Polamalu's faith, religion, spirituality, whatever

It's NFL playoffs time again and, of course, the hated Pittsburgh Steelers are once again poised to knock the Baltimore Ravens out of the playoffs. If this horrific reality comes to pass (again), there is a very good chance that the deed will be done by the Steelers' mane man, superstar safety Troy Polamalu. Personally, I think Polamalu is the best player in professional football and, yes, that includes the quarterback up in New England. But this is not a football post. It's a post about the improving -- but still rather strange -- coverage of Polamalu's Orthodox Christian faith.

Things have improved a bit since that 2007 Yahoo Sports piece in which reporter Jason Cole observed that the Polamalu had a "carefully arranged series of religious items in his locker at Heinz Field." How do icons of Jesus, Mary and patron saints turn into vague "religious items"?

There was a time when many stories referred to Polamalu as a Catholic, presumably because of his use of the sign of the cross during frequent prayers -- on and off the field. Of course, from a Catholic point of view -- at least the Western rites -- he was making the sign of the cross backwards, but never mind.

In this week's obligatory Baltimore Sun feature about the superstar safety and Raven's nemesis, we had this religious reference, including in the context of Polamalu being a quiet, low-key kind of competitor:

There is no topic he's particularly eager to discuss, even though he's the organizer of several charities and is a devoted follower of the Greek Orthodox religion. Putting a tape recorder or a microphone in his face is akin to asking a shy sixth grader to stand in front of the classroom and compete in the spelling bee. He'll do it, and he'll probably perform well, but only because he's too polite to say no.

A few comments. First, Polamalu is a convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity and he attends a Greek Orthodox parish and often, because of his Sunday travels, his family attends the intense, four-hour services at a nearby Orthodox monastery. But it is awkward, to say the least, to say that he follows the "Greek Orthodox religion." Is Orthodoxy a separate religion from, oh, Christianity?

Judaism is a religion. Islam is a religion. Hinduism is a religion. But "Baptist" is not a religion. "Methodist" is not a religion. Polamalu is a Christian who practices the Orthodox Christian faith.

Meanwhile, over at the New York Times, Polamalu is Greek Orthodox, period, and is following a "spiritual path." The word "Christian" is nowhere to be found, unless I missed it somehow. Yes, toward the end of the piece, he is described as kissing the "three-inch framed photos of the Virgin Mary and Jesus" before making the sign of the cross several times. Photographs? More likely, we're talking about icons.

However, there is this detailed description of this believer's journey into Orthodoxy and a reference to the "spiritual doctor" -- most Orthodox would say "spiritual father" -- and prayers that have helped to guide him on this journey.

"How many millions of people woke up in the morning, never to see the evening?" Polamalu read. And then: "The life of a man is a dream. In a dream, one sees things that do not exist; he might see that he is crowned a king, but when he wakes up, he sees that in reality he is just a pauper."

The book in Polamalu's hands, "Counsels From the Holy Mountain," guides him in football and in life. It contains the letters and homilies of a Greek Orthodox monk, Elder Ephraim, whom Polamalu described as his spiritual doctor.

Polamalu, 29, sought out the octogenarian monk, who resides in a monastery in southern Arizona, a few years ago, a meeting that led Polamalu to the place he described as "heaven on earth." It is a summit of sorts. But not the Super Bowl, though Polamalu won two championship rings in his first seven seasons with the Steelers. Neither of those journeys shaped him as profoundly as the pilgrimage he made to Mount Athos, a Greek Orthodox spiritual center in Greece.

While there, Polamalu said he witnessed humility and sacrifice in its deepest, purest forms and realized that for all their obvious differences, the spiritual path shared much with a Super Bowl journey.

This is where you really begin to sense that the journalists do not realize that Orthodoxy is larger than Greece. Saying that Mount Athos is "a Greek Orthodox spiritual center in Greece" is like saying that the World Cup is a soccer tournament. On top of that, the holy mountain contains monasteries from every corner of the Orthodox world, not just Greece.

Try telling millions of Russians that Athos is a center for Greek Orthodoxy -- alone. This reference is simply inaccurate and deserves a correction.

So, reporters, would you like to know how to handle these kinds of complex issues in a way that is simple, smooth and accurate? You need to read Godbeat veteran Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, of course. Observe the following, in a story about Orthodox Christmas rites, including Nativity Lent:

"We all celebrate Easter on the same day," said Mr. Polamalu, 29. Orthodoxy is the Eastern wing of the earliest Christian church, which split into the Orthodox and Catholic churches in 1054. He and Theodora converted to Orthodoxy about five years ago. His background was Catholic and Protestant, hers Muslim and Protestant. They were Christians in search of a deeper, more consistent experience of God.

"Orthodoxy is like an abyss of beauty that's just endless," he said. "I have read the Bible many times. But after fasting, and being baptized Orthodox, it's like reading a whole new Bible. You see the depth behind the words so much more clearly."

That fasting is a Christmastime difference between Eastern and Western Christians. While many Americans pile on the food from Thanksgiving to Christmas, Orthodox Christians start fasting Nov. 15 or 28.

And so forth and so on. The Greeks are important, obviously. But Orthodox Christianity -- or Eastern Orthodox Christianity -- is the wider, more expansive way to talk about this ancient faith.

Come on, people! Just do the background work.

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