Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Orthodox Celebrities


OK, sure, I live in Arizona. The Cardinals lost. Yeah, I was disappointed. But the Superbowl was probably the fourth football game I've watched in my life. Its the third one I've watched in the past year including the last Superbowl that I watched with my son who was from Boston. (The last one before that was when Bart Starr lept over the top of the Dallas defense in the final seconds to win the AFC championship in ... ummm, 1966?) So, all that to say, this isn't sour grapes.... I'm not that invested in "my hometown team".

Anyway, I've probably gotten a dozen or more emails and seen as many blog posts about.... (I had to stop here to look up his name) Troy Polamalu, the Orthodox football player for the Steelers, who frequents St. Anthony's Monastery and talks to the Elder for spiritual direction. I guess that makes him.... what? Either an Orthodox Christian who happens to be a football star, or a football star who happens to be Orthodox.

If he's an Orthodox Christian who happens to be a football star, he's no different than any other Orthodox Christian. I know Orthodox Christians who happen to be secretaries, cable installers, CEO's, cooks, janitors, tile setters and recovering this and thats. All of them are serious about their faith, some of them even go to St. Anthony's and talk to the Elder. All of them are kinda screwed up in their own unique ways and are struggling to become like Christ in their private arenas. Whose spiritual warfare is harder, Troy or the cable installer or the cook? We don't know. But I do know no one sends around emails about them.

If he's a football star who happens to be Orthodox, he's no different than any other Orthodox Christian. The question we have to ask is "Why does his stardom (or anyone's stardom) add anything to our regard for him as an Orthodox Christian?" The answer to that question is probably more about us than about him. His icons are already all over the internet. His hagiography is published in blogs and emails. I'm sure that if it could be aquired, relics of his hair and Superbowl sweat and threads of his grass stained jersey would be coveted by many. But in reality he's a Steeler, not a Saint. Perhaps by the grace of God he will be a saint one day, but until that day the fact that he can tackle someone is no more a plus or minus to the work he has to do to attain sainthood than cleaning a toilet well, troubleshooting a cable connection or grilling a burger medium rare.

I think we would do well to temper our enthusiasm for Orthodox celebrities. Worldly accomplishments are admirable within a small set of parameters no matter what anyone does. I can't tackle Larry Fitzgerald, Troy probably can't frame a barrel vaulted ceiling. It just happens that if you can tackle Larry you can make 7 million a year and be watched by 3 billion people missing a tackle. But what does that have to do with being Orthodox? What makes us both Orthodox is the inner life and the spiritual warfare in the context of our unique lives within the Church. The spiritual warfare is just as intense and just as hard for the cable guy in a one bedroom trailer with a minimum wage job and a child on the way as it is driving home from the locker room of the Superbowl champions in a Ferrari.

OK, I do think its cool he's Orthodox. If I see him at St. Anthony's I might be tempted for a couple seconds to ask for his autograph or at least say hi to him so I can tell my kids I said HI to Troy. I'm still human. But so is he, and we should hold him in the same regard and with the same awe as the person who is standing next to us in Liturgy: both are seeking the Kingdom and both are in the arena in mortal combat with the devil for the salvation of their souls. And perhaps some day both will be Saints.


-C said...

Ah, yes .. the GO, US!/ Hooray-for-our-side syndrome. I have noticed this all over the blogosphere, too and it made me laugh and sigh at the same time, for just the reasons you mention.

I am certainly no football fan (I'm afraid I have a bit of disdain for all professional sports), but when a friend excitedly told me that Polamalu (I had to stop and look it up, too) is Orthodox, I could only think to reply that "knowing he is Orthodox no more makes me a fan of football than knowing my gynecologist is Orthodox would make me a fan of my - er - yearly exam."

Trevor-Peter said...

Perhaps the missed--or at least downplayed--point here is that he's not different from any other Orthodox Christian (which you said at least twice), but he is different from many other athletes. I'll admit that I got just a little bit interested in Troy. It was the novelty of finding a celebrity who's Orthodox, known to be Orthodox, and seems (at least from what little I've seen written about him) to leave something of a positive impression (probably bruises too).

Since I otherwise had no favorite in the Super Bowl, it was at least something to pique my interest. For those who are already football fans, I suppose it's better to root for someone because he's Orthodox than because he sends more people to the hospital or ends up in a widely publicized court case.

I guess maybe the biggest plus for me has to do with the "huh?" factor when I'm talking to non-Orthodox friends and family about what I'm up to. I could bring up St. Silouan and watch their eyes glaze over as I try to explain who he is and why he's significant. (When I was reading St. Silouan the Athonite, by Archm. Sophrony, my wife looked at it and said, "I almost don't recognize a single word on the cover of that book.") When it comes to finding a familiar anchor, sometimes My Big Fat Greek Wedding and the Seinfeld episode where George attempts to convert to Latvian Orthodox for a girl he's dating get a little tired. With so little out there, even a relatively neutral example from pop culture can have its uses.

s-p said...

-C, LOL!
Trevor-Peter, It is interesting that the "secular press" picked up on the "Orthodox angle". In one sense that is positive press for the Church insofar as Troy is a positive model of an Orthodox Christian...but we all know what happens when someone stumbles in his faith once it has been publicized then made a celebrity not only in the secular press but also within the Church. I admit that part of my knee jerk to this is having been part of the "cult of personality " Evangelical culture that holds up sports figures, actors etc. to the public as virtual saints then watching them run for cover when the person fails to live up to the hype. But your point is also taken, it is a touchstone for non-Orthodox people to see Orthodoxy is "mainstream" WE regard the celebrities and do we present that fact to the public in a sober way is the issue in my mind.

Mimi said...

Tee hee, -C.

I call those movies, books, tv shows, etc. "Orthodox sightings" and while I don't think they are the beall and endall of our Orthodox experience, I *do* think it is neat to have the article around and did forward it to my son.

Much better than Alex Rodriguez who apparently converted when he married, and is now publically and nastially divorcing. And, we won't even go into Blago.

Mary said...

I'm a sports fan, and I'm as guilty as anybody at being excited to find that a star athlete is a devout Christian - and then to find out he's Orthodox - wow! That's really exciting to me! I do understand your point - we should not put people on pedestals because all of us are in the same boat, paddling upstream toward Christ against a raging torrent of our own passions and the world around us. I have also noticed the same sort of "celebrity adulation" even with our new Metropolitan Jonah. I was blessed to meet him during his short time in Dallas, and I feel the same sort of excitement I feel for Troy Polamalu whenever I read an article about him or hear him speak. I guess it's part of our American culture, or maybe just my sinfulness that causes me to focus on the wrong things. Lord have mercy on me!

Anonymous said...

From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers:

“The holy Fathers were making predictions about the last generation. They said, ‘What have we ourselves done?’ One of them, the great Abba Ischyrion replied, ‘We ourselves have fulfilled the commandments of God’. The others replied, ‘And those who come after us, what will they do?’ He said, ‘They will struggle to achieve half our works’. They said, ‘And to those who come after them, what will happen?’ He said, ‘The men of that generation will not accomplish any works at all and temptation will come upon them; and those who will be approved in that day will be greater than either us or our fathers.’”

A Greek Orthodox monk explained how this saying might apply during the evil time towards the End by saying, “Simply doing the Sign of the Cross will be like a martyrdom.”

Okay, we’re not (hopefully) near the End Time, but I must confess that seeing this spiritual athlete doing what came naturally to him - crossing himself in the arena in front of millions of around the world during this particular evil time in which we are living - was a thrill and an echo of the lesson that the monk gave to me.

As for me and my family, I'm thrilled that my two sons have taken courage from Polamalu's crossing himself (itself a somewhat small gesture - yet undeniably magnified by the television and the press)in plain sight and now will do so, as will I the formerly shy father in public as warranted (before and after eating, before undertaking a journey, task, etc.).

Polamalu named his son, Paisios.

It is obvious that Polamalu has taken these words from his son's patron Saint, Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain, to heart:

“In the old days, Christians would make the sign of the cross before doing anything and pray hard before tackling an important matter.”

s-p said...

Anon, I don't think doing the sign of the cross is quite martyrdom yet either, but yeah, it was cool to see it and yes, if we teach our kids properly and give them a sober view of celebrities and they find some reassurance and boldness to be more Orthodox because of Troy, glory to God. I just remember a local Protestant talk show host who did a program on Orthodoxy (the interview with me and Bill is in our radio program archives) the end of the program he listed the names of celebrities who are Orthodox. About half of them I cringed when he read the names. I guess I'm just not of the mind that we need celebrities to validate our existence, but its definitely part of our culture and maybe even part of our humanity (which part is up for debate...) that we find some connection to people whose fame is in an earthly arena and who share something in common with us whether it is our religion or nationality or some other trait. Again, its not about Troy's relative piety or even his fame, its more about are we regarding him soberly and even prayerfully since he is indeed in the public eye and is being put forth by the media and by many in the Church as "one of us". May God be merciful to him indeed!

Benedict Seraphim said...

Color me non-plussed, in either direction. Sure, Steve, having come from somewhat similar religious arenas as yourself, I get the aversion to celebrity. The somewhat dated examples of Sandi Patti's divorce, and Amy Grant's rather messy triangle o' romance, definitely leaves one with a strong aversion to elevating someone already in the limelight to a status higher than they deserve (or than we deserve to have them in--if that makes sense). And yes, I definitely get the aversion to the cringeworthy antics and words of the Blago and of Mr. Rita Wilson.

But I guess I also don't get the properly disclaimed curmudgeonliness regarding Polamalu (and, being a rabid Steelers fan, I didn't have to look it up ;-) ). If your point is that Troy is normal like me, however you view the matter, then why react to his celebrity status--or, rather, react to others reacting to his celebrity status? Why react at all?

Is there any reason to think he *will* fall and cause others to stumble? Is there any reason to think that his faith isn't genuine? Yes, people have made something of his hour-long trip to St Anthony's prior to the last time they played Arizona? But isn't that less an Orthodox reaction to celebrity than a secular headscratcher for the reporter who likely doesn't understand religion at all? I mean, the sensational, if you will, things being reported about Troy seem to be more about the inability of secular reporters to deal with what is apparently a sincere desire to go deep into the Faith while also playing professional football, than it does about SOYO'ers/OCF'ers going gaga over Polamalu.

Okay, maybe he seems a little "too devout" for someone in pro sports--and I think some of you know what I'm getting at here. But how is that any different than many peoples' reaction to Father Seraphim Rose.

If Troy's the real deal, time will tell. let us just be thankful for the blessings his life of faith is providing at such a high profile. Let us pray that those taken with his celebrity will be granted by the Spirit to see his Faith. And Let us beg God that he remains true to our Faith.

And then let us ask God to forgive our own very many sins and to redouble our own efforts to pray and to struggle in grace.

But of course, STeve, maybe I just completely missed your point altogether. If so, forgive me.

s-p said...

Benedict-Seraphim, As always a well reasoned thought. My intent (intentions are what pave the road to hell, of course), was not to tear Troy down, but to elevate the struggle of those we fail to notice who are not celebrities. He is a human being like all of us and in the end "man looketh upon the outward appearance but the Lord looketh upon the heart". After spending a few weeks at the homeless shelter I know some "celebrities" of spiritual combat that very few people will ever meet. Why react at all? Good question. It was probably more about me working out my curmudgeonly gut reaction to the dozen emails I got after the Superbowl than anything else...and of course MY reaction was "spiritual"... :)

My intent was not to imply that he is "not all that" or will ultimately disappoint and scandalize, I pray he is, and that he won't. My reaction was more to say "Look at everyone and not merely through the lens of what makes someone a celebrity in the estimation of the world"...The heroes of faith come from all walks of life (including football), and as I said, I hope we can stand in as much awe of the "marginal" person in our parish who is engaged in a life and death struggle as we do of Troy, who in his own arena is struggling too, perhaps even more than we can imagine. No forgiveness necessary...its only a blog. :)

Jesse (still sore about SB 42 & 43) said...

I think we're all missing the real point here. The man plays for the Steelers. No wonder he frequents the monastery. I can only imagine the penance that must be prescribed when you play for a team like that. :-)

Mike Spreng said...

Well said, fellow Phoenician!

justjamey said...

As always, good and helpful thoughts, Steve. I'd like to throw kudos to Trevor-Peter as well.

I was pretty excited when I heard about Troy, even though I don't care about football. I was also excited when I met one of the members of Sonic Flood (an evangelical "worship" band) who is an Orthodox Christian (still not sure how all that works out entirely), as is the current drummer for Ben Folds. I was also excited when I found out my longtime friend Mike Spreng was becoming Orthodox, and as far as I know, he's not famous. :)

I like your conclusion, Steve. At the end, we are all side by side, struggling in grace. May God preserve us all.

Rebecca said...

We saw him there a few months ago! :)