April 8, 2011

Be Our Guest / Fr. Jeffrey Godecker

Spirituality and the Final Four

(Editor’s note: The Butler University Bulldogs advanced to the NCAA Men’s Basketball championship game on April 4 in Houston, where they lost to the University of Connecticut 53 to 41. Father Jeffrey Godecker, the Catholic chaplain for Butler University in Indianapolis, wrote this reflection after the team advanced to the Final Four on March 26.)

Assumption A—Spirituality is the art of paying attention to the sacred in our lives.

As Christians, we pay attention to the life and words of Jesus as a primary way. But we can also pay attention to the sacred through creation, nature and art, and also through our own experience. God is not to be found only in some heaven light years away. He is also to be found in the ordinary and extraordinary lives we lead.

Assumption B—I am not trying to canonize the Butler University basketball team and head coach Brad Stevens.

Each of us has our own shadows and weaknesses to deal with. However, the team and coach provide us with some very positive qualities that allow us to also reflect on our religious lives.

Spiritual Discovery No. 1—Paying attention is our first clue and need.

Imagine walking out on a basketball floor and being distracted by last week’s win, tomorrow’s game or what I am going to have for supper today.

Athletics is about being fully present to the game at hand. So is spirituality and religious practice. The Butler team accomplishes what it does because everybody pays full attention.

Someone said that they believe that Brad Stevens is successful because he is always fully present in a natural way.

Fully present—to our lives, to our religious practices, to the God that we believe in.

In Catholicism, we talk about the real presence of Christ. Christ fully present is asking for our real presence as well.

Spiritual Discovery No. 2—Brad Stevens said after the Florida game that he got out-coached, and that the players and assistant coaches held things together. An ESPN commentator said in response: “It’s obvious that Brad Stevens has never read the sports manual on self-promotion.”

Spirituality is not about self-promotion. In fact, the self has to get out of the way for God to get in. Humility is an often forgotten virtue in sports, entertainment and for religious people as well.

“Jesus humbled himself,” St. Paul says in his Letter to the Philippians (Phil 2:8).

Spiritual Discovery No. 3—The five players on the floor are a team. The Butler team excels with qualities of cooperation, non-stardom and the ability to play together.

Spirituality also requires others for support and guidance.

Imagine the power of a parish where everybody is working together. Imagine what our world would be like if the different religions could think of themselves as a team rather than who is right or wrong. Imagine a world where nations are a team in combating the issues of our world. Imagine education where the learning is done only in teams that play and work well together.

Spiritual Discovery No. 4—The Butler basketball team plays in a wholehearted way. This is related to Spiritual Discovery No. 1, and includes not just presence, but also full effort, a full giving yourself to the game and team.

Both the Jewish and Christian Scriptures talk about full-hearted loving as a spiritual task and goal.

“You shall love the Lord your God with your whole self” (Mt 22:37, Mk 12:30, Lk 10:27). Wholehearted means pure in heart, and that the heart is not divided.

Spiritual Discovery No. 5—When players step onto the basketball floor, they take a big risk. They may win, but they also could lose. They can make the crucial play or miss the play that everybody will remember as a mistake and not being good enough to win.

A willingness to be vulnerable, to step out in front and risk the mistake is part of life. Vulnerability is present everywhere in life, and is a spiritual invitation toward growth and relationship.

Spiritual Discovery No. 6—Forward Matt Howard will not be featured on the cover of GQ magazine in the near future—unless stretched-out socks become fashionable. But if there was a magazine devoted to the inner heart then he would be front and center. How Matt performs comes from his heart, not from how he looks.

Good performance is always tied to the inner heart. Without the heart, the hard work, the follow-through and the good play would be missing. The same is true for spirituality.

Spiritual Discovery No. 7—The road to the Final Four is a long one. Sometimes a team gets pushed off the road by failure and losses. That happened to Butler in January.

Sometimes many Catholics have a rather odd attitude toward personal and moral failure in religion. Failure isn’t supposed to happen in the Christian life? Failure can push us off the road, make us give up and lead us to indifference.

This year’s Butler basketball team gives us a totally different model: Failure means you pick yourself back up and put yourself back on the road.

Spiritual Discovery No. 8—A few of the Butler basketball players come to practice early. Some of the players stay after. Practice, practice, that’s the key to growth and expertise in any area of life.

Without practice, our spirituality and faith become vague. Christianity invites us to a regular practice. At the top of the list is kindness and compassion toward others. Other regular practices include prayer, Sunday worship, care for and respect of the body, sharing resources, fasting, silence, hospitality, forgiveness, healing, building community, and seeking justice for all.

Spiritual Discovery No. 9—Athletics is about play. Granted, there is the hard work and the need for regular practice. But if it is not also about the joy that comes from play and the sheer fun of the game, sports can be drudgery, leaving the participant lifeless.

The same is true of the spiritual life and religion. Too often, spirituality is articulated in terms of only hard work, difficulty and the moral challenges of life.

Christ says in the Gospel of John: “I have come that my joy may be yours” (Jn 15:11).

I wonder how often people leave church with the sense of joy—and maybe even excitement—of having prayed and sang together, having heard an encouraging word and having felt something of the presence of Christ in our midst. †

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