The Theology of Play
The first month or so of quarantine when the entire world simultaneously ground to a halt, I saw glimmers of what I hoped would be a lasting trend around my neighborhood: families playing together. The streets were crowded in the late afternoons with whole families on bike rides. Yards overflowed with children squealing happily as parents chased them about. Intricate chalk mazes and murals dotted every sidewalk and driveway.
Perhaps naturally, however, as both the novelty of the pandemic began to wear off and as some parts of society began to relax strict social distancing measures, thereby allowing people to resume more regular work schedules, I have noticed less and less of this as time wears on. People seem to have either gone back to their pre-quarantine work routines or have adapted their work-from-home lives in such a way that they are now as preoccupied with work from their kitchen tables as they were previously from their office desks. I began to wonder whether instead of reminding Americans of the importance of spending time in play and focusing on our families as our primary vocations, quarantine has now so blurred the line between office and home life that there no longer remains any distinction at all.
Of course, there was beginning to be very little distinction between the two before quarantine. In a culture that glorifies efficiency and relentless accessibility, aided and abetted by smart phones, ubiquitous internet access, and remote desktops, very few professions allow for true off-the-clock time anymore. As a former attorney at a top regional law firm myself, I experienced this firsthand for years. I once had an extremely successful partner encourage us to purchase portable printers and scanners so that even while on vacation, we could still be fully available. There is something very wrong with this mindset, and while it may be great for productivity and your pocketbook, it’s corrosive spiritually.
The definition of “play” is to “engage in activity for enjoyment rather than for a serious or practical purpose.” Everything about this is antithetical to the prevailing American ethos of working harder, better, faster, and longer. And this attitude, as so many tenets of the secular culture are wont to do, even creeps into our spiritual lives if we are not careful.
When was the last time you played with God? Reveled in Him for the sheer joy of Who He is? Forgotten yourself in a spontaneous song or dance of praise that seems to burst from you in a fit of utter delight?
So often we treat God as nothing more than a mathematical equation. If I pray these specific prayers, go to Church every Sunday, read these verses or complete this particular novena, then God must answer my intentions. If my spiritual life feels dry or stagnant, then it must be because I am not getting enough out of it or I’m not tapping into the right devotion for me. And while it’s certainly advisable (not to mention absolutely necessary) to engage in the many avenues the Church gives us to access God’s grace – the sacraments, the communion of Saints, the rich history and tradition – we must also guard against falling into the same efficiency and profitability trap that drives so many of our secular institutions and businesses.
Our God, while majestic and untamed and worthy of all reverence that we could possibly give and more, is also a God of play. No One stuffy or unrelentingly serious creates a duckbilled platypus. And while I’m sure the duckbilled platypus serves many good and noble purposes, I simply cannot be convinced that the making of such a creature in and of itself was not in some way play on God’s part!
St. Therese of Lisieux, arguably one of the most playful and childlike saints of our time, wrote in her autobiography, Story of a Soul, of her desire to “unpetal” flowers (and what a childlike phrase that is!) by doing even the most minute sacrifices with great love and to strew these petals about with joy before the throne of God:
“O Jesus, of what use will my flowers be to you? Ah! I know very well that this fragrant shower, these fragile, worthless petals, these songs of love from the littlest of hearts will charm you. Yes, these nothings will please you. They will bring a smile to the Church Triumphant. She will gather up my flowers unpetalled through love and have them pass through your own divine hands, O Jesus. And this Church in heaven, desirous of playing with her little child, will cast these flowers, which are now infinitely valuable because of your divine touch, upon the Church Suffering in order to extinguish its flames and upon the Church Militant in order to gain the victory for it!” (Emphasis added).
St. Therese tapped into something very key in her short but profound life: the value of utterly childlike playfulness in the path to holiness and our interactions with the eternal.
Children, by their very nature, are inefficient in the extreme. They lack the sense of urgency that drives so many of us as adults. Instead, when I tell them to go put away their shoes, they head in that direction, but become almost immediately distracted in wonder by the butterfly on the windowsill, which then leads them to frolic about the yard, completely oblivious to the original request. The shoes do get put up eventually, but only after I’ve asked them four times and continually called them back out of daydreams. They aren’t worried about accomplishing the set of to-do lists we, as adults, are relentlessly pursuing. Instead, they live moment by moment, constantly aware of the small joys and delight that abound in even the most mundane of tasks that we adults so often miss entirely.
Caryll Houselander in her spiritual classic, The Reed of God, wrote: “Christ’s insistence on the power of children is very striking. Almost more than anything else in the Gospel it proves that in God’s eyes being something comes before doing something. He sets a little child among his apostles as an example of what He loves. He says that heaven is full of children. Indeed, the Architect of Love has built the door into heaven so low that no one but a small child can pass through it, unless, to get down to a child’s little height, he goes in on his knees.”
We must continually strive to cultivate the hearts of little children as we approach God. We must learn to be before we do. Now if you’re Type A like me, you’re probably worrying what you need to do in order to learn to be! But that attitude, of course, misses the point entirely. We need to learn to relax in God’s love. Play with Him. Waste time with Him. Relax in the river of His grace and let its currents take you where He wants you to be. And while I’m not at all advocating taking a lackadaisical approach to your relationship with God, what I am suggesting is that we worry less about checking spiritual boxes, and more about regaining that childlike attitude of joy and delight in approaching God.
King David wrote in Psalm 8, “O LORD, our Lord, how awesome is your name through all the earth! I will sing of your majesty above the heavens with the mouths of babes and infants. . . . When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place – what is man that you are mindful of him, and a son of man that you care for him?” It is through this very type of praise and wonder that we lose ourselves entirely, as children do when they become enthralled with some small, delightful distraction. And it is by losing ourselves that we gain true humility that allows us to truly enter the door of heaven.
So today, my friends, look for ways to give praise and glory to God the Almighty. Marvel at the work of His hands, even if that work is something as small as a wildflower growing out of place in the cracks of the sidewalk that you notice on your way into the office. Thank Him for the opportunity your child presents when they distract you from your work to see their latest Lego creation. If you’re struggling, pray slowly through Psalm 8 and ask God to open your eyes and unclench your fists. Ask Mary to lend you her immaculate, utterly childlike heart. The Creator of the Universe delights in you and wants to play with you, and this fact in and of itself is cause for much rejoicing.