Oh, my aching back.
And: Deo gratias for my aching back.
It’s a prayer only a golf addict could utter, I suppose: “Thanks be to God for my aching back”…because it’s the direct result of having played golf three times in the past seven days.
Such a schedule is not advisable, I’ve learned – at least, not at my age (and mediocre level of conditioning). By the end of the third round, my physical weakness was evident in almost every swing. An array of tired muscles and joints produced mostly floozles and topped shots – with the occasional banana-ball thrown in. It was bad enough that a purist might argue I wasn’t playing golf at all.
But, dear God, do I love it!
I love the game, despite the fact that personal failure is the most likely outcome. Or more precisely, I love the company I keep when I’m flailing away on the links.
Round #1 provides a case in point. It featured my two adult sons – making our way around a local municipal course, as part of their Father’s Day gift to me. We don’t get to play together as often as we used to…so every moment spent with them stacks up with hitting the ball on the sweet spot. It feels a lot like grace. It tends to make my spirit soar.
Round #2 involved a match in my weekly Golf League at Aberdeen. I didn’t play especially well…but I still managed to sneak out with a win. And there’s something to be said for such an experience: Keep showing up. Keep plugging away. You might just find that (even against the odds) things’ll turn out OK.
As the quality of my swing deteriorated with each repetition during the week, the game’s teaching power assumed the opposite trajectory – or so it seemed as I laced up my golf shoes for Round #3. You see, this last, most potentially glorious match took place at Boone Valley Golf Club – a spectacular slice of golfing heaven nestled in the verdant hills just outside of Augusta, Missouri.
What a beautiful place Boone Valley is! A beautiful, challenging place – with immaculately tended fairways, tee boxes and greens…all designed to bring out the best in one’s game.
Alas, I had only wretched weakness to offer in response. Even at the start – when my initial attempt at a drive traveled a mere 30 yards, and alighted in a thick stand of native grasses…the ball, never to be seen again. I had an inkling then that I was about to embark on a “Pauline round”…and so it turned out to be.
I doubt if St. Paul ever actually played the game, but he certainly writes like did. Take this passage we hear in Sunday’s liturgy:
That I, Paul, might not become too elated, because of the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.
Any duffer who’s ever visited a splendid track like Boone Valley can relate to St. Paul’s experience. We know we are not worthy to play in such a magnificent place. During the round, we might even find ourselves pleading for relief from a Higher Power:
Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
One of my favorite homilists once noted that for a Christian, weakness is not so much a problem as an opportunity to lean into Christ…to drink deep from the Living Water that is Jesus. And St. Paul seems to agree:
…for when I am weak, then I am strong.
Indeed, this is the very lesson a “Pauline” golf round offers the duffer – and repeats as often as necessary: the ego must die. It sounds painful (and often is) in the moment. But it can become a beautiful thing – a grace moment, when enjoyed in the company of good friends – to realize that you are the weakest link in the foursome. Still, nobody has cut you loose. Instead the Christ in them encourages you…to take up your club and try again.
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy & Merciful One.