Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Words Of Wisdom From Sister Joan And The Example Of The NHL

Red Wing Captain Nicholas Lidstrom is the embodiment of the Red Wing ethic. His teammates call him 'The Perfect Human'. At forty years old, he is still one of the top five defensemen in the NHL.

The following is the last half of an article by Sr. Joan Chittister published in the most recent edition of Tikkun Magazine. Sister Joan's reflections are great food for thought in this dark time of the year.

"Our current spiritual dilemma, then, lies in how to link the personal with the public dimensions of life; how to make private spirituality the stuff of public leaven in a world fiercely private and dangerously public at the same time.

The fact is that simple spiritualities of creeds, community-building, and social reform are no longer enough. We need now, surely, a spirituality of contemplative co-creation, a spirituality of progressive vision and prophetic action.

Genesis insists that the function of humanity is to nurture, cultivate, and care--to sustain, not consume creation. Carrying on God's work in the world is, in other words, "the spiritual life."
And how can people like us possibly manage to do that in a time as confused and divided as this? We may need to step back from issues for a minute and think about the nature of social change and its meaning. (The time around the winter solstice--er Christmas-- is a good time to step back and think about the nature of things--and to hope for a rebirth.)

The anthropologist Anthony F.C. Wallace teaches that major transformations of thought and behavior happen in a society when it discovers that a once-common set of religious understandings have become impossible to sustain.

At that point, Wallace says, society begins to undergo a "revitalization movement" of four major stages. Stage one is a period of serious individual stress. In this stage, people begin to question past values and start to establish new patterns of thought and behaviors. They don't think about things as they once did. What the generation before them took for granted--divorce, mixed marriage, birth control, segregation, homosexuality, capital punishment, in vitro fertilization, cloning, stem cell research, the role of women--they begin to debate and discard.

In stage two, there is alienation everywhere. Wide-reaching social stress becomes apparent. What we once called "our culture" is now barely recognizable. And people begin to decide that their problems aren't personal. Others feel the same. Groups form, organizations grow. Their problems, they decide, are a result of failure in the institutions they had always depended on for stability and direction. The churches are out of tune with their needs, they say; the schools remote from their life questions, they feel; the government corrupt and corrupting. There is political rebellion in the streets and schism in the churches.

People set out to do it themselves: join with others to ban the bomb, save the whales, eliminate the death penalty, put women in Congress, and join Voices in the Wilderness or the Network of Spiritual Progressives!

In stage three of a revitalization process, though people as a whole agree there is a problem, they can't agree on how to cope with this new social situation. Some want to change the system, to wipe it out and begin again. Others want to send in the troops and get the old system back in order. And the two groups quarrel and divide and blame authority. (This is perfectly described by Cardinal George when he stated the left and the right spend too much time on the bishops.)

Then, inevitably, in stage three a revitalization movement, a nativist, or traditionalist movement arises. Nativists argue that the danger has come from the failure of the people to adhere more strictly to old beliefs and values and behavior patterns. They want to do more of the same-old, but do it better. They want the "old time religion" and they find scapegoats aplenty: the economy would be all right if it weren't for unions, they argue; marriages would be all right if it weren't for feminism, and; the country would be fine if it weren't for liberalism. Or Blacks or Arabs or immigrants or Koreans or Khaddafi or Hussein or Gloria Steinem or whoever or whatever is the convenient scapegoat today. (In this particular era, the scapegoats of choice are gay men and women who have abortions. Neither of course, reflect on straight men.)

In the fourth and final stage, Wallace points out, comes the emergence of a new world view and the restructuring of old institutions to enable it. But how do we get there?

In simpler societies, the leadership for this rebuilding of the society usually came from a single charismatic person: "And Moses intervened," Psalm 89 reminds us, "And you, O God, turned aside your destruction."

In more complex cultures, like our own, multiple spokespersons--many leaders, a chorus of voices--are needed to lead the people to new understandings about old values.

The role of these spiritual leaders is not to repudiate the older worldview entirely, but to shed new light on it so that it can be remembered that God's spirit always manifests itself in new ways to meet new needs.

Then, more flexible people begin to understand and experiment with the new consensus and cultural transformation--the movement from death to life--of an entire people begins to happen.

Finally, Wallace points out, it will not be the older generation, the spiritual wanderers who brought with them the old ideas, goals, values and designs from one desert to another, who will lead today's institutions--it will be the new generation!

As Wallace says, it will be the generation that "grew up with" the emerging insights, who never lived in the old world; who spent their life wandering in a social desert, and knew no other, who will come to maturity. (In other words it will be the people who live on the margins, who learned to spiritually survive outside the mainstream of religious thought----like those scapegoated gays and women of all kinds.)

Then, the old institutions find themselves with new leadership. And the institutions are restructured. But that will happen only provided that they listen, if someone brings them up with the new questions and the new insights.

And how do we know it can happen? (Because the National Hockey League did it.)

Because in this country alone we have seen one generation withdraw their allegiance to a king; the next abolish slavery; and one after that regulate businesses; and the last empower laborers. And this one, now, is beginning to struggle for liberation, equality and survival.

"And Moses intervened," the psalm teaches, "and you turned aside your destruction." We need to intervene for the future of the whole human community of the globe.

What God saves, God saves through us. We need, in other words, to intervene for one another. We need a new worldview that puts the old one "in new light." (This is the core message of Christmas. God came to save man through becoming man, not acting some ultimate 'deus ex machina'.)

But how? And where will this "spirituality of contemplative co-creation," this progressive spirituality come from?

In what way can the spiritual leaders of our time help to build this bridge from privatized piety to public moral responsibility?

I suggest that we must all begin again to look at the bases of social brokenness and see the spiritual link between the personal and the political. I'm suggesting that we look again at what ancients called the seven capital sins/signs of social brokenness, but this time on two levels: the level of the personal as well as the global. Remember with me: envy, pride, anger, lust, gluttony, sloth, covetousness.

Envy, for instance, on the personal level is certainly a lack of acceptance of self, which leads in its sinful form, to a rejection of others.

But globally, isn't this ethnocentrism as well? When we create and uphold criminal governments for our own good--such as in Iraq--rather than recognize the needs of the people of the country; when we impose our system and structures in return for trade, isn't that the failure to accept a thing for what it is?

Pride is, of course, the need to dominate and coerce others on the personal level. But on the global level isn't it also the mania for national superiority, for being "numero uno," for having the best of everything (e.g., strawberries in winter, whatever the cost to the pickers?).

Lust is clearly the exploitation of another for the sake of physical satisfaction.

We are beginning to recognize it when it's date rape or pornography. But is there yet enough conscience in us to also see lust as the national passion for the instantaneous gratification that justifies the exploitation of whole peoples so that we can have the cheap cash crops and conveniences we demand while raping their lands and looting their futures? Isn't it the exploitation that comes from lust that leads to the feminization of poverty and the loss of feminine resources and values in a world that is reeling from the institutionalization of masculine values? Two-thirds of minimum wage workers are single mothers with three children. Lust is child labor at 6 cents an hour: economic pedophilia. (Lust also confuses economic and political power with sexual potency. The two are seen to reflect each other, which is why some powerful men can't keep their zippers zipped and some women can't keep their hands off those zippers.)

Gluttony, the over consumption of food, leads to waste and bloatedness, and the misuse of resources on the personal level. But it is also surely at the base of the lack of distribution of surplus to the dying in Somalia and the destitute in Haiti.

Someone wrote of this culture: "We do not have a war on poverty; we have a war on poor people." And what are we religious people doing about it as we say our prayers and publish our theology papers, and repeat our rituals week after week?

We speak of covetousness as a lack of a sense of "enough" and we know that on the personal level that leads to the sinful brink of hoarding or an inordinate desire for unnecessary possessions. But what is the difference between that kind of covetousness and the demon that fuels militarism and the continual quest for superiority?

Anger we recognize as the cultivation of an eschatological sense of righteousness and judgment; of putting ourselves in the place of the patient justice of God. But what has happened to the national moral fiber when whatever evil we say of the other is counted as virtue? What about the sin of demonizing our enemies, or our refusal to sign arms accords or submit to an international military tribunal?

We abhor sloth as its assumption that anyone has the right to live off the efforts of others as laziness and lack of responsibility.

But where is spiritual leadership in the building of a new worldview about the sinfulness of multinational corporations that live off the backs of the poor, that give unjust wages and benefits, that take the unequal treatment of women for granted, and absorb women's lives at lesser pay for the convenience of others, and then moralize about that kind of domestic servitude as "God's will" for us?

So we go on blindly in our search for goodness: we counsel and educate for individuality and autonomy and control and independence in a world that needs community and mutuality and cooperation interdependence and human responsibility and contemplative co-creation and spiritual progressives.

We build small shelters for the homeless and huge rockets to make people homeless. And we go to church. And we go to church. And we go to church.

Yet 70 percent of the respondents to a survey conducted by the Williamsburg Charter Foundation said that religion has a place in public life. Well, where is that public religion in private life supposed to come from if not from us?

When Jacob saw Joseph in Egypt, He said, "Now that I know that you live, I can die." And God said to Moses, "Stay where you are. Where you are is holy ground."

And an ancient people tell the story of a seeker who asked, "Before I follow you, tell me, Does your God work miracles?" And the master said, "It depends on what you call a miracle. Some people say that a miracle is when God does the will of the people. We say that a miracle is when people do the will of God."

Clearly, the role of the spiritual people today is like that of Jacob's: not to die until we have assured a dynamic and meaningful spirituality for the next generation.

It is like that of Moses: to recognize where we are as the ground of God's grace. It is certainly like that of the Sufi master, who enables the individual to see life differently so that God's miracles can happen in our time, so that the reign of God can finally come.

Templeton wrote, "If we were holier people, we would be angrier oftener." And the Chinese wrote, "Time changes nothing; People do."

My prayer is that we can summon up within ourselves the kind of holy anger that will finally do something to take this country back to its best and glorious self.


One of the trends which is starting to emerge is that we need to break big things up into more self autonomous smaller things. Big and bigger is not always better. In fact, bigger seems to always reach a point in which it is no longer sustainable without becoming predatory. The first indicator of that is it's no longer controllable. This country has seen this phenomenon in both the financial and health sectors. All the supposed reforms do not touch the underlying size of either industry, nor put any meaningful controls on their continued expansion into one big all controlling and predatory monopoly.

Nature shows us that uncontrolled predation ultimately results in it's own demise. Cancer kills itself as well as it's host. Predatory pedophiles willfully left uncontrolled have killed the moral voice of Catholicism. The examples are endless. The solutions pitifully few. Off hand I can think of one modern example which put brakes on the predation and allowed the organism to flourish. I'm thinking of the salary cap in the NHL and NBA, but the NHL in particular, and most particularly the Detroit Redwings.

The Redwings were like the New York Yankees in that paying large sums of money to star players looking for the biggest buck was not a problem. The Wings and some other teams were pricing the NHL into oblivion and with it, any semblance of competitive balance or ability for fans like myself to ever afford a ticket. Ticket prices go so out of hand that most of us were relegated to the margins watching games on television, having to forgo the experience of enjoying hockey live in the arena where the experience is truly awesome.

The solution was to curb all the excesses. Implementing the solution resulted in the loss of an entire season and all it's revenue. It was a sacrifice of epic proportions for everyone associated with the sport. It caused all kinds of anger. Blame was tossed about like confetti. I certainly threw my handfuls. In the end though, implementing the salary cap has given all teams a competitive chance and stopped the escalating ticket prices. Teams have had to figure out how they were going to put the best product on the ice in the confines of a limited spending environment. Some have done this new math well, and some are no better off than they were previously, but all teams are playing on the same level ice surface.

Another rule also profoundly effects the competitive balance. Most professional sports leagues have the rule that the entry draft for new players is tagged to the performance of the teams participating. The rule is simply this "the last shall be first". The biggest beneficiaries of that rule were the Pittsburgh Penguins and last year they defeated my beloved Wings in the Stanley Cup finals with all the talent they drafted when they were last. Indeed, the last truly did become first, and the first became second.

Looking at the standings in the league this year is eye opening. Ten of the sixteen Western Conference teams are within eight points of first place. Since only eight make the play offs this means every single season game is meaningful. There is no more coasting through games for any team, which has made hockey all that much more exciting. A sport that was all but dead due to it's own pigheaded leadership-both labor and management--bit the bullet and has been reborn in a much better version. There are a couple of lessons here. It is possible to build new on the old, but it takes visionary leadership unafraid to push their vision to completion. It is possible to combine financial caps and a form of social justice and have a viable capitalistic product.
Why must the health and financial industry be managed philosphically differently from professional sports? Why not cap those players salaries? Why not level the playing field?
Why not restore a competitive balance? Why not protect small market teams?

As to my Redwings, this is a defining season for them. The salary cap meant they lost a handful of talented players to other teams, and the injury bug seems to have taken up permanent residence in their locker room. They have not gone to the NHL to ask for exemptions for themselves or special treatment because they are the Wings.
They may be the broken Wings. Yet, they are still there, still in the hunt. This is a testimony to something about the Wings which went far deeper than their owner, Mike Illitch's pockets. It's about loyalty, pride, and a unique community dedicated to each other. It's about the individual players contribution to his team, bounded by the needs of the team. Nick Lidstrom isn't scoring goals, but he is mentoring the next generation of Wing's defensemen and the Detroit defense is improving by leaps and bounds. Nick is all about servant leadership. The Red Wings are about team excellence. The NHL found out bigger isn't better and less really is more.

If our churches, business men and politicians can't give legitimate example and leadership in a changing world, maybe the NHL and it's players can.


  1. "It is possible to combine financial caps and a form of social justice and have a viable capitalistic product."

    I totally agree Colleen. It is possible. Only the seven capital sins/signs of social brokenness get in the way. Envy, pride, anger, lust, gluttony, sloth, covetousness.

    When we make the connection that Sr. Joan Chittister makes in her suggestion "that we must all begin again to look at the bases of social brokenness and see the spiritual link between the personal and the political."

    Christmas is indeed "a good time to step back and think about the nature of things--and to hope for a rebirth."

  2. Great metaphor-using the NHL as an example. One of my brothers is a big hockey fan and I'm sure he will appreciate it. In addition, this is an excellent reflection at Christmas time, and at any time of the year.

    My concern is that with big business financing the teabaggers, we might get stuck somewhere in phase 3. Dave Neiwert has covered this extensively at his blog Orcinus. The greed and financial lust really tells me something ugly about what our economic, social and spiritual priorities are. Some of our fellow citizens see us as a chosen nation because they are born again, but we really worship wealth and treat those broken by the system (the uninsured and unemployed) as somehow being responsible for what has happened to them. The Religious Right prefers to have us rely on what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace" and to use religion as a means of exercising social and physical control over their fellow citizens, which was exactly the temptation Jesus resisted in the Gospel of St. Luke. I think a lot of people want to go along in order to get along, until something happens to them.

  3. I often wonder if the NHL didn't come to terms with the facts of their economic life because it's a truly global sport, no longer completely dominated by North American culture and ownership currently has some serious competition for talent from another Russian league.

    Perhaps 1980's Miracle on Ice was prophetic. Speaking of the Olympics, this year's hockey medal will be hotly contested by any number of teams, including those resurrected Russians. I hate to appear un American but I suspect I will be secrectly cheering for those socialist Swedes and the Perfect Human. On the other hand, the Perfect Human's defense partner will be playing for the US, and Pavel Datsyuk will be playing along side Ovechkin for the Russians and other Wings on the Finnish and possibly Canadian teams. Hmmm decisions, decisions.

    I just hope none of them get injured or in some cases reinjured.
    I also wonder how long the NHL owners are going to allow their players to play in the Olympics. For them it's a huge risk for essentially non monetary gain, but it does make for very compelling theatre.

  4. Butterfly, I think for the average person sloth is the biggest problem. It's much easier--and lazier--to 'go along to get along'. Overcoming that kind of inertia usually takes some kind of catastrophic event to force people out of that self imposed inertia. People are for more reactive than proactive. Same with corporations in spite of Stephen Covey's influence.

    How many personal conversion stories start with "I was as far down as I could go, when I got on my knees to God and all of a sudden..." In too many cases personal spirituality starts when the glass is empty rather than half full. In other words, it's a spirituality grounded in personal deficit and one becomes protective of any increase in the deficit.

    What we need is a spirituality of abundance which feels no need to hoard or be protective. Only from that kind of spirituality can there be real sharing. Jesus never never operated from a sense of deficit and He was walking abundance.

  5. I also wonder how long the NHL owners are going to allow their players to play in the Olympics. For them it's a huge risk for essentially non monetary gain, but it does make for very compelling theatre.

    I've heard Vancouver will be the last, but I hope it isn't. Even though it doesn't result in direct "monetary gain," it does showcase the sport, and for a league desperate to raise its profile in the US, that can't hurt.

    I'm just waiting to see if my Leafs will benefit next season from the "last shall be first" rule...

  6. Prickliest, your Leafs need more than the last shall be first rule. They need a brain transplant for their management team.

    I really can't talk though, my Lions need a miraculous intervention. The last shall be first rule can also result in a Joey Harrington rather than a Syd the Kid.