingo’s Church. The church already had a cricket team but wanted to find another sport for the winter months. The Saint Domingo team played in Stanley Park and won their first game, against Saint Peter’s Church. The following year the club was renamed Everton FC.
The Revd Arthur Connell was the rector of Saint Mark’s Church in West Gorton at a time of high unemployment in Manchester. In January 1879, he set up a soup kitchen and a relief fund. His daughter, Anna Connell, who became involved, believed that the creation of male clubs would help improve the community spirit. This included the creation of the Saint Mark’s Church football team. In time, this team became Manchester City.
The Hotspur Football Club was formed in 1882 by boys from the Bible class at All Hallows’ Church. They were also members of Hotspur Cricket Club, named after Harry Hotspur in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part 1. In 1884, the club was renamed Tottenham Hotspur Football Club.
Southampton Football Club, known to this day as ‘the Saints,’ was formed at Saint Mary’s YMA in 1885. The roots of the club can be traced to members of Saint Mary’s Church Young Men’s Association, who played their football at various venues in Southampton for 13 years, prior to the move in 1898 to the club’s former ground, The Dell, where it remained until 2001.
Other football clubs that owed their origins to churches include Newcastle United, who still play at Saint James’ Park, Barnsley (1887) was formed by the Revd Tiverton Preedy, assistant curate at Saint Peter’s; Bolton Wanderers (1874) was formed by the headmaster of Christ Church Boys’ School and boys of Christ Church Sunday school, and the Revd Joseph Wright was its first president; Fulham (1879) was formed through the inspiration of the Revd John Henry Carwell, curate at Saint James’s; Queen’s Park Rangers (1885) was formed by boys connected to Saint Jude’s Institute; and Swindon Town (1879) was formed through the inspiration of the Revd William Baker Pitt, curate at Christ Church.
I’m told the colours of Drogheda United are meant to represent the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Conception of Mary.
In Gaelic Games, Croke Park takes its name from an Archbishop of Cashel who was a founding figure in the GAA and both the Semple Stadium and the Sam Maguire Cup are named after members of the Church of Ireland.
It is striking how much of the vocabulary of sport is an appropriation of religious words. Although there is only one Messiah and Saviour, I hear phrases such as ‘Messi the messiah’ and ‘Usain Bolt the saviour of athletics.’
The hymn ‘Abide with me’ has an inseparable association with Cup Finals in Wembley. But there is also a hymn-like quality to the singing of ‘My Old Man’ (Aston Villa), ‘You’ll never walk alone’ (Liverpool), ‘Blowing bubbles’ (West Ham), ‘We’ve Got the Whole World in Our Hands’ (Nottingham Forest), and indeed Irish fans joining together to sing ‘The Fields of Athenry.’ There was a deeply religious moment among the Munster fans as they sang it yesterday in Paris as they tried to express their grief following the sudden death of Anthony Foleyt.
There is a liturgical quality to the responsorial chants, the seasonal team colours and the sense of community if not being in communion with one another.
How often fans asked for their ashes to be scattered on their club’s pitch, and no-one can fail to notice how football serves a quasi-religious function when you see the temporary shrines erected to dead fans and players outside grounds or the minutes’ silence observed at the start of games.
Sport often meets the spiritual needs of spectators who have drifted away from or been alienated from the Church. Why?
Bill Shankly once said: ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you that it is much, much more important than that.’
Perhaps if the church could appropriate some of that enthusiasm and collective, positive good feeling, we might have as much to learn from sport today as the Apostle Paul did in his mission.
Collect 1, The Second Sunday of Advent:
Raise up (we pray thee) thy power, and come among us,
and with great might succour us;
that whereas, through our sins and wickedness,
we are sore let and hindered in running the race that is set before us,
thy bountiful grace and mercy
may speedily help and deliver us;
through the satisfaction of thy Son our Lord,
to whom with thee and the Holy Spirit,
be honour and glory, world without end.
The Lord’s Prayer, the Grace …
Some Scripture passages for reflection:
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” (Genesis 32: 24-30).
If you have raced with foot-runners and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you fall down, how will you fare in the thickets of the Jordan? (Jeremiah 12: 5).
But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint (Isaiah 40: 31).
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified. (I Corinthians 9: 24-27).
I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain (Galatians 2: 2).
It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labour in vain (Philippians 2: 16).
I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3: 14).
For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? (1 Thessalonians 2: 19).
Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. (I Timothy 4: 7-8).
And in the case of an athlete, no one is crowned without competing according to the rules (II Timothy 2: 5).
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (II Timothy 4: 7-8).
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12: 1-2).
From the Autumn Prayer Diary of Christians in Sport
Sunday 16 October: Clubhouse Xtra. Pray for those preparing for and delivering talks, training sessions and seminars at our student training conferences in January would prepare well, being motivated by a passion for the lost world of sport.
Monday 17 October: Partnerships with the local church. Pray that Christians in Sport would continue to serve the local church specifically in the area of evangelism to sport students. Pray for further partnerships to be developed with student churches in many university cities.
Tuesday 18 October: Injury. Please pray for students who have suffered serious injuries this season. Pray that the gospel will comfort them in their situations but continue to motivate them to stay committed to their university sports friends even when they are unable to train, play or compete alongside them.
Wednesday 19 October: Final-year students. Pray for students in their final year of study. Pray that they would make the most of the gospel opportunities that playing or competing in university sport brings before they graduate next summer.
Thursday 20 October: European Sports Mission. Pray for the students from across Europe who attended ReadySetGO Plus in July. Pray that God would use them to make a huge impact in the world of university sport following the training and experience they received in the summer.
Friday 21 October: Dialogue Dinners. Praise God for the 24 Dialogue Dinners we know of which took place last year. Pray that many students this year will be bold in asking their sports friends over for a meal in order to share the gospel through a testimony or short talk.
Saturday 22 October: Graduates. Pray for Christian sportspeople who graduated this summer. Pray that they would stay strong in their faith and continue to live out the mission of making disciples in the world of sport.
Marilyn Baetz and John Toews, ‘Clinical Implications of Research on Religion, Spirituality, and Mental Health,’ The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 2009, 54 (5): pp 292-301.
Joe Drape, ‘Increasingly, Football Playbooks Call for Prayer,’ The New York Times, 30 October 2005.
Jeffrey Heskins and Matt Baker (eds), Footballing Lives, As seen by the chaplains of the beautiful game (London: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2006).
Heather Ridnour and Jon Hammermeister, ‘Spiritual Well-Being and Its Influence on Athletic Coping Profiles,’ Journal of Sport Behavior, 2008, 31 (1): pp 81-92.
Dr Susan Saint Sing, Spirituality of Sport: Balancing Body and Soul (St Anthony Messenger Press, 2004, pb, 137 pp).
(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture in the chapel on 17 October 2016 was part of the module Spirituality, which is part of the Pastoral Formation programme for MTh students.