A new Lenten discipline

George Weigel

For Lent 2016, I adopted a new Forty Days discipline in addition to intensified prayer, daily almsgiving, and letting my liver have its annual vacation: I quit sports talk radio, cold turkey.

This was not easy, as the purchase of a car with an XM radio years before had turned me into a reasonable facsimile of a sports talk radio addict. I’d listen to Steve Czaban when driving early in the morning, Dan Patrick when driving mid- to late-morning, Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon on my way home, and whatever-was-available-that-wasn’t Stephen A. Smith at other times. I never called in, mind you. But I had half a dozen sports talk shows pre-set on my car’s XM system, and if nothing grabbed me among the nationally-broadcast yack fests there were always the locals in Washington and Baltimore.

It’s now been a year since I tuned-in to a sports talk radio program and I am, I hope, a better man for it – albeit no less a sports nut.

I should admit that, before I made the decision to shake off the coils of this addiction, the sports talk radio world, ESPN (from which I auto-liberated at the same time), and Sports Illustrated (which I’ve been reading since the fourth or fifth grade) were beginning to annoy me with their self-conscious political correctness. As if to prove that sports people, those who make a living jabbering about sports, and sports fans really aren’t knuckle-dragging Neanderthals, sports talk radio and a lot of the rest of the Sports Industrial Complex has become an avid promoter of the LGBTQ agenda, often in the silliest ways. Sports Illustrated may have something useful to say about the concussion epidemic in football; Sports Illustrated has nothing useful or sensible to say to the citizens of North Carolina about their views of “bathroom rights.” Enough of this was enough, and I was glad to be quit of it, as we say below the Mason-Dixon Line.

More positively, breaking the sports talk radio habit cleared my mind. I didn’t have to pretend that even the best of the talkers, like Mr. Patrick, weren’t constantly repeating themselves while trying to find that sweet spot where the millennials, and others with the disposable income advertisers crave, live and breathe and have their being. And when you get below the Dan Patrick level, there’s a ton of nonsense being talked to fill all that airtime, for there’s really only so much to be said about our games. Then there was the aggravation of artificially ginned-up hysteria. As mainstream television news became weather-hysteric after Hurricane Katrina, the sports talk radio world was indulging in one hysteria after another, all surnamed
“-gate”, of which Deflategate was the most ludicrous in breadth, depth, and length (if not necessarily in, er, volume).

Better yet, breaking the habit opened up all sorts of other possibilities while driving. I could pray the rosary. I could listen to a lot of good music – and I did, discovering classical masterpieces I hadn’t known before (like Handel’s Keyboard Suites), or finding renditions of previously beloved compositions I hadn’t heard before (like Anne-Sophie Mutter’s transcendent performance of the Dvorak Violin Concerto), or reliving the best of Sixties rock. What, I ask you, is the audiocast of “Pardon the Interruption” compared to that?

And then there was the happy possibility of simply driving in silence, seeing things I hadn’t noticed before, and thinking thoughts I hadn’t thought before, when I was being harried by prattle about the incomprehensible, like the NFL Combine or the Cleveland Browns’ draft choices. Silence, as Cardinal Robert Sarah argues in a fine book being published next month, is essential to the spiritual life. God came to Elijah, not as a sport talk radio host would – loudly – but as a “still small voice” [1 Kings 19.12]. That voice is hard to hear amidst the cacophony of contemporary life. If we wish to hear it more clearly, we have to tune out the static, turn down the volume, and listen to the silence.

So my fraternal counsel to fellow-Catholics of the sports-nut subdivision: take a break from sports talk radio this Lent. It’s a good discipline in itself, and it just might open you up to some surprising, if quiet, transmissions from another Source.

COMING UP: Healing hatred and anger after Charlottesville

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The confrontation in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the nationwide reaction to it are clear signs of the tensions simmering just below the surface of our society. But we know as people of faith that these wounds can be healed if we follow Christ’s example, rather than the path of revenge.

It was with a heavy heart that I learned about the Aug. 12 clashes between white supremacists and counter protesters in Charlottesville that resulted in the injury of around 34 people and the death of Heather Heyer. It was an “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” melee.

These events remind me of Pope Francis’ 2017 World Day of Peace message, in which he pointed out that “Jesus himself lived in violent times. Yet he taught that the true battlefield, where violence and peace meet, is the human heart: for ‘it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come’ (Mk. 7:21).”

What we witnessed in Charlottesville was an outward expression of hundreds of hearts, and as a shepherd of souls, I cannot stand by silently while people allow hatred toward others rule their hearts. Particularly reprehensible were the derogatory words the neo-Nazis and their white supremacist allies shouted toward African Americans, Jews and Latinos. This is not how God sees his children!

Every human being is bestowed from the moment of conception with the dignity of being made in the image and likeness of God, and we are all loved by him, even amid our sin and brokenness. Satan seeks every opportunity to twist these fundamental truths in the hearts of human beings and we can see the devastation it brings throughout history.

It can be tempting to respond to these attacks on our fellow man with violence, just as the members of the Anti-fascist movement (known as “Antifa”) did in Charlottesville. But this is not what Christ taught, since it allows hatred to gain a foothold through a different avenue. It is worth repeating: the human heart is the true battlefield.

Jesus’ response to violence and persecution stands in contrast with the way of hatred and anger. Instead, he taught his disciples to love their enemies (Mt. 5:44) and to turn the other cheek (Mt. 5:39). Christ’s radical answer is only possible because God unconditionally loves every person and is ready to forgive us when we repent. God’s love is the only thing that can cut through the hatred that is bringing people to blows, heal the human heart and form it after his own. As people of faith, we are called to bring the truth of love to these festering wounds so that hearts may be healed by Christ.

Joseph Pearce, the Catholic convert and former white supremacist, is a perfect example of this. In a recent article for the National Catholic Register, he recalls how it was his encounter with the objective truths of the faith that demolished his race-centered identity and seeing his enemies love him when he confronted them with hatred that changed his heart. We must pray for the grace to love as Jesus loves, to love as the Father loves.

“The way out of this deadly spiral,” Pearce says, “is to go beyond the love of neighbor, as necessary as that is, and to begin to love our enemies. This is not simply good for us, freeing us from the bondage of hatred; it is good for our enemies also.”

May all of us follow the great example of Mark Heyer, the father of the woman who was killed after the white supremacist rally. His daughter’s death, Heyer told USA Today, made him think “about what the Lord said on the cross, ‘Forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.’”

Jesus desires that every person have a heart that is whole and free from hatred, anger and pride. He desires to form our hearts, and that only comes about when we are receptive to his unconditional love, for only in receiving his unconditional love will we be able to give it to others. I pray that all the faithful will be instruments of healing for our country by bringing Christ’s forgiveness to their neighbors and their enemies.