In these cold days of winter, I pleasantly remind myself that spring training is only a month away. I grew up in South Florida, the son of a former minor league baseball player, so March always meant seeing great baseball players at cheap prices. I’m no athlete, and I admit to getting a bit bored in the middle innings of games, but baseball stadiums are holy ground for me. I love the contemplative pace of the game and the rituals of sitting, standing and singing. I enjoy the company of friends over several, leisurely paced hours. For those nine innings, I feel connected with thousands of others in the pursuit of something greater than myself. It’s almost a religious experience.
I’ve recently come to an even greater appreciation for baseball as a school for religion. Always struggling with my perfectionist tendencies, my spiritual director recommended that I read “The Spirituality of Imperfection” by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham. The book opens with a quote from Francis Vincent Jr., former commissioner of Major League Baseball: “Baseball teaches us … how to deal with failure. We learn at a very young age that failure is the norm in baseball and precisely because we have failed, we hold in high regard those who fail less often — those who hit safely in one out of three chances and become star players. I also find it fascinating that baseball, alone in sport, considers errors to be part of the game, part of its rigorous truth.”
In baseball and in life, imperfection is a rule of the game, but it is hard to believe this rigorous truth because so much in our culture tells us that we have to be perfect to get ahead and to be liked. This lie is at the root of so much of our cultural neurosis and self-destruction. We run ourselves into the ground physically, emotionally and spiritually in the elusive pursuit of perfection in school, work, relationships and even in our faith. But religion, like baseball, teaches us that to be human is to make mistakes. As surely as a child only learns to walk by falling every once in a while, we only grow into the people God calls us to be by trial and error.
God does not want us to sin because sin only makes us unhappy. It separates us from God and others. But God allows us to exercise our freedom, and the cost of that divine rule is that sometimes we fail to live in faith, hope and love. As much as we strive to be good people, we sometimes miss the mark. Even the best players strike out at times. But the glorious thing about baseball and life is that the game goes on as we try to fail less often. And in so doing, we become the persons God calls us to be.
Jesuits often speak about the magis, a Latin term meaning “the more.” St. Ignatius used this term to describe how we should strive for excellence in all that we do. Over the years, the magis has been misconstrued to justify unhealthy competitiveness and overworking. But those self-indulgences are just self-promotion, not self-giving. The magis is rooted in a grateful generosity of spirit. We are so thankful for all that God has given us that we want to respond magnanimously. And so we ask: what more can I do to develop my talents and use my resources for God’s greater glory and the good of others? What more can I do to grow in faith, hope and love?
While mediocrity has no place in a Jesuit school, failure does, if we fail boldly in pursuit of excellence. Striving for the magis, we sometimes fall short. For Christians, the cross teaches us that God does not guarantee success in life. From the perspective of the world, Jesus and his ministry were utter failures. But from God’s vantage point, Jesus was a success because he loved boldly and generously and was faithful to his mission and to us until the very end.
Imperfection has its benefits. If we accept that errors are part of the game, then we are released from the need to be messiahs. When we embrace mistakes, we can learn from them. When we hurt someone else, we experience redemption through forgiveness. Finally, when we recognize our imperfection, we become much nicer to be around because we are more understanding and less judgmental about the weaknesses of others.
In the end, the pursuit of perfection is a lonely endeavor. Seemingly perfect people are not very approachable. Baseball and life are meant to be played on a team, and that is the beauty of the game. Each player’s successes and errors are scored as a team. We blessedly imperfect people are in this together.
We are better together than we are alone — better friends, learners, believers, citizens, athletes, artists, writers and leaders. We are a better Georgetown.
Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J. (COL ‘88) is executive director of Campus Ministry. He can be reached at [email protected] AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT appears every other Tuesday with Fr. Schall, Fr. Maher and Fr. O’Brien alternating as writers.