Stay in the present


19 Nov 2023

Golf offers a perfect metaphor of life with God.

The beauty of golf stems from the fact that success, as well as failure, comes from within – American golfing champion, Tom Watson

In mid-July this year, as part of a staff spiritual formation day at Xavier College, I gave a workshop on the spirituality of golf. Many of my ideas for this PowerPoint presentation came from a book I have been trying to write since the early 2000s or ‘noughties’ as they are sometimes called. Whether or not the book, tentatively titled A Delicate Dance, ever sees the light of day, it has been a delight writing about golf as a metaphor for life.

‘Spirituality’ is a long and much overused word these days, even finding its way into the nether regions of the corporate world. We should not be afraid of it. Simply, it refers to our fire or passion – what fires me? . . . what am I passionate about? – and how we let this fire shape our lives. In his book, Seeking Spirituality, Canadian priest Father Ron Rolheiser OMI writes helpfully: ‘Long before we do anything explicitly religious at all, we have to do something about the fire that burns within us. What we do with the fire, how we channel it, is our spirituality.’

In our own Ignatian tradition, St Ignatius would talk about our ‘deep desires’. After all, passion is God’s fire in us.

There are 19 chapters in A Delicate Dance, each corresponding to the 18 tees on a regular golf course, together with the 19th tee of either celebration or commiseration in the clubhouse to follow. Not surprisingly, the first tee, like all good spiritual guidebooks, invites us to remain in the moment. As famous Indian retreat director Tony De Mello SJ would often say: ‘Say goodbye to golden yesterdays or your heart will never learn to love the present.’

Golf, like life, is a story of connection and something less. The challenge is to remain connected, to stay in the moment. I can remember the champion Australian golfer Stuart Appleby saying in March 2004: ‘Staying in the present is the secret to playing really good golf . . . Your mind is a very tumultuous place.’ (The Age, Melbourne)

Often when beginning his talks, well known American Franciscan priest Richard Rohr challenges his audience with the seemingly unremarkable words, ‘Try to be here’. This is the biggest challenge his listeners will face all day. After all, it is not an easy task to leave behind the worries of the previous hour or two, the squabbles of the last 30 minutes, the excitement of some event to come. Yet God is to be found only in the present – right where we are – and we don’t need to look anywhere else. Quoting the German theologian Karl Rahner, Richard Rohr says: ‘What the Incarnation is saying is that henceforward God is exactly where we are and only there is he to be found.’

God is simply right where we are which, of course, is why he is so difficult to find. We are always looking elsewhere. Benedictine author Joan Chittister writes beautifully about this: ‘God is not in the whirlwind, not in blustering and show, Scripture teaches us. God is in the breeze, in the very atmosphere around us, in the little things that shape our lives . . . God is where we are, including in the very weaknesses that vie for our souls.’ (In How Can I Find God?, ed James Martin)

In theology we often talk about the sacrament of the present moment – the eternal present in which God resides and can be found with the greatest ease. American humourist Don Marquis said that ‘procrastination is the art of keeping up with yesterday’. I also remember veteran golfer and humourist Lee Trevino quipping, ‘The older I get, the better I used to be’.

Just as staying in the present is the secret to playing good golf, so we are invited, on or off the golf course, to stay in life’s every moment. That is where the Invisible Lover is, as close as our breath. Let us be sure that TS Eliot’s profoundly sad line in Four Quartets does not depict our own life: ‘We had the experience, but missed the meaning’.

Well known British Jesuit author Gerard Hughes was once hacking his way around a golf course until his nephew companion, a very capable golfer, intervened to give him two important tips: ‘Uncle Gerard, you have to do two things to improve your game. You have to keep your head down and align your hands with your heart.’ They are also two very important maxims for the spiritual life.

In conclusion, why call golf ‘a delicate dance’? Well, one of the aims of good golf is to reach each green – often called ‘the dance floor’ in golfing terminology – playing the least shots possible. Some religious traditions have talked about the Trinity as the Dance of God – God as the Dancer and his creation as the Dance.

In Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh likens a good relationship to a good dance: ‘Lightness of touch and living in the moment are intertwined. One cannot dance well unless one is . . . poised directly on the present step as it comes. Perfect poise on the beat is what gives good dancing its sense of ease, of timelessness, of the eternal.’

Enjoy your next or first game of golf and experience that wonderful sense of the eternal. But keep in mind that golf ‘is at once the most beautiful and confounding of games’ (journalist Martin Blake in The Age newspaper, 16 December 2011). May its beauty predominate for you.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2023/24 edition of Madonna magazine.

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