Those of us who were at the river on Saturday for the races were able to share in moment in Oxford life that never fails to bring a thrill of excitement. Eights week was completed this year in the bright sunshine and warmth of a summer’s day. Surrounded by a diverse throng of happy spectators and supporters, it felt good to be alive.
In the Chaplaincy many conversations revolve around theology and philosophy. Frequently we bring in the arts and sciences and their place in Catholic life. Sport of course is a common topic of conversation, but in our Chaplaincy discussions it remains basically a subset of entertainment, rarely if ever linked to the levels of discourse that treat of life’s deeper meaning. That’s a pity. There is a theology of sport. You can look it up! And it’s worth thinking about. In Christian writings you will find the theme of play as a starting point. Play is an activity of pure gratuity, with no productive value, no end beyond itself but the pleasure it gives. Technically it is autotelic. It can be linked to the pure gratuity of God’s creative act in bringing all things into being. Play is an experience of freedom and abandonment. It is fundamental to the way we remember our childhood. Play can be the delight in physical activity – the body being stretched to its limits – or the delight of strategic thinking and quick responses. As play turns into games and games turn into organised sports, we learn to direct our instinctual playfulness by increasingly complex rules. These rules are purely arbitrary but they are agreed upon by all who take part. In team sport we learn the importance of cooperation. We learn the moral lessons of winning and losing.
Professional sport, alas, has corrupted the innocence of play through the irresistible power of money and in its present form is merely big business. The amateur is one who loves something for its own sake, and on the amateur level, sporting competition can still be free from the corruption of venal motives, as it remains free from the other forms of corruption that often blight professional games: the “us against them” mindset of regionalism, sectarianism, racism and nationalism. When we cheer on our friends at the oars in eights week, we are aware that we have friends in other boats as well, and there is no animosity towards other teams. When we enjoy collegiate competitions we recognise our closeness to one another not what divides us. We applaud the skills on display, supporting our friends but feeling no animosity towards the other competitors. In one sense we support all the participants as friends, equally content to be on the winning or losing side, since none are losers. Games are a participation in the sacred. There is a grace in sport.
A reminder: next Sunday is our Chaplaincy sports day. Sign on if you wish to compete in the games or just come along to join in the fun.
Details in the newsletter.