And it wasn’t just cards, to playany board game with her, Monopoly for instance, was a miserableexperience. The problem was that she seemed to take everything sopersonally. If, for example, I stuck her with the queen of spades in a gameof hearts, she would look at me with incredibly sad eyes, and complain ina shocked, heartbroken voice, “How can you do that to me? I’m yourmother!”
If I had a hotel on Boardwalk, and her token landed on theproperty, she assumed that as my mother she would not, of course, beexpected to pay rent.
If I insisted that she pay, she would count out thehundreds slowly, wondering at the unfeeling, ungrateful monster that thischild she had nursed at her breast had become. I’d want to cry out,“Come on, Mom, it’s only a game! It makes no difference whatever tohow I feel about you!”
If pressed, she would claim that she was onlyjoking, but because she was my mother, I would invariably feel absolutelywretched. And if on some subsequent occasion I refused, out of a senseof emotional self-preservation, to play a game with her, she would gaze atme with those same injured puppy dog eyes. It was torture!
I think my experience of playing games with my mother has ananalogue in our spiritual lives. We all spend our days playing the handswe’ve been dealt. Some days come up trumps. Other times we go bust.We chalk up our victories, great and small, and try to accept our defeatswith grace. Today we might be offered our dream job, or be passed overfor promotion. The most attractive person at a party might flatter uswith an admiring glance from across the room, or might look right throughus, as if we weren’t there. The spiritual danger is that we will forget thatwe are just playing a game. The victories and defeats that we tally upwith such care, and which seem to matter so much in the moment,ultimately have no more significance than the Scrabble scores recordedon a scratch pad and left unregarded for years in the back of a deskdrawer.
And all the while we can forget we are part of a deeper reality thatreally does matter. All the while, we are in Christ, and he is in us. Whatwas your immediate reaction to what I just said? Were the first wordsthat entered your mind, “Yah, but?” Did some part of your braincomplain, “OK, here come the pious platitudes?”
That is precisely theinstinct I’ve been talking about the assumption that the game of life isthe primary reality that the score we are keeping in our heads is whatreally matters. I can only insist that it isn’t, and quote the blunt words ofour Savior: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill thesoul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (MT10:28). Harsh, but you see the point. We all pity the pudgy middle-agedfellow who is still recounting his high school football triumphs long afterthe rest of the world has stopped caring. Our pre-occupation with ourvictories in the “real world” deserves the same reaction. You want real?Christ is real.
So, if we acknowledge that today’s triumphs and defeats are notour primary reality, what is our daily life for? It is the crucible in whichyou and I can become the people that God created us to be. My highschool coach insisted that football builds character. Whether or not hewas right, Christian life certainly does build character. Our tenaciousefforts to love God and each other, come what may, make us who we areand who we are becoming. Here’s a platitude for you, and it’s true: “It’snot whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game.”
Pentecost is precious because it peals away illusion to reveal what’sreally there. People from countless tribes and nations are present inJerusalem. In every day life those differences matter. They can occasionterrible violence. But when the disciples preach, everyone hears them intheir own language, and so a fundamental truth, a deeper reality comes tolight. In Paul’s words:
As a body is one though it has many parts,
and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body,
so also Christ.
For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,
whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons,
and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.
Christ is real. The Spirit is real. Love is real. It is how we love, thatmatters.
Rev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C., is co-director of the Garaventa Center for Catholic Intellectual Life and American Culture at the University of Portland. He writes and records a regular blog called “Fractio Verbi.”