Sport as a sideways glance at the numinous. (A BBC R4 Thought For The Day.)
On Thursday evening, as I’ve done for the past 25 years, I met up with a bunch of friends for our weekly football match.
It was cold, the floodlit pitch was slippery and the leaves coming down in the wind captured my melancholic mood.
This week I wasn’t playing. I tore my Achilles making a brilliant move — in my head at least — on the same pitch during the summer.
On the eve of a controversial mens football World Cup — which some will watch and some will boycott — millions of us will go on playing anyway.
This is where we find our joy.
In England alone, says the FA, 13 million people play football regularly. Alongside the joy, there’s other benefits — from improved wellbeing to better educational outcomes.
But there’s something deeper about our love for football… and all kinds of sport. Playing it or following it.
Since the invention of the javelin or arrow, since the first bunch of leaves was rolled into a ball, people have pursued sport religiously. For many it’s a kind of devotion.
The Latin root of the word ‘sport’ means to ‘carry away’ - and it still carries us away.
It’s still a striving after the out-of-reach, a grasping after the elusive other — something we can’t quite explain. Sport has been called a ’faith without explanation.’
A relative has just returned to netball, thirty five years after last playing as a 12 year old — at school she never realised it could be fun. A friend took up golf to combat post-pandemic isolation. ‘The golf is rubbish,’ he says, ‘But the friendships are wonderful.’
Community and connectedness in sport are life enhancing.
The philosopher Michael Polanyi talked about the principle of ‘obliquity’ — about the view from the side of the eye, about what we see when we’re not looking for it.
Sport can be a sideways glance at the numinous, at another kind of life hiding in plain sight inside the one we’re living.
I love how some of the Bible writers portray the divine presence as a little shy — showing up in a cloud, or a bush, or asking people to cover their faces.
It’s a mistake to imagine God is religious and hangs out in sacred spaces. More likely, as the writer Paula D’Arcy puts it, ‘God comes to you disguised as your life.’
In the shouting, sweating, out-of-breath posse I’m part of every week, football is accidental therapy, the chance to express stuff that is tangled up inside and which words struggle to release.
A liberation. A kind of absolution. Just for a moment, you are lost to your self… like you might be in a song or a brilliant novel.
You are carried away.