I’m not sure exactly when it was that I fell head over heels in love with the game of soccer, but I know exactly who was responsible. From the early to the mid 2000’s, French soccer legend Thierry Henry glided across the pitch with an irrepressible combination of power and finesse, a grace punctuated by savage efficiency and competitive fire. Watching Henry serve as the most potent scorer for famous London club Arsenal was what hooked me on the game (and the club). I just couldn’t resist the game with its combination of artistry and physicality.
Of course, I couldn’t have known that I had gotten hooked on a game and a team at a singular moment in their history. Soon after I started following Arsenal, the team began to disband its legendary “Invincibles” side that went an (unheard of) entire season unbeaten in the Premier League. Thierry Henry was only one such departure, although it might have been the one that hurt the most. My next few seasons were mostly marked by disappointment, unrealized expectations, and unfulfilled potential.
This very season looked to hold much of the same for me, as my beloved Arsenal had assembled a squad consisting largely of talented but inexperienced players. And then something curious happened.
His former club wracked with injuries and inexperience, the 34 year-old Thierry Henry (putting him at about 145 in soccer/dog years) agreed to abandon his semi-retirement playing professionally in the United States to come back and help his old club. The script that unfolded next would have been rejected from most Hollywood scripts as unrealistic, too sappy.
In his first game back with Arsenal, Henry, formerly the greatest of stars, sat the bench. He shaves his head now to hold off time, and has grown a thick beard. And he watched. The game rolled on, the score remained tied, and his club’s offense looked stagnant. And late into the second half, the legend rose and began warming up on along the sideline, bracing his aging muscles against the cold of a London winter.
Already charged with energy, a louder buzz began to roll around the edges of the stadium, and soon the crowd, in the best of English traditions, began singing Henry’s name. He wiped tears from his face, pulled off his warmups, and entered the game.
The rest is predictable, at least in a Hollywood sense. Ten minutes later, Henry scored the game winner. The final whistle found Henry lifting his arms into the air in triumph and disbelief. As if Michael Jordan had returned from his stay with the Wizards to hit a game winner for the Bulls, this was a moment of true sports magic.
So what on earth does this have to do with prayer? Only this: I was so eager to watch this game that I had goosebumps. But I’ve watched dozens of games that might have held the same magic, but instead were boring, frustrating, disappointing. That night, while doing my Examen, it occurred to me that it was only because I had waited and suffered through all those other games that Henry’s moment was so magical. While not quite the same thing (prayer matters a just a bit more than sports, after all), our prayer lives can look awfully similar. St. Ignatius reminds us that times of desolation, those old spiritual troughs, are part of the bargain, and we don’t always know why. Prayer will sometimes be dry, difficult, boring; even frustrating or maddening. But, like Henry at the final whistle, there will also be moments that send a thrill through our bodies, give us chills, and fill our eyes with tears of joy.
Unfortunately we don’t get to pick only the good and leave the rest. The whole package, with all its ups and downs, only comes with an ongoing relationship. And it’s only in that kind of prayer relationship that we’ll know how sacred, how set apart from the everyday, those rare moments are.