Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Catholicism and hockey? Alyssa Bormes,  author of the interesting new book The Catechism of Hockey, has made it her goal to highlight the metaphysical connections between the practice of the Catholic faith and hockey practice — connections that most of us might miss because, well, who even thinks of such things? Alyssa Bormes, that’s who! Anyway, why not make some philosophical connections between Catholicism and hockey? After all, Authors have been making metaphorical links between the practice of Zen and the art of almost anything ever since Eugen Herrigel published Zen in the Art of Archery in Germany in 1948. Since then over 200 books have been finding parallels between Zen and Art of…such diverse things as Motorcycle Maintenance, Writing, Poker, and, yes, Competitive Eating.

So, as a Catholic, I say it’s about time we get into the game (so to speak). Sure, we may be a couple of hundred points down but, in terms of eternity, it’s barely the first quarter or inning or lap or whatever. And who better to get the ball rolling (or, in this case, puck sliding) than Alyssa Bormes, a Catholic popular Catholic speaker and Assistant to American Chesterton Society President Dale Ahlquist (host of EWTN’s G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense)? She’s good with words and certainly knows her Catholicism. If only she played hockey we’d have the proverbial hat trick. Anyway, I recently had the opportunity to ask shoot some questions her way and, I must say, she returned them with all the art and skill of Bobby Orr back in the day.

JWK: While you don’t often think of hockey and Catholicism going together, I was actually more surprised to find that the book was written by a woman. How did you become such an expert on hockey?

ALYSSA BORMES: You have hit exactly on the most surprising part! If you had asked me before March 11, 2007 if I would ever write a book about hockey, I would have had a great laugh. Why on earth would I write a book about hockey? I can’t skate, although I did try as a young girl. I do like hockey – but I like football, basketball, baseball and all sorts of other sports. I am an expert in none of them, but if I’m at a game, I may well be the loudest fan.

If I were to write a book about a “sport” that I know the most about, perhaps it should be Scrabble. My friends and I have been playing together since 1988. We started keeping a journal in 1997; the scores are listed there. We will add them up when we are 90 years old, and see who won. But, to be honest, it is really more of a social event when we get together. So a book on Scrabble seems just as unlikely as one on hockey.

I am not an expert on hockey; instead I had a great technical advisor, Jake Halsne. He happens to be the son of one of my Scrabble friends. There were times when, out of the blue, I would call him to ask about a rule and its nuances. If, in The Catechism of Hockey, I sound like an expert on hockey it is because Jake helped me. If there are points where I don’t sound like an expert, it is because I should have called Jake to clarify it.

JWK: How did you first make the connection between the game and the faith?

AB: This goes right back to March 11, 2007. Sometimes, instead of taking the opportunity to sleep, I just wonder about strange things. I was awake in my bed wondering about sports being seen as a religion. Sports are so pervasive in our lives – omnipresent in many lives – that we often admit that they have become their own religion. Although we seem to accept this, I was wondering why they have become a religion. I’d never heard that explained.

In what can only be described as a poof, I had nearly the whole Catechism of Hockey. We fully catechize our children in sports – because of this, they often only desire more sports, even a lifetime of sports. A few moments after the poof, a friend called to tell me she had gotten engaged. I told her, “That’s great, but listen to this.” She was subjected to the first talk on The Catechism of Hockey. Two days later, I gave my first public lecture on it. From there, it just grew wings and became a book.

JWK: What do you see as, say, the three chief similarities between hockey and the Catholic faith?

AB: Perhaps all three similarities can be found in one area – the rules. The rules, if broken, come with penalties. The place to right the wrong of a broken rule is the box. After the box, there is a restoration.

In hockey, if you break the rules, there are major or minor penalties, and if you get one, you go to the penalty box, which is sometimes referred to as the sin bin. When we break the rules of the Church, or sin, there are mortal and venial sins, and when we sin, we go to the box, also known as the confessional.

Time in the hockey box forces the team to play shorthanded. We don’t often think of the spiritual life in this manner. However, if we are not in a state of grace, we make the Mystical Body “play” shorthanded. We are not at our worst when we are in the box – in either hockey or the Faith. We are at our worst when we are sinning. Instead, the box is a place of reconciliation. We go in with a penalty, later to emerge without the penalty. In hockey, when the all the players are on the ice, it is referred to as playing at full strength. Imagine if for even one day the Church played at full strength – everyone in a state of grace. It could transform the world.

As for the rest of the hockey analogies in the book – many of them could be exchanged for other sports.

Just the other day I was speaking with someone about a picture of Bobby Orr, one of hockey’s greats. In the photo he is celebrating an overtime goal; he seems to be flying. It is a classic photo. But there are so many other classic moments in sports. Who can forget the USA hockey win against the Soviets at the 1980 winter Olympics? In fact, each sport has its classic moments – Michael Jordan soaring to a slam dunk, Nadia Comaneci scoring a perfect 10 in gymnastics, Michael Phelps’ fingertips reaching the wall of the pool a hair before those of his competitor, or even our own son or daughter scoring a goal at a local soccer game. What is it about these moments? It is the full gift of self – the athlete has given everything in that moment – and the “moment” is a culmination of a lifetime of dedication. In that moment the athlete seems most alive, and, in a certain sense, the viewer is just as alive having been a witness. The Catechism of Hockey has a whole chapter on the full gift of self, and the consequences of not giving all. In this chapter, it is not just hockey in the analogy; piano is even used to make the point.

There are chapters on football and basketball; baseball and soccer make an appearance. Oh – even Elvis makes an appearance. The Catechism of Hockey has something for everyone.

JWK: How can parents use hockey use hockey to teach their kids about the Catholic faith?

AB: Sports have a place in nearly every home. There are favorite teams that the family shares. The parents might be on town teams for softball, volleyball, and so on. The kids have most likely been on a soccer team, or basketball, or t-ball, or even hockey. The language of sports is a common language in the family.

Beyond the family, the language of sports is a sort of last bastion of agreement between people. Neighbors whose religion and politics may clash are happy to speak of the big game, in whatever sport it may be. Sports have a way of uniting us. Why? Because the boundaries of sports are so clear. In order to participate in the sport, everyone must agree upon the rules. Once these are agreed upon, there is tremendous freedom in the sport. Greatness in sports always comes from within the rules. There is no greatness in cheating, instead, greatness is found in keeping the rules.

Another thing that can be difficult to explain to children – or, perhaps even more so, to non-Catholics – is the Church’s teaching on and use of relics. However, in sports, we love relics! We use a different term, sports memorabilia, but they are still, in a sense, relics. There is a hall of fame for nearly every sport, which is filled with the things that players used and touched. We are happy to take a family pilgrimage to these places. In doing so, we pass down the story of sports and its heroes to our children. By explaining sports memorabilia and the hall of fame to our children, we can help to explain the Church’s Communion of Saints.

The Catechism of Hockey uses the beautiful, and commonly understood, language of sports to explain the Catholic Church. Sometimes Church teachings can seem so distant, but with the help of hockey, and a host of other sports, the Church and Her teachings become present and alive.

JWK: Sometimes girls and women can feel left out of hockey — like their only role is to cheer the men on. Sometimes they feel the same way about the Church, particularly when it comes to the priesthood. What does this book have to say for Catholic women?

AB: What a wonderful question! Thank you. Now – where to start.

There is a chapter on Cal and Sarah. They are father and daughter. Cal was not a big fan of girls’ hockey, and all Sarah ever wanted to do was to be a goalie. Their hockey journey began at the Bloomington Ice Garden, which was the location for the first practice of the 1980 Olympic hockey team under the great Herb Brooks. The 1980 team’s journey is referred to as The Miracle on Ice. Well, Cal and Sarah’s could be referred to as The Other Miracle on Ice. Without giving away the ending, Sarah was a hockey playing girl turned woman – and it is a glorious story.

Girls and women are involved in hockey. They are involved in many sports. Is it just hockey where only men populate the upper echelon? No, basketball, soccer, baseball, and so on, all have men at the very top of the sport. Does this somehow make women “less than” men? No.

The Catechism of Hockey does look at this phenomenon in a variety of ways. Vocations are looked at through the eyes – or rather, mask – of the goalie. A group of junior high school girls teach a lesson about men and women by way of winning of the Stanley Cup. And the Cup is used again in explaining the priesthood.

For nearly my entire life, I have only ever been a fan of sports. There wasn’t even a single high school sports award that was available to me – but I was on the sidelines cheering. Was I somehow less involved? My heart broke as a senior in high school, along with everyone else, when our team lost the semi-finals to get to the football championships. We lost. It wasn’t just the boys who lost, we did. For me, when the Minnesota Gophers win at any sport, we win.

Being “on the sidelines” has a connotation that somehow I have been left out. The problem with this is that I don’t feel left out. There are many men on the sidelines as well, cheering right along with me. Have they been left out? No. Perhaps the retort is that they at least had the chance to be a part of hockey, or football, or the other sports. Did they really have the chance? Were they born with the physical attributes for that sport? Did they have the desire and discipline necessary? Did they have the opportunity? What if a man only came to the idea of hockey at the age of 25? He will never be in the finals for the Cup. Instead, it seems he would be right next to me on the sidelines cheering for our team as they go for the Stanley Cup.

Does The Catechism of Hockey address women? Yes! And – it does something else. It addresses men! It seems that men have often been left out things as it pertains to the spiritual life. Both men and women will be right at home within the pages.

Ah – there is so much more. I think that you will find that the book takes on a number of Catholic teachings that the world finds controversial. Once again, it is in using the common language of sports to meet the reader, and to take them right to the heart of some of the most difficult questions.

JWK: Are you planning any future books — perhaps making observations about the connection between other sports, or other parts of our culture, to Church teachings?

AB: This is another wonderful question. There won’t be a Catechism of Football, or Soccer, or Piano – these are already contained in the midst of The Catechism of Hockey. The analogy translates to any sport – it will even translate if you know nothing about any sports.

There are many stories throughout the book that others have shared with me. People have continued to entrust their stories to me. These seem to be coming together in a book I never expected, but I didn’t expect this book either. At some time, I will write The Catechism of Hockey: The Second Period. This book will be a more deeply spiritual book. By way of example, in the current book, there is a chapter on suffering, which happens to be about a basketball coach. For the next book, there is a different story about suffering that I would like look at. The current book is more direct, but the next book would allow me to take the opportunity to really plumb the depths of this suffering, and the paradoxical gift that it has become.

The cover photo of The Catechism of Hockey is one of mine. Among many things, I am an amateur photographer. There is a book that I always expected to be first. It is called Beauty in the Everyday Ordinary. It will be a photo book with essays. There is so much beauty in what we overlook. I love the ordinary moments, and their unique meaning.

If there is one thing that I have always been, it is a storyteller, and my favorite story is The Greatest Story. It would be a great gift to be allowed to tell the story of Christ and His Church over and over. It was a great surprise to be given The Catechism of Hockey. I can’t wait to see what His next surprise is!

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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