Stephen Curry’s Beautiful Basketball and the Catholic Sacramental Imagination


In his unforgettable essay “Federer as Religious Experience,” which appeared in the New York Times’ tragically short-lived Play Magazine in 2006, David Foster Wallace reflects on watching the all-time great Roger Federer play tennis. “Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments,” he writes. “These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.”

In my family’s house, this year has brought a handful of extremely similar experiences, but they’ve come during televised basketball games, not tennis matches. You could call them Stephen Curry Moments.

Here’s one: tied at 118 with the Oklahoma City Thunder with about 5 seconds to go in overtime, Curry picks up the ball in the backcourt, calmly dribbles over the halfcourt line, pulls up about 35 feet from the basket, and launches:

(I have trained myself to not yell after moments like this, as they often come after my infant daughter has gone to bed for the night. I do pace wildly around the room, though.)

For all human beings on Earth except Curry, 35 feet is a crazy distance to shoot from. For all human beings on Earth except Curry, a shot like this would be pure desperation. The crazy thing watching this live was that, for the 1.7 seconds the ball arced through the air, I was sure it was going in. (Oklahoma City’s Enes Kanter, on the bench at the time, agreed, throwing up a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ before the ball found the net.)

I was sure it was going in because Curry is the greatest outside shooter of all time, and it’s not particularly close. That alone would make him worth watching. But he also has perfected inside shots, gracefully flipping the ball high over taller defenders and watching it nestle gently into the basket, time after time. He is also a brilliant passer and ball-handler and will even snag you a steal or two on defense.

Oh, and he is the reigning league MVP and NBA champion, and he guided the Warriors to a league-record 73 wins this regular season, capping off the historic run with 10 three-pointers and 46 points against Memphis in Wednesday night’s finale. He’s a lock to repeat as MVP this year, and some media folks who cover the NBA have been arguing that he should also win the league’s most improved player award as well, since he went from really great last year to can’t-believe-what-I’m-watching great this year.

Watching Curry this year reminds me of another passage from David Foster Wallace’s Federer essay. “Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war,” he writes. “The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty.”

This is one of the biggest reasons why I love the NBA. It is full of raw, improvisational, gravity-defying, gobsmacking, kinetic beauty. No other sport provides such consistent opportunities for dazzling displays of athleticism. And while Curry’s individual achievements this season are beyond description, the Warriors wouldn’t have become the best team in history without their balletic passing and cutting and their stifling defensive rotations and their deep collection of secondary players each doing exactly what was required of them. The most beautiful basketball is always team basketball, a collection of individuals working together as one seamless unit.

Beauty is a key ingredient to what’s called the Catholic “sacramental imagination” – a way of seeing that finds God in all of creation. The Church’s seven Big-S Sacraments all require tangible stuff and our physical senses: bread, wine, water, oil, the laying on of hands. God comes to us through these signs.

This way of God reaching out to us doesn’t stop when we walk out of the church doors, though. Formed by the Big-S Sacraments, we can find small-s sacraments all around us, most easily in those places, people, and moments that we find beautiful. My favorites include my daughter’s wide-mouthed smile; certain instants when my wife and I make knowing eye contact when something is hilarious but the decorum of the time and place prohibits laughter; the sudden explosion of flowering trees that marks the beginning of spring here in the Mid-Atlantic; music by the band Wilco; a few slices with peppers and onions at DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies of Robbinsville, NJ; and, yes, the exquisite basketball choreography of the Stephen Curry-led Golden State Warriors.

When I find myself zoning out at Mass or otherwise spiritually lethargic, I do a quick mental check-in on small-s sacraments: Have you gone on a good long walk recently? Have you listened to any good music? Have you spent enough quality time with your wife and daughter with your cell phone turned off? Making time and space for beauty in my life helps me connect more deeply with the Eucharist. It’s not such a leap of faith to believe that God comes to us in the form of bread and wine at Mass when I’ve been finding God in other everyday objects and moments.

So if you tune in to watch the Warriors during the playoffs, which begin this weekend, don’t get mad at yourself for being lazy. It’s not vegging out! Instead, consider it a mini-retreat on the theme of kinetic beauty and the sacramental imagination.

(Yes, I think that’s exactly what I’ll say to my wife on Saturday afternoon at 3:30. It’s worth a shot.)

 


Amoris Laetitia and Social Justice: Ten Quotes from Pope Francis’ Exhortation

Pope Francis’ much-anticipated apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, does not disappoint. It is an incredible work that is full of good advice for both families and church leaders, delivered with theological richness and pastoral sensitivity. Do read the whole thing if you can.

A lot has already been written on many of the key elements of the document, but what struck me while reading it is how clearly Pope Francis connects family concerns with social concerns. He argues that families are only able to flourish if our societies are set up to support them.

This approach called to mind a great quote by St. John Paul II, who said,  “As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live.” Part of Pope Francis’ emphasis in Amoris Laetitia could be summed up by flipping that idea around: As society goes, so goes the family. They are complementary ideas.

Here are ten quotes from the exhortation that connect particular social issues and our call to work for justice to family life:

1. Dignity of Work

Labour also makes possible the development of society and provides for the sustenance, stability and fruitfulness of one’s family: “May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life! May you see your children’s children!” (Ps 128:5-6)….This having been said, we can appreciate the suffering created by unemployment and the lack of steady work, as reflected in the Book of Ruth, Jesus’ own parable of the labourers forced to stand idly in the town square (Mt 20:1-16), and his personal experience of meeting people suffering from poverty and hunger. Sadly, these realities are present in many countries today, where the lack of employment opportunities takes its toll on the serenity of family life. [24-25]

2. Care for Creation

Nor can we overlook the social degeneration brought about by sin, as, for example, when human beings tyrannize nature, selfishly and even brutally ravaging it. This leads to the desertification of the earth (cf. Gen 3:17-19) and those social and economic imbalances denounced by the prophets, beginning with Elijah (cf. 1 Kg 21) and culminating in Jesus’ own words against injustice (cf. Lk 12:13; 16:1-31). [26] Read More


To Protect Life and Promote Justice, Laws Matter

In a recent column for Religion News Service, Marcia Pally, who describes herself as “emphatically pro-life,” argues that all of the legal efforts to regulate or ban abortion over the past 40 years are “hokum.” She writes “Laws limiting abortion don’t pay for sonograms or day care, and they don’t feed or educate children.”

If the most important pro-life goal is to reduce the number of abortions, she writes, it’s better to focus on and address the host of complex issues that help drive up the abortion rate, such as poverty, an overly complicated adoption process, and the lack of access to things like paid parental leave and quality healthcare. We should abandon the pursuit of legal restrictions on abortion because they don’t work — not until we’ve had a big cultural shift, anyway.

Pally’s column reminds me of an argument I’ve heard from those who oppose stricter gun control measures. Some gun control opponents say that tighter restrictions on gun rights won’t work because there are already lots of guns out there and those bent on doing harm will find a way to arm themselves. Better to focus instead on improving mental health services, or keeping violent video games from kids. We should abandon the pursuit of legal restrictions on gun ownership because they don’t work — not until we’ve had a big cultural shift, anyway.

Don’t get me wrong — focusing on root causes and the web of related issues that contribute to abortion and gun violence is essential. But not at the expense of addressing the issue head-on with targeted legislation. Laws restricting abortion access and gun ownership do reduce abortions and gun violence. They’re not silver bullets, but they’re important pieces of the puzzle.

protests

Whenever I think about the role of narrow, limited legislation within a broader movement for social change, I remember this quote from a speech Martin Luther King, Jr. gave at Western Michigan University in 1963:

Now the other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion. Well, there’s half-truth involved here. Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also. So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.

As all pro-life and social justice advocates discern how to best spend our time, we shouldn’t make an “either/or” decision about broad social change vs. targeted legislation. Instead, as is so often the best option for Catholics, we should choose “both/and.”

This post is also featured on the website The Ampersand for the Diocese of Camden Life & Justice Ministries.


Five Quotes from Pope Francis’ Laudato Si: Beauty Will Save the World

A lot has already been written about Laudato Si’: On Care of Our Common Home, Pope Francis’ new encyclical on ecology. Most reactions have focused on the politics, the economics, or the science in it — all good, important perspectives. But the document is truly beautiful. There are passages that made me stop in my tracks and savor. As the writer Austen Ivereigh puts it:

Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement who spent most of her life with the poor, loved the Dostoevsky quote, “Beauty will save the world.” She saw immense suffering and injustice, and a devotion to the beautiful was her response. If you see and acknowledge beauty in something or someone, it becomes awfully difficult see haphazard destruction of creation and people and do nothing.

Pope Francis’ call for a renewed sense of wonder at the miracle of creation is a key ingredient the Church can offer to the ecological conversation, and to make that appeal with such rich language heightens the call’s potency.Here are five of the encyclical’s most beautiful passages.

1) St. Francis of Assisi’s love of creation is a great example. 

Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever [St. Francis] would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason.” (no. 11)

Fall in love with the Earth, this gift of pure abundance that God has freely given us. This disposition cannot be written off as “naive romanticism,” Pope Francis writes, “for it affects the choices which determine our behavior.” If we lose our wonder and awe, our attitude toward the Earth will be that of “masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on [our] immediate needs.”

2)  We must listen for two cries.

Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. (no. 50)

Humans are designed to feel compassion when they hear someone crying. The exterior expression of pain or sadness has an interior effect on the other. We don’t hear crying, though, if plug our ears and put our heads under a pillow. “When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities,” Pope Francis writes (no. 117), “it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected.” As Jesus put it, whoever has ears ought to hear.

3) To grow your own care for the earth and for the poor, get in touch with your inner child.

The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God. The history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places which take on an intensely personal meaning; we all remember places, and revisiting those memories does us much good. Anyone who has grown up in the hills or used to sit by the spring to drink, or played outdoors in the neighborhood square; going back to these places is a chance to recover something of their true selves. (no. 84)

Places form us. When we forget our intimate connection to place, we take it for granted, and the move to exploitation is not far off.

4) Take the long view.

Once we start to think about the kind of world we are leaving to future generations, we look at things differently; we realize that the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others…the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us. (no. 159)

Taking the long view, what’s best for me right now might not line up with what’s best for all of us for centuries to come. If we see the planet as a gift — gift we have received and gift we will pass on — we can develop gratitude. And gratitude is the best tool for breaking down self-centeredness.

5) Simplify, simplify, simplify. 

In reality, those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the look-out for what they do not have. They experience what it means to appreciate each person and each thing, learning familiarity with the simplest things and how to enjoy them. So they are able to shed unsatisfied needs, reducing their obsessiveness and weariness. Even living on little, they can live a lot, above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer. (no. 223)

Simplicity is not a superficial reduction of stuff, but what Pope Francis calls “an attitude of the heart” (no. 226), one which “is capable of being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full.” At the center of Laudato Si’ is this call to conversion: individual, communal, and global conversion, opening our hearts to the fire of God’s love for the world. Beauty is the first spark.

This post is also featured on the website The Ampersand for the Diocese of Camden Life & Justice Ministries.


Seeking Christ in the Poor and Vulnerable

In his modern spiritual classic Tattoos on the Heart, Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, writes about the gang-intervention ministry he runs in Los Angeles called Homeboy Industries.

Frequently, Fr. Greg says Mass at juvenile detention camps, and he shares the story of a meeting with one of the teenagers there. After Mass one day, a kid walks over to Fr. Greg, “all swagger and pose,” with a scowl fixed on his face.

“What’s your name?” Fr. Greg asks.

“SNIPER,” the kid replies.

Fr. Greg pushes back – there’s no way the kid’s mom named him Sniper.

“What’s your name?” he asks again.

“Gonzalez,” the kid says, easing up a little.

But Fr. Greg wants to know what the kid’s mother calls him. The replies with a Spanish word that loosely translates as “blockhead.”

Fr. Greg tells the kid he doesn’t doubt it. “But, son, I’m looking for birth certificate here.”

Softening right before Fr. Greg’s eyes, the kid squeaks out his full first name: “Napoleón.”

What a historic, noble name, Fr. Greg tells the kid. But there’s no way your mom uses the whole thing. What does she call you?

Fr. Greg writes: “Then I watch him go to some far, distant place – a location he has not visited in some time. His voice, body language, and whole being are taking on a new shape – right before my eyes.”

Speaking just above a whisper, the kids says, “Sometimes, when my mom’s not mad at me…she calls me…Napito.”

“I watched this kid move, transformed, from Sniper to Gonzalez to [Blockhead] to Napoleón to Napito,” Fr. Greg writes. “We all just want to be called by the name our mom uses when she’s not [ticked] off at us.”

Names are powerful things. By digging down through Napito’s five layers of names, Fr. Greg started to build a relationship with the teenager. Napito felt valued and cared for. He felt important.

I think names might be one key part of building what Pope Francis calls “a culture of encounter.” In the Holy Father’s native Spanish, the word encuentro means much more than a mere run-in. Instead, it implies the sort of mutuality and kinship present in Fr. Greg’s meeting with Napito.

Pope Francis talks about encounter as an antidote to what he calls a “throwaway culture,” in which people who are seen as useless – the unborn, the elderly, the poor and homeless – are pushed to the margins or even literally discarded. However, if we encounter individuals and communities that are usually pushed aside – if we get to know their names – the throwaway culture begins to crumble. You don’t throw a friend away.

The importance of building a “culture of encounter” has found a new emphasis during the papacy of Pope Francis, but it’s not a new idea. Indeed, Christ himself spent so much of his earthly ministry building a culture of encounter, as he dined and conversed with tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, the poor and hungry, and other people who were usually excluded. Pope Francis’ call is the same as Jesus’ call.

Reflecting on Fr. Greg’s story makes me think about how we might deepen our commitment to building a name-based culture of encounter here in the Diocese of Camden. Here’s one question that I keep mulling over: How might the Church be different if every Catholic knew at least one person by name who had been threatened by the throwaway culture? What would it take to make that goal a real possibility?

For those in the Camden area, be sure to check out an upcoming initiative to get this “culture of encounter” momentum going, called The Encounter Series: Seeking Christ in the Poor and Vulnerable, a three-part experience set for this May.

This post is also featured on the website The Ampersand for the Diocese of Camden Life & Justice Ministries.


A Very Catholic Week: The March for Life, Selma, and Immigration Reform

There are three things I heard over the past week that are stuck in my head.

First, “We are the pro-life generation!” Thousands of young people chanted this refrain at last Thursday’s March for Life in Washington.

Then, “We’re not asking – we’re demanding! Give us the vote!” This was a masterful Daniel Oyelowo portraying Martin Luther King, Jr., in the film Selma, which I saw on Saturday. In the scene, the minister and civil rights leader is speaking to a church congregation of African Americans who had systematically been blocked from registering to vote in Selma, Alabama.

Finally, “La iglesia está con ustedes,” or “The Church stands with you.” This was the message delivered by Bishop Sullivan and pastor Fr. Vince Guest at an information session on President Obama’s immigration executive action at the Parish of the Holy Cross in Bridgeton on Sunday. At the gathering, which drew over 500 people, experts from the Camden Center for Law and Social Justice described the president’s order, which could make thousands of undocumented South Jersey residents eligible for a type of temporary permission to stay in the United States.

Taken together, these lines and the events where I heard them offer some interesting points about discipleship. Here are three:

1) God takes sides; we should, too.

I once heard a conference speaker tell the story of an older brother, a younger sister, and a dad. The brother often picked on his sister, she would call out for Dad’s help, and he would intervene on her behalf. The son complained, “You always take her side! You love her more than me!” The father replied, “It’s because I love you both the same that I take her side. If someone ever picks on you, I’ll take your side.”

This anecdote gets at something crucial about God’s love. Of course He loves all his children the same amount. But like the dad in the story, that doesn’t mean he remains neutral in all conflicts. Instead, as we see over and over again in Scripture, he sides with the oppressed and suffering. Think of the enslaved Israelites in Egypt who Moses leads to freedom, the exiles in Babylon who God’s prophet Isaiah comforts, and the woman caught in adultery who Jesus defends from the angry, judgmental mob. To imitate God’s love in our own lives, we must be on the look-out for similar instances of the powerful targeting certain groups of people, and raise our voices with and for those in harm’s way. What incredible examples of this sort of faith in action I witnessed on the National Mall, at the movie theater, and at Holy Cross.

2) As we do our best to take the side of the poor and vulnerable consistently, we will find that we don’t fit neatly into the American political left/right binary.

I love the consistency of the message woven through my recent experiences: pro-life, pro-racial justice, pro-immigrant family. It reminded me of something Cardinal Timothy Dolan said during a speech a couple years ago. We are called to be comprehensive in our care for “the uns,” he said: “the un-employed; the un-insured; the un-wanted; the un-wed mother, and her innocent, fragile un-born baby in her womb; the un-documented; the un-housed; the un-healthy; the un-fed; the under-educated.”

I imagine a Catholic advocate phoning her Congressman four times in a given week, calling about various issues that the Catholic Church in the US is speaking up about. On Monday, she urges the representative to work toward the legal recognition of the unborn as human beings. On Tuesday, she asks him to protect social safety net programs like food stamps and Medicaid. On Wednesday, she voices opposition to physician-assisted suicide. On Thursday, she calls for a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the US. And on Friday, the congressman’s receptionist wonders aloud, “What party does that woman belong to, anyway?”

If we truly let our faith inform our politics, then that’s the question people might be asking themselves about us.

3) Siding with those who are vulnerable is risky.

In Selma, King gives a sermon in response to the racially motivated murder of a teenager in the town. “Those who have gone before us say, No more! No more!” he says. “That means protest! That means march! That means disturb the peace! That means jail! That means risk! That is hard!”

I think of the hundreds of parishioners who gathered at Holy Cross on Sunday – many of whom, who, despite the risk of deportation, keep working to provide for their families and secure civil rights. I feel for the young pro-life marchers whose peers look at them with suspicion or condescension. Selma invited me to remember those in who were beaten and killed because of their race, and to lift up those who continue the ongoing hard work of racial reconciliation across the country.

After the March for Life, I made it to Lindenwold just in time for our diocesan Respect Life Mass, hosted at the Parish Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Gospel passage selected for the Mass was Matthew’s Beatitudes: “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me,” Jesus tells his followers. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

As risky as faith can be, Christ reminds us that he is with us always. There’s no finer solace – and no finer call to action – than that.

This post is also featured on the website The Ampersand for the Diocese of Camden Life & Justice Ministries.


Three Tips for Introducing Christmas to Kids: Story, Simplicity, Sharing

Recently, my sister-in-law texted me a photo of my niece, who’s 18 months old, covering her gaping mouth in pure wonder at the sight of a chintzy Christmas-light display in a big-box store. It reminded me of the uniquely wonderful time of year this is for young kids.

But you don’t have to watch TV for more than a minute these days to be reminded that our culture’s focus on buying and getting stuff can undermine Christmas’ meaning. Here are three other S-words that might be good to keep in mind while introducing Christmas to toddlers: story, simplicity, and sharing.

Story

In the wonderful “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which just celebrated its 50th anniversary, Charlie Brown, frustrated by the commercialism of the season, wonders, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

Linus knows, and he stands in front of the gang and recites from Luke’s nativity story. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

There are few stories more awesome and meaningful. As a family, spend some time with the Christmas story – and take advantage of the great tangible symbols of the season, like an Advent wreath and a kid-friendly, hands-on nativity scene.

Simplicity

The photo of my niece reminded me that it doesn’t take much to excite a little one! Here’s another example of this truth: Over Thanksgiving weekend, family friends with two kids – two years and five months old – stayed with my wife and me for a couple days. The two year-old’s current favorite activity involves crayons. She doesn’t color with them, though. She just removes the paper, bit by bit, and throws it away. That’s it. On Christmas, I imagine she’ll enjoy playing with the box a toy comes in more than the toy itself.

In an article I read recently, blogger Joshua Becker described his family’s Christmas gift-exchange practice. He and his wife give their children three gifts: one thing they want, one thing they need, and an experience to share with the family. By establishing those expectations early, their kids aren’t disappointed at this seemingly small pile under the tree, and it has allowed them to shift their focus from stuff to friends, family, and faith.

Sharing

Back to Charlie Brown and Peanuts for a second. In a classic strip, Violet approaches Charlie Brown with a piece of paper in hand. “This is my ‘git’ list, Charlie Brown,” she says. “These are all the things I figure I’m gonna ‘git’ for Christmas from my two grampas and two grammas and eight uncles and aunts!”

Charlie Brown replies, “Where’s your ‘give’ list?”

“My what?” asks Violet,

“I knew it!” harrumphs Charlie Brown as he walks away.

Violet has no conception of giving, but it’s probably not her fault. Her doting, well-minded family sees her as a recipient with nothing to contribute herself. But Christmas is a great time to work on building habits of generosity and thoughtfulness. Participate in a food drive together (dropping cans in a box is always fun), or make some homemade Christmas cards for loved ones.

With the three S’s of story, simplicity, and sharing, you can help young children learn what Christmas is all about.

This post is also featured on the website The Ampersand for the Diocese of Camden Life & Justice Ministries.