Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Between the rabbits and the snobs

I love to watch a game of tennis as is currently possible with the US Open championships. For me it offers a glimpse of life where winning and losing is part of the journey and where people are constantly challenged to handle both with dignity. And then of course it always remains intriguing to see the good players construct a point – outmanoeuvering their opponents, playing delicate angles and then, when they seem stranded, clinching the point with a spectacular winner.

Until some injuries started to hamper me, I enjoyed playing tennis myself. For many years hitting and chasing a tennis ball and competing with passion and commitment, was an important part of my life and my main form of exercise. Tennis also offered a context in which I was privileged to meet many new people and over the years, make some of my very best friends.

Way back, when I was on my way to my first parish in Somerset East, the news of my love for tennis travelled fast, so that shortly before my wife and I arrived there, I received a letter from the chairperson of the local tennis club, welcoming us to their town and inviting me warmly to join their club. I was of course thrilled and appreciated this friendly gesture. What I did not know at the time - and that we only discovered on our arrival - was that the town had two tennis clubs. We also discovered that the clubs used to be united, but had split because of internal differences, jealousy and strife. At the time the split caused a lot of unhappiness, bitterness and anxiety – a history that was reflected in the different names that were used to signify the clubs. The one club was referred to as “rabbits” and the other as “snobs”.

You can imagine the dilemma it created at the time for me as a new minister. Not only was I suddenly drawn into a history of strife and division, forcing me to take sides - it even put my vocation and my deeper motive for playing tennis under scrutiny. Did I play tennis primarily for the sake of competing and developing my own game? Or was it supposed to be for the social good, to meet kindred spirits regardless of the standard of their game? Or could it be both? This was my further problem: most of the so-called rabbits were members of our church, but the standard of their club’s tennis was as their name suggested, pretty average. The so-called snobs on the other hand, were generally very good players, but in terms of commitment to religion and church, many either belonged to another denomination, or were more sceptical and less involved.

It did not take me too long to make my decision. I joined the snobs – not because I felt snobbish or had any missionary intention, but simply because I wanted to be able to relax and enjoy my tennis - and for me strong, honest competition had always been part of this enjoyment. In making the choice I felt I remained true to myself, living out one of my keener passions and also acknowledging and honouring what I saw as a God-given talent – that is, to play a good game of tennis and enjoy it with others.

Looking back today I know that, in terms of Ignatian wisdom, deciding for any of the two clubs had benefits and would have been a good choice, but that taking everything into account and especially who I was as a person and player, I had made the better choice. What I soon found out, was that most people in the weaker, so-called rabbit-club did not blindly project the snob-image onto me; in fact, many with whom I had played the odd privately organised game, accepted and respected my choice, some even saying that they felt I fitted there. What is more, most of the so-called snobs – whom I soon discovered were never really that arrogant – became very good friends. Some also became interested in my spiritual work and moved closer to the church, which again helped to break down many of the prejudices and skewed perceptions that informed the enmity between the clubs.

This, together with the growing conviction that one should never ignore or compromise the voice of your inner and deeper passions, made the four years we spent in Somerset-East an outstandingly happy and blessed period of our lives.

Carel Anthonissen

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