It was a moment of compelling absurdity. There I was, a windswept young Englishman perched on the terrace steps of a small-time Scottish football ground (the romantically named Boghead Park), suddenly caught up in a frenzy of yelling, whooping and leaping. Just the kind of unfettered emotion that, in other circumstances, would probably have caused me acute embarrassment.
This scene, minus the socialised inhibition, is hardly unusual. You will find its equivalent in sporting arenas across the world any weekend. But for me a first half goal by Dumbarton striker Peter Houston, scored on 5 September 1987, was pure epiphany. The team I had been irrationally supporting from a distance of 400 miles for nearly 18 years had finally hit the net in my presence, following a dozen goal-free afternoons stretched over many months of anticipation-ending-in-emptiness.
The fact that it turned out to be what I remember as a pretty scrappy consolation goal struck in a dreary lower division match against Hamilton Accies, which we had already lost 2-1 before the break, really didn’t matter to me. My previously goalless life suddenly felt strangely complete in an incident of ecstatic insignificance.
Well, as they say – go figure. The bemused ‘Sons’ supporters standing around me looked slightly taken aback by this weird Sassenach suddenly going wild about something that surely only merited a quick burst of applause before the return of a few dozen pairs of hands to the doleful pockets that were their rightful domain.
But this was and is football. A strange cocktail of artistry, industry, geometry and (much of the time) drudgery which, for those of us who find ourselves hooked, mirrors life’s ups and downs but also renders them sensible to an athletic period drama, a few reams of statistics and a particular repository of dreams. That is, you and me. But really, wonders my eminently sensible spouse, what’s the point?
Here’s one take on that. The best definition of prayer I have ever come across, and certainly the one that has made most sense to my own 51 years of muddling experience, is “learning to waste time with God.” (A bit like learning to waste time with 22 men and a lump of leather, maybe? Well, okay, perhaps I’m stretching that one.)
In a world where we are encouraged to acquire money, ration time and pursue attainment from cradle to grave, liberating spirituality (as distinct from the consumer kind that has become a synonym for ‘personal development’) means letting go of one’s illusions about control and cultivating unexpected joys.
Those nameless occasions which I get to call prayer, football, music or art: they show me something about the world which enables me to realise that nothing can manufacture the true experience of grace, elation, love, completeness and transcendence. These things just are, and in ‘just being’ they speak of something precious beyond bargaining and calculation. God’s life overflowing into ours, one might say. And I would.
Passion such as one feels with the first chord of a symphony, the final whistle of a match or a lover’s incidental touch knows no boundary between sacred and profane, religious and secular. Such things can pass you by, or they can change your life. They can fill time or fulfil it. Alarmingly, their impact or lack of it depends on you rather than on anything magical in the air. Times of inexplicable intensity can prepare you for even more, for sharing and multiplying. But only with practice… the practice of letting go and letting be.
This, for me, is not a way of becoming that I can think myself into. It is a state of sheer gift: an epiphenomenon of the rub of the turf or the jink of the ball. With music, my other ‘balancing passion’ (as I describe it, along with football, in my blog’s ‘potted biography’), it is possible, in a certain way, to re-appropriate life-giving moments through repeat performance. In sport they are, technically, unrepeatable. Yet they go on happening. That is the God-born world which prayer invites us to see. Living without an assured goal, yet finding them all the time.
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He has been a Dumbarton fan (http://onlyjustoffside.blogspot.com/) for forty years. This article appears in a new book about how our personal passions and diversions connect with human and spiritual experience. The God You Already Knew, written and edited by Henry Morgan and Roy Gregory, is published by SPCK.