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Giving Up ESPN for Lent

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This has gone too far. I have decided to take serious action.

The other day it finally dawned on me that I've been going to ESPN.com for the sole reason of checking the most updated player efficiency ratings (PER) to see whether LeBron James's numbers have slipped (PER is basically just a complicated way of trying to assess an NBA player's performance -- basically a basketball GPA).

And then I realized that, you know, I don't have to do this.

In fact, my life would be better if I used the time and energy I usually spend thinking about player efficiency ratings for, oh, I don't know... prayer, doing good... flossing. Pretty much anything other than checking out who's the most efficient player in the NBA.

If you are part of the 99 percent who have no idea what player efficiency ratings are, I can assure you that you are not missing out on anything. And if you just clicked on that hyperlink, I'm sorry, because you'll probably want that time back. (Granted, I completely agree with this guy; perhaps player efficiency ratings could allow us to catch up with the rest of the developed world in math proficiency - after all, it is halftime in America.)

This Lent I have decided to give up visiting ESPN.com for these 40 days -- and by writing this publicly, I actually feel the need to stick to this. I will miss all the articles about March Madness. I will miss the NBA trade deadline and all of the wonderfully exhausting speculation leading up to it. I will miss matters of great importance.

And life will go on. My dental health will probably be better as well.

***

Maybe all of this occurred to because -- even though I call myself a sports fan -- I just missed the sports event of the year. You read that right, the guy who feels the need to ban himself from ESPN.com because it has gone too far didn't even watch the Super Bowl. And it wasn't the first time. While many saw this as the rematch of Tom vs. Eli, I saw this as a repetition of being spiritually interrupted.

When I found out that the retreat I was helping with was going to be starting at the same time as the Super Bowl, I thought, "Are you serious? Do these people not understand that Madonna is going to be performing?" (Side note: is she really 53 years old?)

But just as the first curse of Gisele in 2008 was a distant afterthought when I was making the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the frustration I felt leading up to missing this year's game quickly changed. Instead of being angry about missing the rematch, I began to question my priorities. What takes first place for me? These students I'll spiritually accompany or Peyton Manning's younger brother?

Knowing that I can miss a Super Bowl or two and also get through 40 days without feeding my stats addiction leads me to wonder whether I will pay so much attention to sports after Lent. Will my asceticism stick?

To quote the words of a magic eight ball, "outlook not so good."

Just like nothing says "God is with us" in our sports-obsessed culture like a five-game NBA lineup on Christmas Day, apparently few people embody "Christ is risen" to the people of ABC like Derrick Rose and Jeremy Lin(sanity), who will face each other on Easter. And will I watch (and perhaps not learn much from this whole Lenten experience)? Probably.

Here, though, is my question: would it be better for me to give up paying attention to sports beyond this Lent? Would I be a more spiritual person? A more productive minister?

At the risk of being Jesuitical here, my answer is ... maybe.

I joined the Jesuits fresh out of college with the idea that now I was supposed to be a "spiritual person," that I was no longer going to pay attention to the "distractions" of the world. Instead of wasting time with the The New York Times or The Atlantic I was going to do only spiritual reading. And, above all things, I wasn't going to obsess over Notre Dame football.

That didn't last long.

I hardly watched Notre Dame during my first two years with the Jesuits, but moving to Chicago quickly changed that. I have heard that 10 percent of recent Notre Dame alumni do post-graduate service -- one of the highest percentages in the country -- while the other 90 percent move to Lincoln Park (in Chicago). So it was there -- in the First City of Notre Dame alumni -- where I was soon sucked back into the obsession for the Fighting Irish ... and the inevitable cocktail of joy and (mostly) heartbreak that such obsession entails.

My forsaking of The New York Times was a different story; that mortification lasted not two years but more like two days. Few things brought me greater joy than when my oatmeal and coffee were accompanied by a side of David Brooks on Tuesdays and Fridays. And yet I felt guilty about it. I felt like I was failing to "put on the new man" (Eph 4:24) and that I was not living much differently as a Jesuit than I was before I joined.

It took the 30 days of silence called the Spiritual Exercises and a lot of grace to shock me out of this way of thinking. During the Spiritual Exercises we were asked to refrain from reading newspapers and magazines and from using the computer. And it was appropriate. After all, this was supposed to be a "desert" experience where we were privileged to get away from the world and be with Jesus for a while -- even if getting away meant staying in Minnesota in January in a house filled with the other first-year Jesuit novices.

In encountering Jesus and myself in a new and deeper way during those 30 days, however, I grew to see how ridiculous this guilt for reading the paper was.

Learning about this "broken but lovable" world, engaging ideas, and reading opinions that challenge me are parts of who I am. I'd bet they're parts of the great majority of us. Most of us are meant to practice holiness in the world, with all its splendor and muck. We have been given minds and hands and hearts and are meant to use them within our mad, mad world. That's part of the reason Irenaeus says that the glory of God is the human person fully alive. It's why Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ wrote that the just man justices. It's why Blake Griffin posterizes.

In that same poem Hopkins says:

"Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; Selves -- goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, Crying What I do is me: for that I came."

What LeBron James does is him: for this he came to South Beach.

I joined the Jesuits in large part because I encountered some men who seemed holy but who also hadn't lost their humanity, and while I previously had an idea that doing only "spiritual" reading would be my express ticket to holiness, I have become deeply suspicious of any path that doesn't go through our gloriously complicated humanity.

Engaging the world brings its fair share of tensions, however. Having my own laptop and unlimited access to the internet enables me to be aware of some of the needs of people around the world; it can also blind me to the needs of my very own family and community members. It is easy for me to give glory to God in watching the poetry-in-motion that is the Miami Heat's "space and pace" offense. (I actually do go back through journal entries from doing my Examen sometimes just to see how often I give thanks to God for the beauty of basketball). But it's also easy for me to waste time with player efficiency ratings and other trivialities and thereby cut myself off from God, self, and others.

Recognizing this dual reality leads me to try to take a page from Jesus (not a bad source, eh?) -- who often goes alone to pray before he plunges back into the world -- and another from the practice of the Church, which has established traditions like giving up something for Lent.

For every person who risks overly spiritualizing life and running from humanity, there are probably many, many more drowned in the noise of our society. Drowned such that it's difficult to encounter the holy.

Seeing how I am at risk of this, I will have an ESPN-free Lent.

Come Easter, however, I expect to find my gratitude for LeBron James appearing again in my Examen, regardless of whether or not I know his PER.

A form of this essay first appeared in the recently-launched blog, The Jesuit Post. To see the original, click here.

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