I, like Eddie Vedder, am a Cubs fan. Or at least I have considered myself one from before I can remember.
A few years ago Vedder wrote a song about our beloved Cubs that has gotten a lot of airplay recently. It goes, “We are one with the Cubs. With the Cubs we’re in love.” The refrain, which would elicit deep sentiment in any long-time fan of the team, says presciently, “Someday we’ll go all the way.”
Ironically, it was the Fall of 2008, when the song was released, that I gave up hoping we ever would. The Cubs made the post-season that year and looked poised to win it all. They did not. They were swept in the first round. Win or lose, I decided, I would no longer let my emotional state have anything to do with the Chicago Cubs.
At least that’s what I thought. But then it was Game 7 of the World Series, and I had long since caught Cub fever again. I cancelled my RCIA class that night so I could watch the game. I screamed at the TV on every big play. I paced around the living room during the rain delay. My hands were shaking after the last out was made. It was true. We did go all the way.
I don’t know what I expected to feel in that moment, but if there was supposed to be some kind of bliss on the other side of victory, I didn’t feel it. I watched the players spray each other with champagne and felt a little jealous of their euphoria, but not really. Maybe it’s because I’m happy being a priest, but I had no desire to be in that locker room. Even if I were there, I thought, I would only be one more spectator to the festivity. No matter how close I got, I would only have my nose pressed against the glass, longing to enter into someone else’s joy.
And then I knew – “We are one with the Cubs.” – I can’t pretend that part is true anymore. If it had happened when I was 12 years old, I might still think of the Cubs as an extension of my own ego. I could have saved up to buy the jersey of my favorite player and acted out famous plays he made in my back yard, as I did with Michael Jordan and the Bulls in my youth. But I’m not the Cubs, and they’re not me. I’m not even technically a Chicagoan. I grew up in the suburbs.
I don’t mean to be a buzzkill, and maybe what I’m about to say is so obvious to any Christian that it doesn’t even need to be said, but the victory we all long for is an eternal one. Baseball is great. It might even be the perfect game. But whatever sorrow or joy it may cause us is only a shadow of the agony and ecstasy for which we are destined. There is something particularly poignant about the Cubs winning the World Series – it’s a story filled with pathos, the sting of defeat, victory against all odds, one in which we feel we all have a part, and one that elicits such communal jubilation that it convoked the seventh largest gathering in human history.
But nevertheless, by all accounts, even the players at the victory rally who were at its epicenter found their joy somehow incomplete: “Let’s do it again next year!”
The Sunday after the big game I got up early to put the finishing touches on my homily. I took advantage of the extra time afforded me by daylight savings to craft it just the way I wanted it. A beginning, a middle, and an end. Three points to make, with a moving anecdote about God’s relentless love for His children to tie it all together.
But as I stood at the ambo at Mass that morning, something happened to me that had never happened to me in my two and a half years as a priest. I finished my first point, and was ready to move on to my second. Then I drew a blank. I tried to stall by repeating what I had just said with different words. I looked down at my notes and desperately searched for the next thing to say. And then it happened. I was in free fall, and there was nothing to do but admit it. I immediately flushed and said, “I’m sorry, I lost my train of thought.”
My palms were sweating as I looked down again at my notes, and I couldn’t concentrate with the heat of more than 300 pairs of eyes like lasers pointed at the top of my head. I made a joke out of it and clumsily skipped to the story that was to be my punchline, dispensing with all the buildup.
After Mass was over, the feeling of embarrassment stuck with me, so before the next Mass I decided to go to our private oratory and kneel before the Blessed Sacrament. Maybe I just didn’t want to be alone. I felt like a mask had fallen off, that my nakedness had been exposed, and I knew that the solution to the problem was not to cover my nakedness or pretend it hadn’t bothered me. The perfect opinion of me that I try to craft in the minds of other people – a holy priest, an eloquent speaker, a learned teacher – seemed to me so much chaff. I even saw the ugliness of my disguised narcissism masquerading as humility; I had wanted people to think in that moment, “Wow, I’m impressed he was able to take it in stride so well. He must not take himself that seriously.”
Something came back to me which I had read in my spiritual reading earlier that morning from Leiva-Merikakis’s Fire of Mercy:
The root of every authentic action is exclusively personal, since it is buried deep in my own singular heart, and only two persons witness its birth out of these depths: I who generate it, and God, who by addressing his word to me elicits the action as the sun elicits the growth of seeds…I must turn my attention away from a group-consciousness as ruling norm of my actions and fasten my glance on the source, rather than the impact, of my actions, and this in the sight of God, who is in heaven.
The providence of these words stung like a needle injecting a vaccine.
Somehow that moment in the oratory threw my entire experience of the Cubs’ victory in relief. Both were admixtures of joy and sorrow; both were bittersweet. But the bitterness of one was the sweetness of the other. The pain of one was to see joy but be unable to enter into it; the joy of the other was to feel pain and thereby enter into myself.
There were only two people to witness what happened in that oratory on Sunday morning, and there was no fanfare or parade. But for some reason that small perseverance through defeat to glory meant much more to me than the success of my favorite baseball team.
Rev. Connor Danstrom is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago and a host on the weekly podcast “Three Dogs North”.