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Friday, June 20, 2014

Making the Secular Spiritual: How Golf Improves My Spiritual Condition

Another lesson that I learned from Thomas Moore in the workshop he presented in May in Birmingham, Alabama is that one can benefit in a spiritual way by taking a secular activity and turning it into a spiritual practice. I have done that when I mow my mother’s and my property. This is no quick and easy task. It takes about six hours each week to complete on a riding mower and I sometimes drag my feet a bit getting going on it. I always find that after I get going on it that I do enjoy being out in the sun and the hot summer weather. I enjoy the time spent in a solitary activity and I enjoy viewing the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains to the west. It is a time for mediation (even above the loud drone of the mower). I use the time for extended periods of prayer when I first give thanks for all the blessings I have been given in my life. I pray for people I love and those with who I have strained or broken relationships. I pray for healing for others and I pray for forgiveness so that I bear no anger and I pray to be forgiven by others. I pray for guidance that I live my life as a Godly and Christian woman, as this is my own personal faith. I pray for those who are gone who I have loved in my life. I pray that they experience peace in God’s arms. Sometimes I pray all these things quietly and sometimes I pray loudly, knowing that with the loud noise of the mower, my prayers remain private between me and my God.

I love watching the birds and seeing the deer and woodchucks, the occasional coyote, and the activity on the one acre lake that we have. One thinks of a small body of water like that as a place of peacefulness. Nothing could be further from the truth! If you spend much time studying this pond you see life and death struggles between the different creatures and over the seasons you observe the annual cycle of life and death as well over the long term. With spring comes renewal, rebirth and the genesis of new life and with late Autumn and the onset of winter comes death and rest. It is a reflection of the seasons of our life, which helps us find peace and acceptance as we also experience these different phases of our life.

This is one secular activity that has taken on great spiritual meaning for me, but I also want to share how I have taken the secular game of golf and made it into an important spiritual activity of my life. Perhaps you may think that there is no way that some sport can become a spiritual discipline, but I hope my explanation will help you to see how golf, or even something that can be quite tedious such as hours of mowing which I just explained can become something that leads to spiritual growth and a wellspring of pleasure in a spiritual discipline.

When I was in college, I took a course in golf as one of my physical education activities. Other than Putt Putt (miniature golf), I had never played the game. Miniature golf was a dating activity as a teen ager and it was fun, but it was nothing more than a vehicle to spend some enjoyable time with my date. It was my mother who strongly encouraged me to take the course and I did it from the enjoyment I got from playing miniature golf on my dates. My Mama loves Golf. Daddy played with her sometimes, but she was the one who really loved golf and got me to play. The most important lesson Coach Myers at Bridgewater College taught us and the one I took to heart was that you have to go out and enjoy whatever skill (or lack of skill) you had on any given day. I certainly took that to heart and golf has always been a fun activity. Perhaps that attitude did not encourage me to try to improve, but I can truly say that I have had fun playing golf on every single occasion, I have always enjoyed being with the people that I play with and never worry about how well or how poorly I play, and for the most part during that time I played poorly because I did not play often enough to gain any level of consistency in my game. I just  liked being out in the sun and fresh air with the friends I would play with. Because of that attitude, I never got frustrated because I didn’t play well and looked forward to the next time. I never worried about how my lack of skill appeared to others as I have never had any ego bound up in my game.

During college I would play sometimes in the summer and once in a long while with Mama or with someone else, but I took no serious interest in the game. When I lived in Alabama when I was in graduate school, one of my classmates who became one of my closest friends at that time and I would play on the University of Alabama course. It was fun, but I did not continue to play when we went our separate ways after we graduated. I did play now and again after that, but with no regularity.

Then I began to experience some problems with degenerative spinal disc disease and eventually had to have spinal surgery. It took about two years to heal completely from that and then a friend from long ago with who I went to college asked me to play with her and I fell in love with the game. That was three years ago.

Now she is quite a good golfer and I admire her skills. She has won a few championships at her club and sits on the Board of the Virginia State Ladies Gold Association and this year is also on the Board of the Virginia Golf Association. That she has been gracious enough to play with me is something that I appreciated, but she has rekindled my interest in the game and it has grown into a passion of mine.

Because of the attitude that my college course instructor instilled in me as well as the enjoyment I have rediscovered thanks to her, I have found a passion for the game. I have preserved a noncompetitive attitude towards the others I play with. I only play against myself. It matters nothing if I beat my partner, which now happens often enough that it is not the norm, but not a rare event either. Nor does it matter if my partner beats me by a large number of strokes. I’m out there to have fun with who I am with, share conversations about our daily lives, our joys and our sorrows.

After attending Thomas Moore’s workshop and reading a book he had written that Patty found and gave me just before the workshop, I have turned my game into a 3 to 4 hour very real and profound spiritual practice. The name of the book is The Guru of Golf.  I was fortunate enough to be able to have him autograph my book at the workshop! He mentioned wryly when I told him how much I enjoyed it that that book was probably his least successful book, but I found much value in it and I found in reading it that he finds as much pleasure in the game as I do.

What I learned and have applied in making golf a spiritual discipline began way before I read his book was to go out and enjoy the game despite my lack of talent or skill. No matter how well or badly I have played it never has bothered me and I have always had a good time.

The lessons that I have learned, taken to heart and have been able to apply since Thomas Moore’s workshop is to look at my play as a series of spiritual lessons that are a reflection of what is occurring in my life around the time I play. Simply put, my game of golf each time I play is a spiritual lesson on what is reflected in my life by the way I play. So because of that I welcome the poorly played shot as well as the well- played shot. I never wish the particular shot, good or bad, to be anything other than that which it is. Of course I truly enjoy a well- played shot, but I do not get upset over a stroke that lands me in a poor position. It is an opportunity to learn how to make a recovery from a bad situation and it is a lesson to not allow unhappy circumstance to unduly influence me negatively and lead to further worsening circumstances. It teaches grace and tolerance to misfortune. It is an opportunity to celebrate being able to overcome adversity. An example came in a recent game on a par 3 hole, which is a very short hole and should be able to be accomplished in 4 shots by an average golfer. My first shot landed me out of the fairway behind a mound of dirt about 4 feet high. The green was elevated above that and it is a near impossible shot for a less than average player such as me. But because I did not become disappointed or upset by my errant first shot, with my pitching wedge, I made a nice shot that went over that mound in front of me and landed on the green. I was able to make the 3rd stroke on the green for a par on that hole. The only reason I made that play was because of the way I thought about the situation as I played. The same is true of real life. Sometimes we do things that make our lives difficult. The difficulty is entirely of our own making. How will we handle that? Will we continue in a negative manner and make the situation worse or will we accept our mistake and take responsibility for the situation as it is and correct our mistake with right thinking and doing the next right thing? I could have allowed myself to become frustrated and feel irritable about my poor initial play and taken six strokes to make what should have been made in four strokes. Instead I chose to concentrate on making a good shot and found a positive outcome.

Another example comes when I am not relaxed and become frustrated. I may miss the ball completely and become frustrated and miss a few more times before I make myself stop, relax for a few sessions and return to making a slow and graceful swing in connecting my club with the ball and then get to watch it take off a long way up the fairway towards the hole on the green. The spiritual lesson for me in daily life is to not allow myself to become frustrated and make the same mistake over and over again in handling the same common situation by trying to force a shot. I’ve learned to not force situations that frustrate me. This is a lesson that I usually have a repeat lesson in at least once in each game. That is a good thing because that can happen frequently in life. I’m learning to handle such situations with more grace when they occur and I am learning to move past these frustrations more quickly than in the past. I don’t expect to do it perfectly every time, I only expect to get better in dealing with this kind of life circumstance.

The last spiritual lesson, I am learning of late is what I call “too much club” or “too little club”. When I play golf, I find when I am playing a hole, that I am now more consistent in my shots that get me to the green and I am now mostly in a position where it isn’t out of the question of making par on a consistent basis, though it isn’t happening because of my short game. I’ll be 35 yards or less from the green and using the 8 or 9 irons, or the pitching wedge, either using too much power and over shooting the green or not using enough and falling way short of my goal.  It can happen that way in my life too, using too much force in situations that I may find threatening in some way or not addressing situations by taking half measures that do not resolve the situation with which I am faced.

Golf will continue to provide me spiritual lessons. I will strive to learn through my game the spiritual lessons l need to learn to live a happier life and be more in tune with life as it unfolds for me. I’m glad to have learned how to use something as secular as a game of golf is to improve my spiritual condition and find more peace in my life never wishing it to be other than what life gives me.

It is not important what my score is on any given day, but by approaching the game from this perspective, my game has improved about 20 strokes over three years ago. So what is my average score? That isn’t important. I don’t even have a clue what my handicap might be. If it were two strokes better than three years ago I would be as happy with that as I am today. If I never get any better than how I play now, I will be just as happy as if I hadn’t gotten any better. What is important is the peace and the joy I experience when I play by myself or with a friend.