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God works out.

Been a while since you worked up a good spiritual sweat? Maybe that pick-up basketball game is the spiritual pick-me-up you've been looking for.

In the movie "Chariots of Fire," based on a true story, Eric Liddel is a world-class distance runner training for the Olympics. A divinity student, Liddel recognizes that his talent is a gift from God.

But for Liddel the tie between sports and spirituality goes much deeper than that. The act of running itself connects him with God. He tells a friend, "When I run, I can feel His pleasure."

Very few of us will ever compete anywhere near Liddel's level. But his experience of sports as spiritually enriching isn't off-limits to us.

Sportsmanlike conduct?

It may be hard to imagine such a spiritual link to sports, despite the superficial encounters with spirituality professional sports sometimes entertains. Teams pray for victory. A running back crosses himself in the end zone after a touchdown. An exultant baseball player sanctimoniously praises God after a big victory. A tennis player who wears gaudy gold chains, owns seven luxury cars, and lives in a house the size of a small town tells a reporter that Jesus is "number one" in his life. On these occasions when God and sports are coupled, the relationship seems forced and shallow.

More often sports is associated with abuse and excess than with God and spiritual expression. "Show me the money!" shouts an exuberant athlete in the movie "Jerry Maguire." Those four words aptly symbolize sports today.

Money makes the professional sports world go around. Multimillion dollar shoe-company endorsements have become standard procedure in professional basketball. College football is corrupted by a maniacal quest for winning at the expense of student-athletes' education. Even Little League and grade-school teams are tainted by overbearing coaches and parents.

The large blocks of time that people spend watching sports on television also make it hard to find any redeeming spiritual value in sports. The passionate attachment of many fans to favorite teams borders on the absurd. Tough losses are swallowed hard, too hard. What is trivial is worshiped as sublime. For many, sports becomes a modern idolatry.

Sports produces its abuses. But so does every human activity. Original sin, and plenty of sinning after that, distances humanity from God.

But people can get only so far away from God. If it seems strange to connect God with sports, consider the stranger phenomenon of separating the two in the first place.

We believe in the Incarnation, that the Word became flesh. We believe that we are made in the image and likeness of God. How could God not be part of any human activity, especially one so much a part of the flesh? The exultant physicality of many sports or simple physical activities offers the first clue to the hidden spiritual life of sports.

Runner's high

Those who play sports or make exercise a regular part of their lives attest to the link between sports and spirit. "Running is meditative for me," says Mary Heidkamp, a mother of two who lives near Chicago. "I can be present to the moment. It's my quiet time. It feeds my spirit.

"Running is respecting my body. It's giving it the dignity it deserves," adds Heidkamp, who works for the Archdiocese of Chicago. "It's protecting the gift of my body. It increases my ability to think, to be. It gives me more energy. It makes me able to more fully participate in life. That's what spirituality is all about.

"I couldn't run just for the sake of staying in physical shape. I couldn't get up at 4:30 in the morning if it didn't enliven my spirit!"

George Sheehan, a doctor, runner, and writer, has produced book after book on sports and spirituality. When Sheehan ran, God inevitably was his companion. "So I take that hour and run as if my life depended on it," he writes in Running and Being: The Total Experience (Warner Books 1978). "I run into being and becoming and having been. Into feeling and seeing and hearing. Into all those senses by which I know the world that God made, and me in it. Into understanding why a Being whose reason to exist is `to be' should have made me to His image."

Sheehan could run but not hide from God. He once wrote, "Running . . . became for me, as I'm sure it has for others, a mystical experience. A proof of the existence of God. Something happened and then, in the words of a recent letter writer to Harper's, `One simply knows, and believes, and can never forget.'"

For physical therapist Jeanne Geigel, connecting with God comes not only in church on Sunday morning but on brisk walks across her hometown of Green Bay, Wisconsin. "I pray the rosary when I walk. I'm able to focus. I thank God for things I see--trees, birds. God shows me things. I really can appreciate life. I get insights and answers to my questions."

The bond between sports and spirituality has been documented by scientists, including Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, a distinguished psychologist at the University of Chicago who spent years studying tennis players, basketball players, and dancers. He notes that athletes become completely involved in an enjoyable activity to the point that they reach another level of consciousness.

As a scientist, Czikszentmihalyi scrupulously avoids references to spiritual matters. But even he concedes that it would not tee wrong to regard peak athletic performance as a spiritual experience.

"Loss of self-consciousness," he writes, describing what athletes undergo, "can lead to self-transcendence, to a feeling that the boundaries of our being have been pushed forward." Or, in more spiritual terms, to enter into union with God--whoever would save his life must lose it.

Those who huff and puff while jogging or whiff when swinging at a golf ball may look askance at any talk of transcendence through sports. But even for the out-of-shape and the uncoordinated, sports offers spiritual benefits. Competing or working out can enhance humility, self-improvement, hope, and respect for the mystery of God in life. Sports offers spiritual lessons for daily life. Father Mike Linder of Dayton, Tennessee, an avid golfer, makes this point in Golf and the Spiritual Life: Play It As It Lies (Eggman 1997).

"Playing it as it lies" is a golfing term that means to play the ball where it lands instead of moving it a bit to get an easier shot. Play a round of golf with integrity, and it will be easier to live with integrity, writes Linder.

"If we follow the rules of golf, accepting penalty strokes when they apply, and always playing the ball as it lies, we are, in spiritual terms, also accepting responsibility for our actions," writes Linder.

"We're also taking what life hands us and dealing with it as best we can, realizing that we sometimes get good breaks even when we haven't done anything to deserve them as well as bad ones when we are doing the best we can."

The fluctuating fortunes of sports mirror life. A golf course or baseball field is not a retreat from everyday life but a reproduction of it. A true sportsman also is a person of integrity.

Sports molds the mind and spirit while molding the body. "Aerobic exercise helps concentration. It helps with oxygen intake. It makes the brain function at a higher level," says Robert Feeney, of Leesburg, Virginia, a high-school coach who played basketball in college.

"[Saint Thomas] Aquinas said we learn through our senses," says Feeney. "The body needs to be disciplined so the mind can be disciplined in its search for truth. This goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Exercise lays the foundation for the spiritual life."

Feeney says his own workouts taught him perseverance, constancy, and fortitude. It's no coincidence that Saint Paul liked to use sports metaphors ("I have fought the good fight, run the good race"), he says. An athlete inevitably runs, leaps, and swims toward God.

Let us play

The connection between sports and spirit also can be understood by thinking of sports as play. After all, sports is play, whether it's rolling a bowling ball, hitting a baseball, or running through the woods. And play is heavenly.

"Heaven is a playground," G. K. Chesterton wrote. That notion goes all the way back to the Book of Genesis. When Adam and Eve were driven out of the garden, they were forced to toil. Work replaced their play.

Play is the province of the spirit. When we play, we indulge in pure spirit and in the joy of creative activity. "I was with Him forming all things, and was delighted every day," the Book of Proverbs proclaims, "playing before Him at all times, playing in the world. And my delights were to be with the children of men."

It's fair to say that Jesus himself endorsed the spiritual value of play: unless we become like little children, we will not enter the kingdom, he says. Children are experts at playing. They do not care much for work, achievement, status, or other decidedly adult concerns. They belong to the world of play.

Scripture affirms the seamless link between body and spirit. "So, during supper, fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God, he rose from the supper and took off his outer garment," and Jesus proceeded to wash the disciples' feet (John 13: 2-5). In one glorious breath the gospel writer moves from spiritual to physical transcendence, says theologian John Shea of Chicago. The body and spirit are threaded together. The gospel writer affirms the intimate connection between the two.

Every human experience is multilayered--physical, mental, and spiritual, says Shea. The spirit, ever shy but ever present, may be hardest to notice, but no human breath can be completed without the participation of the spirit. Sinking a basket or a putt involves not only our physical side but also our spiritual dimension.

Mary Wright of Washington, D.C. has taken long-distance bike rides through Alaska and South America. She agrees that the physical and spiritual are inseparable. "Bicycling is my way of being in touch with God," says Wright, who works for the United States Catholic Conference. "Spirituality isn't just about understanding the Bible. It's about who I am. It involves my physical and emotional side. It's all wrapped up together. It's all one piece. You can't take [it] apart."

In the Bible, heaven is most commonly compared to a dinner banquet. Yes, the kingdom of God is manifested in praying in church quietly or bringing meals to shut-ins, but, as Jesus made clear, it's also expressed in boisterous celebrations with friends. Or, for that matter, competing with co-workers in a basketball league on Tuesday nights. The kingdom is the People of God celebrating the gifts of God, among them the wonderful physical and mental talents required of sports.

To really understand how sports and spirituality are inseparable it's necessary to understand exactly what we mean by spirituality, writes Father Thomas P. Ryan in Wellness, Spirituality and Sports (Paulist Press 1936). The Latin root of the word is spiritus, meaning "aliveness."

Being spiritual means being super-alive--very much aware of life. The spiritual life is not about making us religious, according to Ryan, but helping us realize that we already are deeply religious. Spirituality brings an awareness of the sacredness of all of life. The kingdom is not a place but an experience of intensity and passion--certainly a definition that can apply to sports.

Saint Paul tells us to pray constantly. Not sometimes. Always. How can we? We can't say the rosary all day, but we can pray by living spiritually. Prayer is communication with God through a heightened sense of awareness to the mystery always present, says Ryan. Through a prayerful attitude, every activity, especially sports, can become prayer.

Or, as Henri Nouwen wrote: "There are as many ways to pray in life as there are moments in life."

God embraced flesh and became human. In sports, humans embrace flesh and find our way to God.

Sports can be a wake-up call to a fuller life, a poke in the ribs that jolts our spirit. The exertion of sports reminds us that we are alive, that we are spirit coiled in flesh. Thomas Merton wrote that the beginning of freedom is not liberation from the body but liberation from the mind. Emptying ourselves through physical activity stirs up the spirit.

Sometimes the hardest moment to connect with God is the moment we try to begin to pray. We mechanically recite words or become distracted by random thoughts. Ironically, sitting quietly often blocks our access to God. Sports has the advantage of being apparently at a distance from spirituality.

Sports can awaken us to our own aliveness. It can reinvigorate the ordinary and endow seemingly mundane moments with their proper glory. Run a mile and revel in the exhausting fullness of life.

Good game

C'mon, I can almost hear some people saying. You're carrying this too far.

But the fact that we don't normally associate sports and spirituality underscores our dualistic outlook. We falsely separate the spirit from the material. That's a big mistake, said Karl Rahner, the late German Jesuit theologian.

Rahner emphasized how the world is filled with grace. God created it, Jesus redeemed it, and the Holy Spirit dwells in it. The world is a sacred place. We are part of the sacred.

"Every human being stands at the shore of a sea of infinite mystery, busy with the sand at his feet," Rahner wrote. We frolic in the sacred, even if we only half-notice it.

The Book of Genesis confirms the presence of the goodness of God in the world. God created the day, the night, the sea, and all else, and it was good. Remember that the next time you swat the tennis ball around, and your friend says, "Good game."

Good indeed.

No doubt many of us do not spend enough time taking care of our neighbor and spend too much time at the gym or in front of the television watching and fretting over our favorite teams. But by seeing and embracing the grace in our leisurely pursuits, we'll be more able and eager to assist our neighbor.

We encounter God in the here and now. God culminates in the present moment, the theologian Martin Buber said. God's presence is never more obvious or real than in what we are currently doing. So go ahead and break a sweat. Our thirst for God can only increase.

RELATED ARTICLE: The athletes' feat

Some items worth keeping in your spiritual locker

Patron saint: Sebastian, patron of athletes and archers. Nasty martyrom but excellent Roman conditioning is right on target.

Beginner's guide: Prayer-Walking: A Simple Path to Body-and-Soul Fitness by Linus Mundy (Abbey Press). Inspiring moment in PW: "As you persevere in your prayer-walks, you will build up memories of how the landscape--and you--change over time. As the weeks, months, and years pass, you will look back realizing you have reinvented a simple spiritual path toward holiness not unlike what you may have experienced as a child."

Best motto for the spiritual long haul: "No pain, no gain."

Athletiquette: "[Animals and athletes] are subjects of art and exemplars of it, are they not? minding their own business. Pangolins, hornbills, pitchers, catchers, do not pry or prey--or prolong conversation; do not make us self-conscious; look their best when caring least."

Poetry to max out by:

"Better to hunt in fields, for health unbought,

Than fee the doctor for a nauseous draught.

The wise for cure, on exercise depend;

God never made His work, for man to mend."

Best Ecclesiaster verse to remember when enjoying rear view at the finish line: "the race is not to the swift..."

Recommended workout Bible: King James.

KJ quotes to help ye work outeth: "Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees"--Isaiah 35:3; "If thou hast run with the footmen, and they have wearied thee, then how canst thou contend with horses?"

By Jay Copp, a freelance writer living in Chicago.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Claretian Publications
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:exercise and athletics as vehicles for faith and praise
Author:Copp, Jay
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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