Play as a Spiritual Practice

The following is an extract from the book Heaven All Around Us: Discovering God in Everyday Life. At the conclusion of a chapter entitled God on the Sports Field, I offer this brief reflection on play as a spiritually formative practice.

It’s worth a thought!

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According to the prophet Zechariah, the great city of God is one where “old men and old women” sit together on the sidewalks watching “boys and girls playing in its streets” (Zech 8:4–5). There is something about the free play of children that conveys life at its most harmonious. Images of children playing amidst the rubble of cities torn apart by war are images of hope; life goes on. Certainly, one of the great delights of my life is to watch a child play. 

I recall watching my son play alone in the backyard sandpit when he was a child. His rich imaginary world and his dedication to careful construction came together in his tunnels and towers of sand. I remember, too, watching my daughter play games with friends at the local playground, her lifelong preference for people management to the fore. At the same time she learned the painful art of compromise in favor of a shared world of imaginary scenarios. Though with different personalities, both children were completely consumed by their world of play. Observing such children, educator Micheline Wyn Moriarty concludes that the worlds they inhabit are those of “wonder and delight for their own sake” and in which they develop “inner spiritual resources” and “forge connections” with the earth and each other.

There is something in this that sounds like the beginnings of a spiritual practice, no matter what our age or stage of life. It is in play that various truths are affirmed, values cemented, and discoveries made. It is in playfulness that we discern afresh God’s creativity, beauty, laughter, and delight. In what ways, then, can we embrace play as an intentional spiritual practice, one that leads us deeper into the way of Jesus? There are many possibilities, but I begin with those that follow. 

1. Play as an Act of Pleasure

Jesuit theologian Hugo Rahner describes play as our participation in the divine, “a way in which our spirits return home to God.” In play, he says, we take the inviting hands of God and together we dance. It is a dance of pure pleasure, one entirely without purpose other than the dance itself: “In play, earthly realities become, of a sudden, things of the transient moment, presently left behind, then disposed of and buried in the past.” In play “the mind is prepared to accept the unimagined and incredible.” 

There is something of this pleasure with God that is embodied uniquely in play. It is a pleasure captured in the Douay translation of Psalm 8, an English version of the Vulgate dating back to the 1500s: 

“The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his ways, before he made anything from the beginning. I was set up from eternity, and of old before the earth was made . . . I was with him forming all things: and was delighted every day, playing before him at all times; playing in the world. And my delights were to be with the children of men.”

This idea of playing in the presence and pleasure of God was very much in the mind of the Scottish athlete Eric Liddell, whose run in the 1924 Summer Olympics was celebrated in the 1981 Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire. Molded by a dour Presbyterian faith, his sister was concerned that the trivial pursuits of running would lead him away from the mission of the church. “God made me fast, Jenny,” Liddell responded reassuringly, “and when I run I feel God’s pleasure.” It is this sense of pleasure in play that I hear people name routinely. First, of course, it is their own pleasure but, when prodded to take it further, it becomes a window into the pleasure of God. It is there on the hockey field and in the quilting circle; on the running track or the tennis court; in the spectator stands at the football stadium and the walking track through bushlands; in the children’s sandpit and the dance hall. In all of this is the opportunity to play before God, to rediscover the exuberance of what is unnecessary yet truly life-giving.

Isabell swims. With a squad, she trains three mornings each week at the Melbourne Aquatic Centre. On Saturdays she swims alone and for much longer. I serve as a supervisor in her training for hospital chaplaincy and we meet routinely. Recently, we sat together on the banks of the river that winds its way through the city center, and Isabelle described the role swimming plays in her life. She called it a meditative act. Lap after lap, she said, her body and mind move in sync with each other: “There has always been something about it that calms me. When I swim I feel my body as so much a part of me, like an extension of my spirit.” Isabell told me of the prayer that has become part of her Saturday morning ritual in the pool. As she touches the wall and turns at one end of her lane she says, “This body is your gift to me, O Lord” and touching the wall at the opposite end, “I receive it with thanks.” As we watched a solitary rower pass by on the river below, Isabelle reflected on ways swimming blends with her spirituality. “The pleasure of it goes far deeper than the outcomes,” she said. “It’s not so much about speed or fitness or anything like that. It’s more to do with a deeper well-being that I feel in the pool, a peace of mind that envelopes me. It’s a beautiful thing. I can’t imagine life without it.” 

2. Play as an Act of Surrender 

At its best, a spiritual practice is a routine means by which we offer our lives to God and open ourselves to the transforming work of God’s Spirit. We do so in our regular reading of the Bible, Sunday worship, habits of prayer and meditation, and even in periodic commitments to fasting or silence. Of course, the concurrent danger of practices like these is that they become works of righteousness, means through which we seek to prove our spiritual mettle or justify ourselves as worthy of God’s acceptance: if only I pray longer, confess more tearfully, or fast more stringently, then I might graduate to a higher level of perfection. How easy it is to fall into what John Coe calls “the temptation of moral formation,” seeking growth in our own power, purity, or achievement.  

There is a particular danger of this in embracing physical exercise or training as a spiritual discipline. As you watch a young man in a gymnasium lift weights in front of a full-length mirror, interrogating his every move and muscle in the reflection he sees, the dangers become clear. If all we can see in the reflection is ourselves—our successes and our failings in bold relief—then our spirituality becomes an obsession of self-interest. Worse still, we miss the true gift of being gathered up in the beauty, goodness, and grace of God. 

It is here that play as a spiritual practice shows its worth, for play is an act of freedom not obligation, one of delight not seriousness. The French sociologist Roger Caillois calls it “an occasion of pure waste.” As such, play allows pleasure to come to the fore. As in the pursuit of music and art, so through the playfulness of life we give expression to freedom and allow laughter and pleasure their place. “Unmitigated seriousness betokens a lack of virtue,” Thomas Aquinas once said, “because it wholly despises play, which is as necessary for the good human life as rest is.” A regular commitment to play has the potential to heal and release us from what Rahner identifies as our “idiotic earnestness” and “senseless preoccupation with the things of this world.” 

To embrace play as a spiritual practice is to be reminded of just how ridiculous our own self-justifying efforts are, as serious as they may be. The truth is, spiritual practices were never intended as means to salvation, but, as Michael Austin has said, as a way of “opening ourselves up to God and his transformative power.” In acts of play we surrender ourselves to the foolishness of grace.

3. Play as an Act of Reclamation

If we were to stand in a field together and you threw a ball or a Frisbee for me to catch, I would be an awkward recipient. Though I am now a man in my fifties, the prospect of shame associated with the childhood business of throwing and catching lingers. I may be able to name that fear for what it is and the toothless beast it always was, but my awkwardness at the sight of a ball has not budged. 

Like many children, my memories of games in the schoolyard are filled with associations of inadequacy. I always preferred the library. The only physical activity I did not loathe was in the swimming pool, and then with only moderate levels of success. I learned early to mistrust my body, to wish that I was built differently, to judge it as weak and deficient. I learned, too, that games are rarely separate from competition and the drive to win among those who naturally excel. If my body is in possession of a competitive bone, I have not discovered it yet. What’s more, the competiveness of others leaves me mystified and intimidated. 

I was well into my twenties when I first tasted play untouched by competition or the ascendancy of winners. I was a young pastor-in-training and posted to a small congregation in rural Queensland. The church building was a small wooden chapel that stood alone in a field far from the nearest town. There was not a street light to be seen. After an evening service one Sunday, the congregation dispersed into the night. The last to leave, I turned out the lights and locked the main door of the chapel behind me. As I walked out in the surrounding field that served as the church parking lot, the only light came from the moon above. Standing by my car was a small group of young people, just five of them. As I came closer I could see one was holding what looked like a basketball, though it was difficult to make out. “Ever played dark ball?” one of them asked. “Um, no!” I said. That familiar sense of dread was immediate. “C’mon then!” With that one of the young women grabbed my arm and pulled me out into the center of the field. I could not see the others but I could hear their voices. “What do we do?” I called out. “You don’t want to get hit by the ball,” one said excitedly. “Just try and catch it so you can hit someone else with it.” “But I can’t see anything. It’s too dark!” “That’s the point!” the young woman exclaimed as the ball suddenly appeared between us. For the next thirty minutes, we ran and threw and dodged and tripped over ourselves and each other. All we could hear were our shrieks of laughter, and the constant cry, “I can’t find it!” 

The most liberating thing of that night’s play was that no one could see me. No one could see my lack of coordination or my clumsiness. There was just uproarious laughter as we tripped and fell into tangled heaps on the ground. I had not laughed so hard or moved so fast in all of my life. And it was glorious! No competition, no judgement, no fear, no glaring inadequacy for all to see. It was just fun, the most wonderful and uninhibited fun. I drove home that night exhilarated, feeling alive in a way I had rarely experienced before. 

The very word play implies something free and liberating. Whether it’s on a sports field or a stage, on a basketball court or sitting at a board game, the designation play reminds us that we are embodied people. The reclamation of our bodies and the playfulness inherent to them is a practice as freeing as it is routine. 

Theologian Stephanie Paulsell writes of her own adult rediscovery of running. Like me, she recalls with ease the humiliations of the school yard and the taunts of other children mocking her flailing arms on the running track. For years she avoided running and its shame and assumed her body to be a thing best hidden. Even in the early days of relationship with her husband-to-be, himself a seasoned runner, she managed to send him off on his own. It was only when he insisted that she join him that Paulsell was faced with a choice. Committed to her new relationship, she ventured tentatively onto the pavement. Gradually, emboldened by his belief in her, Paulsell decided to leave her past narrative behind and to feel her body again. It was her spiritual awakening. 

“I sprinted down the last half of the track, Kevin matching me stride for stride, and felt in every muscle the pleasure of exertion, of pushing my body beyond its boundaries. It was a physical pleasure, the pleasure of feeling myself wholly embodied, of feeling blood and breath moving through me. It was a spiritual pleasure, the relief of feeling old fears and inhibitions drained of their power, a feeling of freedom and possibility. And it was a sexual pleasure, the pleasure of feeling someone I love drawing out my strength, urging me on, matching his body rhythm to mine. It is one of my husband’s enduring gifts to me that he reintroduced me to the joy of bodily exertion. Through honoring my body and its strength, he helped me begin to do the same.”

There is something about play embraced as a spiritual practice that enables us to reclaim our bodies as temples of the Spirit and of God’s abundant creativity; to reclaim God’s gifts of pleasure through the sun on our backs, the air in our lungs, or the consuming focus of games into which we disappear for intervals of time. Like birdsong that has no purpose other than the simple pleasure of sound, or flowers that fill a garden with nothing but color, play is a reclamation of all that is spare and surplus to life. It is the reclamation of grace. 

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Depending on where you are, you can purchase the book in a number of places.

If you are in Australia, the best place to go is the local distributor Morning Star Publishing. You can also order it through Book Depository.

If you are in the US, you can order directly through Wipf & Stock, Amazon or ChristianBooks.

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