The Lord loves a good game

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

I don’t know how many of you saw the hockey game between the U.S and Finland, but I watched about 4 seconds of it. That’s how long it took for me to see the score after the first period: 6 – 0. The final gold medal game against the U.S was especially exciting precisely because it was close throughout and went into overtime. There’s nothing exciting about a game that’s a complete blow out. That’s why some people found the women’s hockey less exciting; team Canada was just too strong against the others.

I used to play a lot of chess when I was younger, and it was always exciting to play against someone who really knew the game. But the more one plays, the better one gets, and then it becomes more difficult to find a player who can offer a real challenge.

Well, God loves a good game. He loves to play. One of the best theological works ever written in the 20th century is Hugo Rahner’s Man at Play. In his chapter entitled “The Playing of God”, he quotes Proverbs: “When he established the heavens, I was there,…when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a little child; and I was daily his delight, playing before him all the while, playing on the surface of his earth, and I found delight in the sons of men” (8, 27-31).

I am convinced that God’s favourite game is Hide and Seek. It’s the favourite of every child. When you study the cosmic religions of the world, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, the Primal Religions of Africa, Australia and North America, or the Taoism one finds in China, one can’t help being touched at the sight of man’s ardent search for God. His search is so intense that on his own, without the help of divine revelation, he discovers so much that is true and wise, and so much of his ritualistic behaviour can only be fully understood in light of God’s self-revelation in the Person of Christ.

But if we can be so moved by that search, it should be no surprise that God chose to respond to it. He chose to become a part of the game. He came looking for man in the Garden of Eden, and man hid from him among the trees. Once expelled from the garden, man goes looking for God. Hence, the history of religion. Eventually, however, God has mercy and actually comes looking for us, in order to make it easier on us. But He hides Himself so that it will not be too easy to find Him; because if it is too easy, the game won’t be all that fun anymore.

So He finds Abraham, makes a covenant with him, and begins to reveal Himself through His relationship with Abraham’s descendents, Israel, and He reveals Himself through His fidelity to the promises He made to Abraham.

Then God makes the game more interesting. He wills to draw closer to us, to reveal Himself more directly, and more completely. But He loves to play, and if He comes out of hiding, the game will be over. So, He has to continue to hide himself. He can now be found, but one has to be willing to search. But once He’s been found, the game is not thereby over. He still has to be uncovered. We can come to know where He’s hiding, but we still have to dig Him out, so to speak, and that’s going to take a life time.

The Lord loves a good game: “Unless you change and become as little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Children love to play, and He calls us to be children so that we will play.

That’s why the lives of the saints are so exciting. We find the saints in the midst of great battles, and they are exciting battles, at least for those of us who read about them later on, centuries after the fact. For the saints, they can be very fearful battles; but they persisted and they fought with great courage and tremendous wit. The tougher the game, the cleverer one has to be. And that’s what makes the game so memorable and so exciting to play.

I’ve always been inspired by the lives of the Canadian Martyrs, especially St. Jean de Brebeuf and St. Isaac Jogues. It is their supernatural fortitude that I find remarkable and so inspiring. Whenever I think I have it tough as a Catholic teacher in Ontario, I think about these two saints. For two years Brebeuf travelled with the Indians without preaching a word. He simply had to live in their midst, patiently, learning their language and customs. He was nothing but a holy presence in their midst. He didn’t have a laptop, no air conditioning in the summer, no furnaces in the winter, no home cooked meals, and he knew that his life would likely end in extreme torment. He even prayed for the gift of martyrdom. St. Isaac Jogues was captured in 1642 and spent thirteen months in slavery, suffering “beyond the power of natural endurance”. He had a number of his fingers cut off, and yet he returned to Canada from France in 1644, where he could have stayed and lived comfortably for the rest of his days.

When we read about their lives and the lives of other great saints, many of us begin to realize that we really don’t have it all that tough. But if things start to get tougher, if the battle begins to heat up, I think we need to pray for a genuinely magnanimous spirit. Magnanimity, according to Aristotle, is a part of the virtue of fortitude. The unmagnanimous, says Aristotle, will bellyache, whine, and complain. The Lord calls us to stretch forth to the pursuit of great and honourable ends, and to fight bravely, in a spirit of joy, and to fight, above all, with wit. A good player must play with wit, that is, practical wisdom or prudence.

If we don’t fight bravely, we will begin to fear and allow ourselves to be overcome with anxiety. Then we lose our peace, we complain, and then are vulnerable to making imprudent decisions, reckless decisions, that can do more harm than good. I remember having a sword fight with an altar boy many years ago; our swords were made of plastic, but they were hard enough to inflict pain. This kid started at me, swinging with all his might, fast and furious. He managed to hit me a couple of times, and it hurt. So I got him to start again, and once again he came at me fast and furious, but this time I was a bit more relaxed. I surprised myself, because I’d managed to block all his attacks with his sword. After backing me into a corner, we started again from the center of the room, and he attacked again, swinging hard and fast. This time I wasn’t as calm and collected. His aggressiveness unnerved me. I allowed fear to seep into me, and because of that, I wasn’t as agile, and he’d managed to stab me. But when I remained calm, I was able to fend off his attacks. I was quite fascinated by this. It’s a good principle to remember.

The mind works much better and faster when we remain calm and peaceful and refuse to allow ourselves to be disturbed. The devil always seeks to sow seeds of fear and anxiety within us, he always attempts to destroy our peace, and if we allow him to do so, we allow him to diminish our wit. We can’t battle as well, we make mistakes, imprudent mistakes. And we have everything we need to help us not to be afraid. We have the revealed truth which tells us that the final victory is ours in the Person of Christ. God cannot lose the game He’s playing. He has already won. He entered into death in order to inject it with his life, and he rose from the dead. In other words, the battle has already been won. The Psalms testify to this, the history of the Church and the lives of the saints testify to this. Whenever an angel appears to a person in the bible, the first words out of his mouth are always: “Do not be afraid”. And more than anything else Christ exhorts us not to worry. Although the war has been won, if we allow ourselves to worry, we open ourselves up to the risk of losing the particular battle in which we find ourselves.

I think too often Catholic teachers who love the faith, who are faithful to the teachings of the Church, allow themselves to lose sight of how much the Lord loves a good game, how much He loves a good fight, or better yet, how much of a warrior the Lord really is. Perhaps we’ve allowed ourselves to be too influenced by the heresy of Marcionism and we no longer take seriously the Old Testament depiction of God as a warrior: “The Lord is a warrior, Lord is his name! Pharaoh’s chariots and army he hurled into the sea; the elite of his officers were submerged in the Red Sea” (15, 3).

I heard once that when St. Padre Pio was being attacked by the devil, he saw his guardian angel off in the corner, watching. Later he asked his angel: “Why didn’t you help me?” His angel replied: “Because you didn’t need my help, I could see that you were winning.” Even the angels love to watch a good fight. The Lord is so powerful that He defeated the one enemy that we could not defeat, and He did so by allowing himself to be “defeated”. That’s how powerful our God is.

Very often faithful Catholic teachers would like to teach in schools in which there is 100% faithful Catholic teachers and over 80% of the students are devout and faithful to the sacraments, and of course that would be nice, just as it would be nice to be in a game in which, after the first period, the score is 6 – 0. But it’s not that exciting for the spectators.

My friend the Late Monsignor Tom Wells from the Archdiocese of Washington used to say that this is the age of Christian heroes. He said that the 50s did not produce many heroes, because in the 50s it was easy to be a Catholic—everyone agreed with you. This is no longer the case. If you are a Catholic standing up for Catholic principles, almost everyone disagrees with you. Consequently, anyone who stands up for Catholic principles today will do so heroically.

If we had it our way, I think we’d probably lead very unheroic lives. If we were given the option to choose the life we want, we’d probably choose a life for ourselves and others that would not produce many heroes.

This is why it is good to look to the lives of the great missionaries, the great martyrs, who were so motivated by the love of God, who were on fire for souls, who had no fear of suffering, who knew that God is in control. We really don’t have to lose our peace. In fact, the great spiritual writers of the Catholic tradition instruct us not to. Let me quote from Lorenzo Scupoli’s Spiritual Combat: “The life of man is nothing else but a warfare and a continual temptation; and in consequence of this warfare, you must live in a state of watchfulness and ever keep a guard over your heart, so that it may continue in peace and quietness.”

In another chapter of the same work he writes: “Be careful, as I have said, not to permit anything to disturb your heart, and do not meddle with things that are likely to disquiet it, but labor ever to keep it in peace. Thus, the Lord will build up within your soul a city of peace..when you feel agitated, you should begin again to quiet and calm yourself in all your actions and thoughts.”

Many years ago my spiritual director said to me that the disputes people have with the Church or with Catholicism very often have little or nothing to do with theology, but more to do with psychology. I think it is good to keep that in mind whenever we run into dissent. If we keep in mind that much of the dissent we will encounter in the schools and in the Church has more to do with psychology than theology, it will go a long way in helping us to keep our peace, so as to enter into battle with greater prudence. Moreover, it is wise to keep this in mind as a way of growing in the knowledge of ourselves. If someone or something is causing us to react with agitation, anger, frustration, etc., that in turn can tell us a great deal about who we are and what we have yet to deal with, if we care to stop and listen carefully to what we need to know about ourselves. Self-distrust is an essential part of the spiritual life, and it constitutes a very important chapter in Scupoli’s great work. He writes: “Distrust of yourself is so necessary in the spiritual combat that, without it, you may be assured that you will neither gain the desired victory, nor be able to overcome even the weakest of your passions…Live in continual fear of yourself, of your own judgment, of your great proneness to sin...”

Recently I got an email from someone I’ve never met before, a teacher in a Catholic school from another board. He asked me how to deal with the situation in which he and some of his colleagues in other schools find themselves, i.e., in schools with Gay-straight alliance clubs, teachers apparently hostile to Catholicism, etc. He wanted to know what they could do about it.

If we are teachers, then all we can do at the most fundamental level is to pray often before the Blessed Sacrament that we find in our school chapels, grow closer to God—because holiness is more attractive to students than unholiness—, grow in a spirit of joy, and never allow yourself to get discouraged. Dark times produce heroes. The saints all come from very difficult and dark situations. The situation we find ourselves in at this time is, again, nothing compared to what so many of the saints and martyrs had to go through. Candles shine brighter in the dark, and one small candle can do a great deal in terms of giving light to young students who need it in order to make their way through life.

It’s important to join prayer with fasting, learn the faith well, challenge students to think, turn them on to the faith, as many of you well know young people love truth, and word will get around that you stand for the truth, you love the students, you live the gospel, and those who want truth will flock to your classes, including students who have a same-sex orientation. Often they are the real seekers, and we can reach them and touch them if we relate to them with great charity, reverence, and humility. One student I had used to attend Pride Parades and had all the piercings and tattoos, but she loved coming to philosophy class, she loved to think, question, and challenge, and she was not offended by Catholic teaching.

But we have to enjoy the battle, stay calm and play with wit, that is, with a shrewd mind. Archbishop Fulton Sheen used to say that discouragement is pride. It’s God’s world and it is His battle. Our task is to enter into the game, but we’re His pieces, on His board, in His hand. Our job is to battle with joy, with peace, and with magnanimity, with charity and humility, and to rely on God, because He alone is in control.

We need to be very shrewd when it comes to Church teaching on sexuality. Be prudent, teach it clearly, but we must teach it against the background of a Christocentric spirituality. Young people must see that the moral life is the good life, that happiness is virtue, happiness is holiness, and that enduring joy comes from inserting ourselves in the Person of Christ, carrying the cross he gives us to carry. The same-sex orientation really is an invitation to holiness, and all of us have proclivities that we have to contend with. Some have proclivities to excessive alcohol, some have to battle with depression, others with sloth, others with pride, some have to battle the tendency to greed, some have inordinate anxiety as a cross, some have to battle with their appetite for food, and some have to contend with their sexual appetite, whether that is a homosexual orientation or a heterosexual one, whether married or single.

Life is about Christ; it is not about pleasure. Love alone frees the human person, and the more we insert ourselves in the Person of Christ and the more we love the cross he gives us and carry it with fortitude and magnanimity, the more meaningful life becomes. That’s what young people desire above all: meaning and freedom. It’s all about Christ. It’s not about being right, it’s not about winning an argument, it’s about winning souls for Christ, and we do that not with irrefutable and incontrovertible arguments, but with the heart of Christ. Christ alone is the victory.