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