The question was reasonable enough: “Why do you put yourself through this?” a friend asked this morning, when he overheard me discussing last night’s SLU Billikens game with another friend as we exited church after early-morning Mass.
I say “discussing”…but in point of fact, it was more like “obsessing.” Along with talking about the game itself (a stirring – and somewhat unlikely – comeback win), the two of us delved into the relative amount of respect afforded our favorite team by the local media outlet. Which is to say, we noticed the slight: SLU’s win garnered only “page C5” treatment, while another local team had its disappointing loss plastered all over the front pages of two different sections.
Perhaps you’ve stopped reading by now.
Can’t blame you. Like our companion who chastised us at church, it’s hard for most people to understand why Billiken fans care so deeply about their team. This year’s squad, by winning yesterday, kept a dim hope alive of making it to The Big Dance next week. But even the most obsessed among us recognize that it’s pretty much a pipe dream. We’re likely to be on the outside, looking in, again in 2018. At best, “our” team seems to work its way into the top echelon of college basketball only every five or six years or so.
So yes, it’s a fair question: Why obsess over such intermittent reinforcement? Why love a team that so rarely rewards our devotion?
Frankly, I can’t find a rational explanation. And it turned into a bit of a spiritual question for me, when I noticed how very hard it was for me to ignore all the college basketball games being played on TV yesterday. “Championship Week,” the media marketers call it. I’m sucked in, every March – almost despite myself. I can’t not watch, even when SLU has almost no chance of making it to the Big Dance. I love this game. I love this time of year. I love it (dare I say?) with my whole heart. (My whole “sports” heart, anyway. I make that distinction, lest you conclude that I’m a complete wing-nut. There are many worthy things I love more than the Billikens… although I might be hard pressed to prove it at certain points during “Championship Week.”)
My “whole heart”. Intriguingly, that notion popped up in the gospel reading at Mass this morning. One of the scribes, trying to trip Jesus up, asks which is the greatest of all the commandments. Jesus replies by quoting the Hebrew scriptures:
“The first is this: Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.
It’s surely the greatest of all the commandments, dating all the way back to the time of Moses.
It may be the hardest, too. How do you love – with your whole heart – the God you cannot see, chest-bump, hug or high-five?
As I pondered the question, I began to wonder if this might not be the role our otherwise-pointless and mundane obsessions play. What if my love of Billiken basketball is not so much a spiritual defect, as a teaching opportunity? A chance to feel something like whole-hearted love. A chance to experience desire for God, as the mystics experience it?
Dare I imagine it?
Dare I consider the possibility that God has invited me to a Big Dance, a divine dance, far beyond the glory of an NCAA tournament bracket?
And: How will I respond to this invitation? Will my heart be fully open to the “always more,” the infinite blessing, that God has in store?
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy & Merciful One.