Eight years ago I was walking up one of the steep San Francisco hills and began to feel unfamiliar pains in my back. When I got home to New Hampshire, my doctor ordered up a stress test and within a couple of weeks I had an angioplasty. I was already walking my dog every morning and evening, but I wanted a little more exercise, and so I took up golf.
I live across the street from a lovely small course that's 100 years old and looks it. It's an unpretentious, rocky, hilly stretch of nine holes that I can circle in 45 minutes on a clear day. It suits me perfectly. Some of my clubs are from the local dump and the rest are from eBay. I'm not a fanatic. But I enjoy the game and even take some pleasure in the disdain some people feel for it because it's too aristocratic or bad for the environment. I'd rather have golf courses to play on than be surrounded by industrial parks and unnecessary strip malls eating up the land and water.
My field is religious studies, where I have explored the world's religions, depth psychology, the iconography of art, and symbolic aspects of culture. Golf fits into that last category. My dissertation advisor decades ago was David L. Miller, who wrote a book called Gods and Games. For years I've been interested in the play factors in culture and the importance of sport and play. So, when I began to play golf, I did it as a theologian.
Golf has many signs of a quasi-religious sport: a clear boundary and precise rules to keep the game intact and within the realm of imagination, a lingo that betrays its connection to life -- clubs, traps, hazards, a score, bogeys, greens and fairways. I could write a chapter of a book on each as a metaphor. The 18 holes suggest the Jewish number for life. Most games are an abbreviated, symbolic round of life. A green is like Eden: You reach it, and you feel that you have arrived at an unearthly place with its perfect grass and chance at salvation.
Golf offers an opportunity to be in the sun, to feel the beauty of nature up close -- the courses I choose to play are usually quite natural and environmentally sensitive. One course near my house has a blackboard in the sign-up room where you can scratch in any wildlife you spotted on your round.
Golf is a social game, even for a severe introvert like me. You meet people and get to know them by their swing and manner of handling defeat. I had to learn how to be relatively comfortable with shame, since in eight years I still haven't learned how to play the game well. But I discovered early on that the majority of people on the courses where I play are worse than me.
I think golf has a certain mystical quality. Maybe that's why so many inspirational books and movies have risen out of the game. When I started playing, suddenly short stories on the theme of golf began coming to me, and I published a book of 18 of them. Now I'm planning to give retreats at golf courses. We'll play a game and then sit around and discuss the psychology and theology of the game. I hope these retreats will help people in spirit and soul and even improve their game. We begin in Ireland, a second home for me, where people understand play and where golf is treated with respect.
I don't like to think of the heart as a piece of plumbing, a pump, even though I come from a family of plumbers. The heart is the seat of the soul. Nor do I think of golf as mere physical exercise or as a meaningless game. With a certain frame of mind, you can see it as a spiritual practice. But to get these benefits, you have to play it with attention to nature, an openness to strangers and an appreciation for metaphor. I hope the game helps both aspects of my heart: the pump and the seat of the soul.
Most things in life go deeper than we usually think. That's why we need theologians of everyday life and culture, and that's why you'll find more pleasure and meaning in golf when you play it theologically.
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