Henri Nouwen and Superbowl Sunday

This winter brought the unexpected intersection of Henri Nouwen and Super Bowl Sunday into my life—a great spiritual force making an appearance during a weekend when tired winter existence was about to become bedazzled by whatever would occur between strong teams from the gritty towns of Green Bay and Pittsburgh. An incredible coincidence that Nouwen's words reflected upon sports, too—but only after he had made some important spiritual points about holy monks who had lived long ago in the arid and empty desert. Being alone without even the stimulation of a rainstorm or the morning dew meant that these holy persons had to develop the capacity to be anchored when surrounded by inner floods of human emotion:

My reading about the spirituality of the desert has made me aware of the importance of 'nepsis.' Nepsis means mental sobriety, spiritual attention directed to God, watchfulness in keeping the bad thoughts away, and creating free space for prayer. While working with the rocks I repeated a few times the famous words of the old desert fathers: "fuge, tace, et quiesce" (live in solitude, silence, and inner peace..." (Nouwen, writing in The Genesee Diary.)


Nouwen's reflections about what it meant to be a monk in the desert are about as far away as one can get from Super Bowl excitement and the vast chasm can be seen when reading Nouwen's words and then contrasting them with Erick Torbenson's New York Post description of the cultural meaning of big-time football:

 Pro baseball and basketball lie concussed, unable to get a make on the league that has blitzed their television ratings, sacked all the sponsorship bucks and driven deep into a nation's sporting red zone.

Fresh off its best television ratings in 15 years, the NFL is something more than pigskin and pomp. It's the cultural reference point that goes beyond income, politics, and all the other stuff that's dividing the country.

In a world where politics are so divisive that people can't hold a rational conversation, where the economy has roughed up budgets and split us all into winners and losers, maybe the new tentpole that lets us gather and drop the labels is a football game and a big spread on Sunday.

Nouwen discovered spiritual meaning when contrasting the those ancient desert monks with the sport of bullfighting in Spain and I think the same spiritual lesson can be made using Super Bowl Sunday as the focus. Both are violent sports and the grandstand mobs waiting to see the sprawl have been greatly magnified by television and wide screen televisions. While one might declare that football is less violent than bullfighting (cruelty and death to bulls is duly noted). Yet the ambulances lined up at the edge of high school football fields across the USA, deaths from heat exhaustion on playing fields, closed-head concussive injuries more crippling than bleeding side wounds, and emerging tallies of permanent brain damage in old football players—all of these make some of us wonder what is going on here. Again, Nouwen:

Or I'll Dress You in the Morning is a book by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapiere. This is a book about the Spanish bullfighter Manuel Benitez, 'El Cordobez' who from a poor Andalasian boy soon becomes one of the greatest Spanish heroes of today. On the evening of his first bullfight, he said to his sister who opposed his plans, 'Don't cry, Angelita. Tonight I'll buy you a house or I'll dress you in mourning.' I looked for a long time at his picture in the book. The enormous tensions of his courageous bullfights have made his face heavy, serious, and very sad. How will his life end? Since the beginning of the bullfights in their present form, more than four hundred torreros have been killed by bull's horns. I am very curious to hear the whole story. What is it that makes us so full of desires to make a man risk his life? One answer is: Lack of nepsis.

William Van Ornum


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8 years 1 month ago
On the other hand, the Super Bowl is a bit like the Romans' ''Bread and Entertainment'' which helps to keep the masses busy and their minds off important things like those serious social questions, and lacking a civil conscience which voices disagreement with the status quo. It is a pity that most of the anger in the USA is funelled into the Democrats VS Republican fight where deep issues are often forgotten because of party politics; occasionally we get passionate about Roe VS Wade, pro life and abortion or other individualistic concerns; there is little national concern about poverty and the horrible conditions that whole strata of Americans live in. Where are the Dorothy Days of today?
When will we move beyond the Democrats Vs Republicans great divide and create something new, a new party that will be more of the people and less of the rich and powerful, beyond the oligarchy that rules the USA?
PS I am an American!
Kang Dole
8 years 1 month ago
That's a good policy to have.
Marie Rehbein
8 years 1 month ago
It seems to me that nepsis is useful in certain circumstances, but Superbowl is a welcome relief from such circumstances, at least for the spectators, but I suppose the question,  Bill, is the significance of competition to the competitors and whether it a form of mental sobriety that is not focused on God.  I think it is.
8 years 1 month ago
Mr. David Smith
Your comment is as dead on and enjoyably witty as any post I've read in weeks. Thank you for making reading these blogs worth my time (not a usual happenstance).
we vnornm
8 years 1 month ago
"Yet the ambulances lined up at the edge of high school football fields across the USA, deaths from heat exhaustion on playing fields, closed-head concussive injuries more crippling than bleeding side wounds, and emerging tallies of permanent brain damage in old football players—all of these make some of us wonder what is going on here."

Perhaps someone would like to address this? It is an issue that seems, at least to me, to raise some unsettling questions, and deserves a bit of thinking in a forum that has often examined anger, violence, and war in other blogs and articles.  Or are the many injuries in football, as they might say in the military, "collateral damage" that just have to be accepted as a co-occurrence of our enjoyment?


Crystal Watson
8 years 1 month ago
It seems like sports are in a way about controlled violence, controlled risk, some sports more so than others, like ice hockey or boxing, and there's sometimes spectator violence too.  I guess  I do see that sports can help people learn to cooperate with others,  can sometimes boost self-esteem and teach responsibility, but there seems to be an underlying assumption that people are inherently aggressive and need a "safe" forum for acting it out.  I don't know if this is true.
Marie Rehbein
8 years 1 month ago
I think the fact that football is more dangerous to the players than we once thought may be changing the spectator enjoyment of it.  Given the padding and helmets, it is obvious that it has always been played with an awareness that it is dangerous and the intention that injury be minimized.  I tend to agree with Crystal to the extent that we encourage sports for young people as a healthy alternative to potentially violent inclinations.  However, when we watch adults engaging in sports like football, we more often admire their strength, skill, and strategy.  We do not watch with the hope that someone gets hurt.  In this latter sense, it is probable that injuries are the equivalent of collateral damage.
we vnornm
8 years 1 month ago
Crystal, Marie, David:


Stephanie Waring
8 years 1 month ago
What is it that makes us so full of desires to make a man risk his life? One answer is: Lack of nepsis.

What is it that makes us so full of desires to make a man risk his life? This article is an interesting one and definitely made me think about the answer to the question. Lack of nepsis is a good reasoning, because it is true, no matter which dangerous sport we love to watch professional players take part in, we root them on, want them to play harder and rougher, and we love it. Nepsis may be defined in multiple ways, but when it comes to the SuperBowl, the beginning of the game, "Star Spangled Banner" and "National Anthem", are sang by some of the most highly talented singers, which puts the whole crowd, and television watchers everywhere into a state of religious mind. Those first ten minutes are heartfelt, as the cameras scroll down the line and show football players tearing up at the thought of honoring God and our country.
 It is hard to depict why exactly humans like the gore, danger, and fights that go on in sports and even everyday life. Football isn't exactly like bull riding, which I feel is a lot more dangerous, but these people who engage in these sports love the feeling of anxiousness and danger. Danger excites people, life wouldn't be fun without challenges and games with unknown outcomes.  The SuperBowl is like a holiday in itself. Sports fans live for the game, cheer their faces off, socialize with friends, gamble on endless amounts of money, all because they have faith in one team, and it's simply exciting to place a bet in chances of either winning or loosing it all. Much of this doesn't make the most sense for some, but football fans, like myself and most of the general public love the adrenaline rush.  Players play with padding and are as safe as possible. Their are rules of the game that aren't meant to be broken, and when they are there is penalty.  The risk of injury, sometimes even death in the worst cases,
8 years 1 month ago
When I read Fr. Nouwen's description of nepsis I thought how wonderful it would be to be in that state of mind.  But, a state not easy to come to; one requiring a lot of invstment of self, time and energy.  And how easy it is to turn on the tv and passively watch a football game and be passively entertained.  I wonder if prof. football is taking the place , for some people, of religious practices.  We keep reading about the fall in Mass attendance and the diminishing of mainstream Protestantism.  Except for Evangelicalism which seems to be thriving.  I don't watch too much football but I've thought how it has become almost a religious event.  It has the atmosphere of a grand Revival Meeting.  Pro players are treated like gods by sports media and public.  We are finally learning that they are tin gods who are very susceptible to grave injuries.  It would be interesting to know what the multi-millionaire team owners are doing to prevent injuries.  Better  protective uniforms?  Rule changes?  Fans should demand these changes.

I'm more concerned about the youngsters involved in Pop Warner and later in high school and college football.  As Crystal and Marie said, sports do have very positive aspects in building skills in teamwork and bodily strength and agility.  These positives fall by the wayside when children are exposed to a sport that can cause them permenant injury.  Where are the parents in all this??  As other parents have done (eg parents of mentally retarded children) they need to band together and make demands on those who are in charge of Pop Warner, high school principals and college administrators and alumnae. 

p.s.  That is a great picture of Henri Nouwen!  He is one of my favorite contemporary,, not yet canonized saints.  Thanks for bringing his thoughts into a discussion of football.   AMDG  Janice
Samantha Rooney
8 years 1 month ago
I find it extremely interesting how you managed to connect spirituality and nepsis to the Super Bowl.  However, as much as I agree that lack of nepsis may lead to a man risking his life, I do not think football can be classified as such a sport.  Sure there are albulances waiting on the sides of the field, and yes many players do get hurt at some points throughout the season, but I wouldn't consider football a life-risking sport, therefore I personally would not make the assumption that football players lack spirituality and personal connection to God.
Kayna Pfeiffer
8 years ago
While competing, football players are filled with so much adrenaline. This causes them to block out any thoughts not associated with winning. They go into ''survival mode,'' a state in which they are fearless and thus lack mental sobriety. Due to this, they do not think about the dangers of playing this sport or the physical toll it may take on their bodies. Instead, they are much like that of the primitive man in the sense that they are willing to sacrifice their bodies for achieving wealth and abundance.

It is known that men try to impress women through their strength and this is one way of doing that. Football allows men to take out their aggression in a controlled setting as Crystal mentioned above. I would rather men take out their aggressive tendencies in a controlled environment than out on their families or on strangers. Sports is a way for men who have lost their way to find a passion and break way from their past. Many men are given a second chance through playing football. A prime example is Michael Oher of the Baltimore Ravens. He was the main character in the movie the ''Blindside.'' He was one of 12 children born to a drug and alcohol dependent mother and a frequently incarcerated father. Football was his way out of poverty and his saving grace. This can be paralleled to the church because many people find strength in God, sometimes when they have lost faith in other aspects of their life. Thus, football like religion gives people hope and the strength to carry on. 


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