In the wake of the communal celebrations in our city on the promotion of Leeds United to the Premier League, Hannah Stone, our Poet Theologian in Residence, expresses her hope we can celebrate new forms of togetherness, reshaping our identities and recapturing joy, as we emerge from lockdown.
Once again, I feel moved to diverge from a consideration of how lockdown is being experienced by the communities of Leeds to consider another matter, this time one of communal celebration. I am not sporty, but could not fail to notice that Leeds United had been promoted to the Premier League and then, overnight, as if by magic, to champions. So I wondered about celebrations in the midst of hardship, as well as researching some more serious stuff about ‘Muscular Christianity’ (popular in the nineteenth century as a means of encouraging young men to divert their attention and energies from less wholesome choices into sporting activity, to the greater glory of God, and for the social as well as physical benefits.) Team sports are a great way to learn to work together with others, to share in a common endeavour, to make connections and to encourage others. These days, sports of all kinds are enjoyed by women and men throughout the world, and rarely with a religious agenda, though some football team anthems in the UK do still show vestiges of the input of sporty curates. We may also recall the Christmas Truce when for a few peaceful hours in December 1914, German and English soldiers kicked a ball around no-man’s land, putting aside the war that was being waged between their nations.
The image of the ‘spiritual athlete’ is not new: St Paul’s letters refer to it in several places, for example: 1 Cor.9.24-5: ‘Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one received the prize. Run in such a way that you may obtain it.’ The ‘prize’ here is salvation. The discipline and self-sacrifice required by asceticism saw this idea commonly used in the writings of early eastern Christian ascetics, where the necessity of training was much emphasized. But we can also welcome the opportunity to just share good news. As much as anything, maybe now the people of Leeds welcome a temporary respite from the concerns and privations of lockdown. With anxious and uncertain times ahead, a cause for celebration with members of your ‘tribe’ is surely welcome.
My choice of poetry to illustrate some of these themes is from Nick Allen, a Wakefield born poet who works in Leeds. It captures that sense of common purpose, exhilaration and escape beautifully, how a shared objective can make you feel so much more in touch with the bigger picture. Nick is not writing with an eye to any religious message but he graciously gave me permission to quote from his work which you can find in his book the riding, available from Otley based Half Moon Books.
… we had
barely started to shave but for eighty
minutes we were acne-riddled gods
making snow-flurry galaxies as we chased
this thing haphazard around the universe
of our field
As we emerge from lockdown, perhaps we can celebrate new forms of togetherness, reshaping our identities, recapturing joy.