“You will be able to check envy if you rejoice with the man whom you envy whenever he rejoices, and grieve whenever he grieves.”
St. Maximos the Confessor
No, that is not St. Maximos, the Confessor! It is a photo of a Pittsburgh Steeler football player, Troy Palomalu. He had this quote on his Facebook page the day of the NFL playoff games. I thought it was rather insightful and wanted to share it.
I have been contemplating the role sports play in our lives, especially in light of the impending Superbowl game. So many people in the world barely understand American football, let alone bother with the players. For our house, we all love football. My husband is an avid Denver Broncos fan, and I have been a Kansas City Chiefs fan since I can remember, and recently fell in love with the Seattle Seahawks, as well as other Seattle teams. My oldest son has labeled me a “bandwagon” fan and accuses me of leaving my team. He often says it in such a way, that it is, rather hurtful, even if said in fun and teasing. In fact, for Christmas, my daughter-in-law (his wife) made me a reversible blanket; one side is red with Chiefs’ logos all over it; the other side is blue with Seahawks’ logos all over it. She told me, “That way, whoever is playing, you can show that side.” It was pretty funny; even if it was teasing me (and I love it – it’s so warm and cuddly!). Right now, the Broncos blanket hangs over my husband’s recliner, and the Seahawks’ side of my blanket shows atop of the couch where I sit. All that being said, a Bronco-Seahawks Super Bowl should be interesting!
But the reason I am bringing all this up is that emotions have become very taut and strong over this. There was an interview with a defensive player that went viral, because he spoke rather conceitedly about his talents and lambasted a player from the opposing team. The loosing team is now accusing the ref’s of all sorts of mis-calls, saying the game was robbed from them. It has created furor online and in the media. Major media outlets are abuzz! But why is that? Why do we even care? Why do we pay attention to it?
When we lived in the greater Seattle area, the Churches lamented sports’ seasons because the pews would be empty if a “big game” was on TV or being played in town. If the sun was out, people were outside and not in Church. The first snowfall, no one was in Church but out skiing or enjoying other winter sports. Almost any excuse to not attend Church. Lots of quotes about, “My church is nature,” or “I pray better outdoors.” Pretty lame excuses to my way of thinking. The Church we were married in, in Colorado, had windows all across the back and they would open the drapery if the snow was falling or it was a good view of the Rocky Mountains. In Seattle, the local RC parish had an adoration chapel that was largely glass. It was very pretty. But there was no sense of “church” or being in a place of worship…it was just greenery and trees, flowers and wildlife. Yes, those are things of God, but they are not, to my way of thinking, God’s temple. Below is a photo of just the upper walls and ceiling of a Church in Russia. That is a Church!
Troy was quoting St. Maximos the Confessor to show that he was rejoicing with his fellow football players, and not envying them or wanting to take their glory from them, but rather, to share it with them. We all grieve when players are injured, regardless of the team they play for. No one wants to truly, and honestly, see someone hurt. But why all the emphasis on sports teams and/or players? And why the heightened emotion regarding all they do and what they do, how they do it, and who wins? What is being adored here?
There is an old saying, “Those who do not know history are destined to repeat it.” (Edmund Burke). When I look at football stadiums, when I see crowds devolving into maniacs of sound and even witness fighting in the stands (I recall one soccer stadium actually falling apart and partially collapsing on the fans, as a result of fighting by the self-same fans) I am drawn back in time, back to the era of the Roman Gladiator. The Roman Coliseum was developed to enhance the viewing pleasure of the Caesars in power. They would hold all sorts of contests of skill and strength, and often to the death. These forums were also the scene of untold horror for those who had lost favor with the ruling classes. These coliseums existed throughout the Roman empire. Some were small, some were very large, but all held the Senatorial crowds in thrall of the events carried on there. Eventually, these stadiums became the scene of the torture and death of Christians, who refused the Gods of Rome and devoutly gave their lives for Christ and His Church. When you look at the historical events held in coliseums around the world, you cannot but note the similarities. Our football, baseball, soccer, hockey, basketball players (and all the other popular sports) are held in the same esteem and fame as the gladiators were. We root for them; we bet on their talent and the outcome of their “contests;” we fete them at banquets and we foist honors upon them (Hall of Fame, Super Bowl Champs, etc). We hold events where all the people can come and watch one team, or one player, defeat another. And the crowds that attend these things are boisterous and unruly, much like the Senatorial crowds at the coliseums in ancient Rome. Because of the expense of attending these events, it has also become a rich-man’s (or at the very least, upper middle class man’s) event, just as in Rome when only the Senatorial classes could attend. Even baseball games! I remember days of getting into Angel Stadium (newly constructed) for $5 and having a hot dog and beer (bad college student that I was) sitting in the nose-bleed seats during a weekday afternoon. My roommate and I would take our books and study up there, all alone, watching some baseball. But no more. A hot dog and beer can cost you $25 or more, let alone the cost of admission. And where does this leave our culture? Where are our values?
One of the hardest things for me is to be able to just enjoy watching a sport without the vehemence of others ruining it; of having to be careful of what I say, what I post on my Facebook wall, or how I approach the fact that the team I’ve been rooting for has won. Because the temperature got pretty darn hot in regards to these playoffs. The vehemence is what has surprised me. Trust me, it has nothing to do with having the Seahawks make the Super Bowl. I truly believe the Broncos will win and I am not usually rooting for the Championship team, so am not accustomed to “backing the winning horse.” I just enjoyed watching the games. I can honestly walk away from it because I have security; I know sports and whomever is playing does not enervate my life. My life is not lived for sports. It is lived for salvation in Christ. I love God first, my family second. I am not even sure where a team would make the list of who I love, if at all. It is ENTERTAINMENT only. And not my sole source of entertainment, nor my major source of entertainment. And even as I type this, I know of people that I could not talk with about any of this because they are so angry, so upset. On the surface, all is fine. But if the subject would be brought up, the power behind their emotions is a little frightening; the quickness of turning to anger and hotly contesting the entire issue! I am frightened for the confrontation (another instance where silence, as espoused by Elder Thaddeus, gets me through the rough stuff) and so I avoid it at all costs. And my fear is for their soul, because they are living without the guidance of a life of faith. They love their families; they love their country; they pay taxes and are decent folks. But they do not live for Christ. They have no faith. And so, sports teams, celebrities, and reality TV has supplanted, and become, their God.
If we are listening to, or paying attention to history, we should all be a little afraid. At the very least, we should be aware. Our culture in comparison to Roman culture, and its demise, are eerily similar. The patterns of despots is also similar. The way our culture aggrandizes things our parents and grandparents would have abhorred is, in itself, frightening. Yes, these things happened in darkened rooms and behind closed doors. However, it was not on jumbo-trons or on big-screen TVs in homes for all to watch. It was not common for young people to adore sports figures and not know basic facts about God. It was not common for families to steer their children away from vocations to the priesthood or convent life; it was an honor to have at least one child choose a vocation. It was common for entire families, every Sunday, to attend Church – as a family. Young people lived at home until they got married. Young people expected to be poor and have lean years before success, not moving into homes their parents took decades to own. People took their duty as citizens seriously – they were educated about issues and candidates and they voted. What is happening? Why are we so apart from our Christian roots and why have we walked away from our faith?
As Abba Agathon warns us, no other labor is as difficult as prayer. The enemy knows this and is on the prowl for our souls. Right now, our abhorrent attention the the things of this world has colored our attention to the things of God. We have friends who have been married for 9 or 10 years. They have 6 children in their home, all under the age of 12. They are foster parents, right now caring for two who are definitely a challenge. They were both married before, outside of Church, and in some difficult situations. But the thing they wanted the most in life was to share the Eucharist together. And so they have spent months regularizing their marriage in the eyes of the Church and this weekend, they will have a crowning, with all their children, family, and friends around them. Why do I mention this? Because it is something bright, something positive, something Godly in a world going haywire. Two people want to stand next to one another, in a Godly marriage, and receive Christ in Holy Communion. And guess what? They have no clue what teams are playing who, who is in what sort of bowl, and they are deliriously happy! They are letting God rule their lives, outside of the rhythm of this crazy world. And I am so glad to be a witness to it.
So today, today I resolve to carry on in silence and not tempt the tempers by bringing up sports! Today I resolve to pray for those who have lost their way and for those struggling to make their way. I always taught my children to be “sticks in the river, standing strong against the current.” I want to stand strong for my faith, to share how I feel and what I believe in a soft, gentle, loving way. I want all of us to love God first, because if we can order things properly in our lives, we can all then enjoy these sporting entertainments, and keep them where they belong. And they belong in context to a life lived in faith. And then perhaps we can all live more according to how St. Maximos encourages to live, “You will be able to check envy if you rejoice with the man whom you envy whenever he rejoices, and grieve whenever he grieves.”