Playing Towards God and Discovery
[L.L. Barkat reflects on the interconnectivity of faith and play in this excerpt from her book “God in the Yard”.]
I’m not sure when this whole business of spiritual practice became so serious. Maybe it traces back to Saint Benedict’s Rule of Life, which ordered the lives of monks around prayer, study and work. Once, I read that Benedict himself was not the type you’d expect to see on the playground.
Maybe he never read Proverbs 8. Or perhaps it was due to his serious bible translation. Wisdom is playful, but some texts frame her words, “When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep…then I was beside him, like a master worker…”
But Benedict shouldn’t be judged too harshly. I never noticed the playful attitude of Wisdom, until one day when I read the footnote; “master worker” can also be translated “little child.” Have you seen a little child, delighting in something he loves? The sense is far different from a master worker, which elicits visions of toil and exclusionary concentration. (“Shoo! Don’t bother me, I’m working on a universe!”)
When I could see Wisdom dodging God’s feet, chanting singsong, clapping hands, this radically changed my view of God’s invitations. Unlike Benedict’s Rule, which seemed to order me into spiritual life, God in this particular passage seemed to call me to play.
But we needn’t rely on a single passage. Biblical festivals have classically included elements of play. At Passover, for instance, the youngest child asks four questions, one from each of four types of children—the wise, the wicked, the simple, and one who does not know how to ask the right questions. Through a child’s role-play, adults become like children, and enter the grace of celebration.
I also like to remember that play, though it engages our senses and calls us to enactment, is not limited to light-hearted topics. My children tell me they had a war in their woods—one so traumatic they responded by creating a kind of governance system. Another time I saw my girls and their friend in the back yard; I wondered why the neighbor child was lying so still. “We’re having her funeral,” my children explained.
Christianity’s sister faith Judaism is filled with this kind of play: reenacting Passover, sitting shiva after a death and later leading the bereaved down his driveway to symbolically reenter society… these are forms of play that lead us out of ourselves and restore us to God and community.
Kent Ira Groff notes, “To restore the soul is to renew the healthy child in us, awake with all the senses…. We cannot DO the restoring; we can only train the eye of awareness, the fingers of expression, and the figures of speech.” However, our spiritual goal is not simply to renew the child but to play through the child, towards soul restoration, towards a Proverbs-style partnership between us and God, preparing the way for grace in the world.
To encourage the eye of awareness, fingers of expression, figures of speech, Groff recommends attention to nine play areas:
• linguistic verbal – words, sounds and signs
• logical/mathematical – numbers, puzzlers; toy with ideas
• spatial/visual – images, shapes, space, imagination
• musical/rhythmic – drums, strings, tones, rhymes, puns
• kinesthetic/bodily – dance, sport, drama and mime
• interpersonal – games, jokes, tricks, humor and songs
• intrapersonal – dreams, musings, insights, and Ahas!
• naturalist – birds, trees, water, stars, wonder, and cycles of birth/decay
• existentialist – play with “why” questions like a two-year-old
Can you be like Wisdom the Child, opening yourself to God’s creative possibilities? Why not? I bet you could use a break from the same old, same old. Come on, try it. Come and play.
L.L. Barkat is the author of five books, including The Novelist: A Novella. Her book, Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing, was twice named a Best Book of 2011. She is also the Managing Editor of Tweetspeak Poetry and co-creator of the quotes-and-photos app Wordcandy.me.