Sports as Contemplative Practice

Today’s blog is by Tilden Edwards, the founder of Shalem Institute.

Given the Washington Nationals recent World Series win, we were inspired to remember Tilden Edwards’ article on sports as a contemplative practice, written several years ago.  We are thrilled for our hometown team, albeit exhausted from a wild season, and sincerely thank the Astros team and fans for being our good “dragons at the gate.”  Go Nats!

Millions of us play on sports teams from childhood on. Millions more watch. Church leaders bemoan the way sports events have begun to take over even Sunday mornings. There are many psychological and social layers to this powerful phenomenon. Much could be said about both the light and shadow sides of these layers and their impact on us. The fact of the matter is that sports are here to stay and can take up a tremendous amount of people’s discretionary time.

If that’s true, instead of fighting sports’ frequent dominance of people’s attention relative to other important dimensions of human living, can we take another look at them and see if we can widen the way we understand sports? Can they be seen and cultivated as a spiritual practice, a contemplative practice?

The ultimate goal of the game then is receptive participation in the creative Love at the heart of reality. The penultimate goal of “winning” then can be seen as drawing us to energetic, self- transcending attention, ready to physically and mentally “lose” ourselves in the game’s expansive creative movements.

I’m reminded of an old film about a British long-distance runner in which he exclaimed, “God takes pleasure in my running.” Contemplatively speaking, we could say that God’s Spirit is delighting within him, indeed as him. St. Ireneaus declared that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” The athlete at his or her best seeks such aliveness, and in times of spiritual openness can see it as embodying God’s ebullient joy in us.

Teammates are those who support one another in opening the way to such full aliveness. They create and respond to opportunities that allow movement toward the goal. These actions involve total mental and physical availability to the moment’s call, before any thoughts have time to develop. This includes a willingness to sacrifice oneself if need be for the sake of the team’s movement, as well as a willingness to take the lead when the way opens. Little sense of separate “self” remains; everyone involved is a unique part of a larger whole. In its graced fullness such a stance leaves the player in what has been called “the zone,” with selfless, on-target, effortlessly flowing action.

The opposing team members can be seen as helpers to the goal of full aliveness in God. Their opposition heightens our awareness in the moment and energizes us to be even more fully given to the goal; they help us let go any remaining interior half-heartedness and self-separation. The opponents are the ultimately good “dragons at the gate” who contemplative tradition says we must be willing to get past in order to be given the gift of full aliveness. That aliveness in its graced fullness is vibrant communion with our true nature in God.

Participation in such a contemplative “practice” can become the deepest purpose of the game, for which the surface “win-lose” goal is a means, not the end. Rather than being seen as a displacement of time for more obvious spiritual practices, it could be wonderfully reinforcing of the ultimate intent of those practices.

Such an understanding also could be a way of helping watchers of sports to vicariously participate in the game as a spiritual and contemplative practice, where they could be less tempted to treat it only as a power-seeking tribal diversion (thrilling as that can be). Sports can offer us so much more than that. Watchers can cultivate full presence in the moment, aware of the whole scene of vibrant unity and diversity in the game and the fans. They can delight in the “grace” of the game: the beautiful, spontaneous, unpredictable “moves” of the players (regardless of which side they’re on)—the creative flow of the game. They can clap and yell for their team as a way of encouraging their energetic given-ness to the creative possibilities of the moment. Watchers then are participants with the players in valuing full human aliveness and responsiveness to the grace at hand. The “game” becomes more than a game; beneath and through it is an intention of responsive, collaborative, celebrative life in God.

All this may sound pretty far-fetched compared to the normal way of looking at sports. I’m sure it could be described in a much better and fuller way than I’ve done (and I invite you into the conversation by offering your own description). But I think what I’ve said holds the potential of opening the spiritual imagination of coaches, players, parents and spiritual leaders to let sports cultivate a way of being in the world with spiritual purpose and contemplative grounding. It would be one means of challenging the temptation of sports to become an idolatry of self- centered winning at any cost. That view can stomp on deeper values and cheat us of the great potential of sports to express our spiritual nature and shared purpose.

A version of this article appeared in Shalem’s FY11 Annual Report.

November 11, 2019 by Tilden Edwards
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