I could not help but notice the huge gap between those who are steeped in GAA and those who hardly knew there was a game on. One thing in particular that stayed with me was a comment amidst all the passion, recrimination and of course intense relief that there is a replay, the comment from an elderly gentleman was ‘Ah sure it’s only a game!’. Now in fairness I am not sure if he meant it. It is possible he was saying it for effect, to raise blood pressure, which of course it did. Whatever about his actual viewpoint his comment got me thinking. Without being harsh on the speaker in my view he got it totally wrong. The idea that it’s only a game misses a whole treasury of wonderful things that happen because of this ‘game’. I am sure very few would argue against the notion that the said game is part of our identity, part of our culture. Sit in to any pub or coffee shop around the country during the summer and very quickly you will have heard snippets of conversation about such and such a player, or team or county. You will have heard phrases like, ‘ they have a real hunger for it’, ‘ they have had a long wait’, or ‘they would be lost without him’. These phrases provide us with a window into the world of sport. Once we step into this world we realise very quickly that we can’t be dismissive or minimising of what is happening. We encounter discipline, dedication, and competition. We realise that the journey to this game includes blood, sweat and tears. This game brings us to the depths of dejection and loss and alternatively to one of the greatest joys of the human condition, that of victory and achievement. It’s a game alright, but let’s drop the word ‘just’. It’s a game that mirrors the joy and pain of life. It’s a game that if played or followed with a whole heart and a little bit of reflection, it can train us for, and speak to us of, the central experiences of life.
A common variation on ‘it’s only a game’, is ‘it’s just a dog’ or it’s only a cat’! Recently I was chatting with Sr. Anthony, one of the Daughters of Charity in our parish. I was conscious of the sad loss she had experienced in recent days with the death of her much loved cat, Kitty. Sr. Anthony and I, as fellow animal lovers discussed the present Pope’s comments on animals, not forgetting some of the great saints and their love of nature and the animal world. Many readers of this column would understand exactly what Sr. Anthony and I were speaking of because of their own loss of a much loved pet. The casual dismissive comment that suggest ‘it’s only an animal’ misses so much. Companionship, loyalty, protection to mention just a few. Actually our pets bring out the best in us, not to mention there is growing evidence that a pet in our lives lowers blood pressure and is a stress leveller.
Of course it’s not just in relation to sport and animals that we can be casually dismissive. Let’s go a little deeper. Would we ever find ourselves saying something like ‘she’s just a cleaner’, or ‘he’s only a bin man’, because if we do then above all we are letting ourselves down. My own father, at the time I was born was a fireman on the old steam trains, working out of Great Victoria Street for Northern Ireland Railways. Shortly after I was born he gave up the shift work and late nights so as not to leave Mum on her own looking after myself and more children on the way. When I was eight in his new job in Hughes bakery he had an accident in which he lost part of his hand. He was classified fifty per cent disabled . As I reflect on it now, it must have been an awful blow. Literally the breadwinner out of work and they a young couple in their mid-thirties with four children under eight. This led, even though he thought he would never work again, to a new job as porter/security man in the main Catholic Teacher Training College in Belfast. What I remember well was Dad’s experience of the various lecturers, especially the priests who drove in and out past him. The range included the supposed snobby or reserved Canon who turned out to be kindness personified, always stopping to enquire after my Mum or us children to some of the so called ‘cooler’ priests who never lifted a finger in acknowledgment of him doing an honest day’s work never mind his dignity as a human being. I have no doubt this experience led to the only piece of advice he ever gave me. He said ‘if and when you put on the collar, never forget where you came from, never look down on anyone!’
Of course there are other variations on being dismissive and minimising things, sometimes even if they are sacred. ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ or ‘surely this is the Carpenters son?’ How can we possibly continue to miss what is at the centre of our faith? Again and again in the evolving Sacred Story we encounter the extraordinary in the ordinary. We have a Servant King as our Saviour, born in a feeding box for animals, and dies in torture and humiliation on a Cross. Now in the ordinary bread and wine we have Jesus present amongst us. Let’s not be too hasty to dismiss or minimise, but let’s look again at we think is ordinary or lowly. Then let’s look again through the eyes of Jesus. We might be surprised at what we then see.