The Duke of Wellington is reported to have said that the Battle of Waterloo was won long before on the playing fields of Eton. Alyssa Bormes doesn’t quite say that the Battle of Armageddon will have been won on the backyard hockey rinks of Minnesota, but she’s clear in her new book, The Catechism of Hockey (ACS Press, 2013), that she thinks many of the spiritual battles in American Catholic families might be fought better if parents paid more to attention to the analogies to hockey while they explain the analogy of faith.
I know, I know. A whole book on the analogy of hockey to Catholic faith? It sounds like one of those Saturday Night Live sketches that starts well and then drags on for minutes that seem like days. But the book is actually not that long (199 pages) and flows nicely due to Bormes’s style. She punctuates her points with parables, personal stories, and historic moments from hockey as well as other sports. What’s more, Bormes is able to take on all sorts of topics of faith and morals in a way that makes them more understandable. She understands that arcane dogmas and moral codes are not off-putting: sports parents, especially dads, instinctively catechize their own children in the most obscure quasi-theological topics such as the nature of the infield fly rule, what constitutes pass interference, and what off-side means. Bormes doesn’t cite the particular passage in the book, but it’s this insight of St. Paul that captured Bormes when she first started to think about sports as a religion: “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Tim 2:5).
Life Outside of the Rules
I met Alyssa nine years ago when she was taking a course from my wife in the master’s program in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. My wife had told me about a tall, broad-shouldered woman in her class with a great booming laugh, a great heart, and a great mind. Meeting Alyssa was a little like meeting a female Chesterton—deeply faithful, kind to all, and utterly commonsensical. Unlike Chesterton she was even somewhat practical. She certainly broke conventions but was in love with the commandments. But she hadn’t always competed in life according to the rules. This Thanksgiving I sat down with her to talk a little bit about her book and her life.
The youngest of eight children in a practicing Catholic family in Aberdeen, South Dakota, Alyssa went off to college at South Dakota State University and promptly ceased to attend Mass or practice her faith. Unmoored, she was looking for boundaries, and she found them in men. She describes her college and post-college years as “a parade of bad men and a host of dangers every which way. Five good men that I dated and I chased them all off.” Why the bad men? They were better at providing boundaries than the good men were, even if the cost was her own dignity. A young woman, she says, “will cash in what you believe because you’re waiting on this promise of love.” Sin and sorrow was the warp and woof of her life. She didn’t hit bottom until her early thirties when she was living in Minnesota and, ironically, married, to an exciting but also lost young man. “I married a man who made me find my soul because our marriage was so dangerous.”
The marriage lasted about eighteen months. In the aftermath Alyssa was broken down enough to look back again at the Catholic faith she had abandoned about fifteen years before. She made the acquaintance of the late Paul Dudley, saintly retired bishop of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, who heard her confession and gently taught her how to love the Man who set boundaries that were healthy. Her conversion wasn’t instantaneous, however. “I was a petulant teen in coming back. One day the rules of the Church were great because they allowed me to breathe, but the next I would think, ‘I can do this on my own,’ and get back into trouble. But eventually I returned to Mass consistently and confession consistently. After a while I found I understood the rules. I understood the logic behind them. Now I knew why I had felt so bad for so long.”
From Disciple to Apostle
During this period of re-learning the rules and rhythms of the life of discipleship Bormes put her psychology degree to use in a job as a bill collector. Her life was “calm,” she says, “with no self-imposed chaos.” After two years, Bishop Dudley decided that it was time she became not just a disciple, but an apostle as well. Bormes wasn’t so sure. But the bishop kept pushing. Finally, in a phone call sometime in 2000, Bishop Dudley, “in complete exasperation, said, ‘Here’s what you are going to do. Go to St. Thomas and get your master’s in Catholic Studies. Next year you are going to Rome for a year because no one gets the Roman experience in one semester.”
This time, Bormes gave in. The next day she called Don Briel, director of the Center for Catholic Studies, and said, “Bishop Dudley says you have to do whatever you have to do to get me in this fall.” Dr. Briel’s laconic response was, “Well, I suppose you should come in and pick up a packet.”
She did make it into the program, excited to be learning more about the faith she had re-embraced, but nervous about how little she really knew about it. She recalls arriving before her first class in the program and listening to other students talking about names she wasn’t familiar with. One name, “Aquinas,” kept coming up. Bormes thought this was the name of the professor. She gradually caught on, however. My wife, a professional philosopher who later served on her M. A. thesis committee, has told me that Alyssa’s thesis—“Is Frozen Embryo Adoption Morally Permissible According to the Catholic Church?”—is still one of the best M. A. theses she has ever read.
Since finishing the degree Bormes started her apostolic work, serving several years as a teacher at Chesterton Academy, the school co-founded by Dale Ahlquist, and also working as a director of religious education at a couple different parishes around the Twin Cities. She’s now working for Ahlquist’s American Chesterton Society while doing a lot of speaking and writing. And she’s discovered that, while she really loves catechizing kids, the key to renewing the Catholic faith here in America is to re-evangelize parents so that they can become the first catechists of their own children.
The Heart of the Book—the Box
About six years ago, when Bormes was ruminating about her own re-conversion and about the ways in which sports are treated as a religion, she suddenly had her vision about how nearly all of the specific things people complain about in Catholic faith are present in sports—and specifically hockey. Why hockey? I assumed it was because Bormes was a child hockey player or simply because she’s in Minnesota, where hockey is the religion. But Bormes rode horses and danced as a child, and being in Minnesota was only the occasion for her noticing something distinctly Catholic about hockey: it was all about the sacrament of penance.
As she explains in her chapter, “The Box”: “When a skater breaks the rules, penalties are assessed. Depending on the severity, major or minor penalties are imposed. Upon receiving a penalty, the skater goes to the box.” Right there we have the distinction between mortal and venial sins, not to mention the confessional itself. In hockey, the slang term for the penalty box is “the sin bin.” Most poignant of all, hockey is one of the only sports where a team is forced to play short-handed when a player is penalized. Only after going to the box and doing penance is the player allowed to return. But when the player does return, “forgiven” as it were, it is as if the sin has been wiped away. Bormes recounts how at University of Minnesota hockey games, when a penalty is over, the announcer will say, “The Gophers are at full strength!” The crowd’s response is, “They always were!” The offense, Bormes says, “is gone; in a sense it is as if it never happened.” But there may still be consequences from that time of playing short-handed—such as getting behind on the scoreboard. So, too, after confession and penance, “Spiritually, the sin may be gone, but the consequences of the sin may remain.”
Sin and forgiveness are at the center of the book, but for Bormes many other aspects of Catholic life are examined in comparison with hockey. She is interested, primarily, in reaching Catholic parents who brush off fully teaching their children about the faith but will drive any length, spend any amount of money, and nag their kids to no end about learning and practicing slap shots, passing, and all manner of sports techniques. In her chapter “Hockey is fun,” she tells the story of a friend who married into a “hockey family.” At first the woman found her husband and her children’s sport of choice to be merely endurable but boring, but after being challenged to actually learn about the sport, she became almost as fanatical as her children. If only, Bormes wishes, people who complain about the Mass being “boring” would bother to learn a bit more about it.
Bormes doesn’t back away from controversial areas either, writing chapters on the all-male priesthood, premarital sex, modest dress in Church, giving money to the Church, and even contraception. In all, she is both clever and usually direct. One can hear the former bill-collector in her when she repeats important bits two or three times in a row, usually with a verbal pointer like “Did you hear that?” Some might find this tone a bit too didactic, but if you’ve read any books about sports technique lately, you’ll realize that Bormes knows her audience. If one could criticize the book, it is to say that occasionally Bormes overestimates how much the average Catholic hockey dads and moms know about Catholicism. I’m not sure many Catholics under 45 have even heard the phrase “offer it up” and, for some readers, the chapter on contraception might have been a little more blunt.
If the early reactions are any indicator, enough of the book is getting through to make people move from the Catechism of Hockey to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Bormes has been giving talks based on the book for several years already and is doing more now that the book is out. She tells me that while moms appreciate it, dads are the ones who will often come up to tell her that they now “get it.” They are often the “sports head of the family”; they now realize that they need to be the spiritual head of the family as well. They already teach rules that are hard to live by and dogmas that are not immediately obvious. Now they can prepare their children not just for the Stanley Cup, but the victor’s crown of heaven.