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The Way of Play

Doug Floyd

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What would happen if all of humankind could spend one day a week as a child again? On that day,

we would forget our jobs and the seriousness of life, and we would play. We wouldn't try to solve any

world problems. We wouldn't even worry about who could play the best. We would all laugh, dance,

celebrate, sing, dress up in "our parents clothes," and play all day long.

We might have so much fun that we would forget to eat lunch that day. Maybe we would

remember the childhood games misplaced in the basement of our minds. We could play "kick the can,"

"hide-and-seek," and "Simon Says," or we might go on an adventure and try to dig to China. Who knows

what might happen and what we might discover?

It is possible that when we returned to work we would continue to play. The problems of the week

before might not seem as overwhelming. In fact, work might be fun that day. The wonder of life might

reawaken in the recesses of our soul. We might begin to experience a whole new way of life. This way

could be called "the way of play."

The term "way" is often used in connection with a spiritual journey. For example, The Way of the

Pilgrim details a believer's journey to intimacy with God. The Way of Chuang Tzu reveals Chuang Tzu's

spiritual understanding of life through stories and spiritual maxims. These are only two examples among

many that refer to the "way" as a spiritual path. Therefore, "the way of play" might indicate a type of

spiritual journey based in play. Can play aptly indicate the basis for a spiritual journey? Spiritual growth

cannot be confined to any one metaphor—be it play or even journey, but both "play" and "journey" may

help us to understand elements of spiritual formation. Before attempting to explain how play can develop

our spiritual perspective, it might help to develop a better understanding of the term play.

What is Play?

George Sheehan says, "Perhaps even more difficult than discovering play is defining it"

(See Robert Johnston, The Christian At Play 31). Johan Huizinga shares this difficulty by saying that "Play

is a function of the living, but it is not susceptible of exact definition either logically, biologically, or

aesthetically" (7). So how can we define something that cannot be defined? We can describe it.

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In The Christian at Play, Robert Johnston describes play as a "'parenthesis' in the life and world of

the player." He says that it is characterized by "I-Thou" rather than "I-It" relationships (34). He emphasizes

that "we need to allow play to be viewed as the 'end in itself' which it is. Play is an activity with its own

purpose and inner rewards. It needs no justification beyond itself" (viii). So play is not a means to an end

—it is the end. Johnston goes on to characterize it as spontaneous and non-utilitarian, yet productive (40-

42). While play has no goal beyond itself its by-product is often beneficial.

In Gods and Games, David Miller focuses on the purposelessness of play and says that it unites

both the non-serious and serious (115). He says, "All life is for play: foreplay" (174).

Cal Samra is not as stuffy as many scholars trying to define play. He links humor and spirituality

by saying, "A laugh is a prayer" (131). Judson Edwards takes the spiritual hand-off and says that "Play . .

. is one of God's tools for re-creating us" (120-121). So play is recreation—re-creation.

And for all those who enjoy lots of words, Victor Turner says that play is dance, exercise, game

sports, fighting a battle, dancing a fight, action, light, freedom, amusement, recreation, fun/joking, teaching

a game, movement in game, gambling, and sex (33-34). Whew!

Believe-it-or-not, there is also a thing called "false play." Miller says that there is a danger of

"prostituting" the spiritual dimension of play and using it as a means to an end (141). The goal of play is

play. Johnston points out that play cannot be forced upon people because "voluntary consent and self-

expression are basic to the play experience" (38).

False play occurs when people use "play" in an effort to meet some unfulfilled need. As a result,

relationships, games, work, and all interactions in life are "used" to fulfill self. Unfortunately, this striving

is never satisfied. For example, a person may spend their life working to buy things which give them

pleasure—a boat, a car, a house, etc.—and in the process of striving fail to truly celebrate life and

relationships. This form of play can be destructive to individuals and their relationships. Soren

Kierkegaard expresses this idea in his journal by saying, "Last night I went to a party. Everyone admired

my wit and sophistication. All agreed that I was most entertaining. And I returned to my apartment, closed

the door, held a gun in my hands and thought about blowing out my brains (See Tony Campolo, The

Kingdom of God is a Party 54). His celebration at the party may have grown out of a need to be accepted

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by others, but in the processes, he hides the true pain in his own life. Thus the celebration is an illusion—a

celebration of nothing.

I could probably go on for pages trying to describe the characteristics of play. I could quote more

philosophers, theologians, sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists. I could also quote more of the

philosophers, theologians, sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists already quoted. But I won't. All

those words probably wouldn't bring us closer to grasping the meaning of play. Play must be experienced,

but contemplating some ideas might lead us closer to understanding play and ultimately to a better

understanding and experience of our relationship with God.

Before moving on, it might help to review the main ideas of play covered thus far. They are: (1)

play is an activity which must be engaged in for the sheer pleasure of the activity; (2) while it has no goal

beyond itself, it is productive; (3) it is also a childlike wonder-filled attitude; (4) it is spontaneous,

celebratory, and relationship oriented; (5) it is an attitude and act of worship--a wondrous celebration of life

—not a celebration of nothing, which is ultimately a celebration of no life. Play is a paradox. It turns left

and right at the same time. It is illusive. Like I said before, we cannot define it. We must experience it.

Now let's take a few moments and consider the implications of play and spirituality. If play can

speak to our spiritual life, it should also speak to our human experience.

Humans at Play

What happens when people play? They may experience wholeness and they may experience


Wholeness. J.C.F. Schiller recognizes that play is essential for humans. He says, "For to declare once and

for all, man plays only when he is in the full sense of the word a man, and he is only wholly a man when he

is playing" (Miller 118). Harvey Cox echoes a similar idea in The Feast of Fools when he says, "On feast

days we stop working and enjoy those traditional gestures and moments of human conviviality without

which life would not be human" (5). There is something essential in the process of play that helps us

experience who we really are.

When play is reduced to an activity rather than a way of life, we begin to compartmentalize our

lives between work and play. As Eleanor Morrison says, "Although adults attempt to compartmentalize

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children's lives into businesslike sections of work and play, children find ways of turning work into play.

Life is whole to them, and good" (Miller 87). Miller expresses this wholeness by saying, "It's not that we

should stop working and start playing, but that we should work as if at play, because that is what we are

doing anyway: playing at work" (174). Johnston finds wholeness in play when he says that "Play affords at

least a momentary integration of life" (vii). As we learn to play, we play everywhere we go. It becomes an

attitude which sets the tone for all our experiences at work or at play. What is this attitude? It is realizing

not to take ourselves and our problems so seriously. It is looking at life with wonder, with possibility.

There is a spiritual tradition of the church where humans are encouraged not to take themselves

too seriously. When referred to as a wise, all knowing master of the spiritual life, Saint Bernard of

Clairvaux responded by saying, "I am a 'sinner monk,' one who knows himself to be only a fool" (Saward

59). Richard Foster echoes this idea when he instructs, "So poke fun at yourself. . . . Let go of the

everlasting burden of always needing to sound profound" (198). Edwards Hays says, "You and I are invited

to be fools, followers of the Great Fool, the Clown Christ" (24). While some may object to his portrayal of

Christ, he responds by saying, "Wasn't he playing the classic clown when he got down on his knees and

began washing his disciples' feet at the Last Supper? What better way was there to make his disciples see

how comical was their desire for the sort of muscle exercised by the power brokers of the world" (24).

This playful celebration is a decision of our will. In spite of what we see around us, we choose to

play. As we play, we begin creating. Miller says that our play is "the fabrication of shapes and forms

which correspond to something in one's own self" (143). So according to him, this playful spirit is a unique

part of who we are. Judson Edwards reaches a similar conclusion when he explains that no one can teach

you how to dance (play). He says, "I cannot teach you how to dance. And the reason for that is this: I am

not hearing your music. I am hearing, faintly, my heart's music, and it is a thrilling melody. But if you

heart is playing a different tune, and if you desire joy, you will have to here that tune and step to its rhythm.

Joy, you see, is always self-taught" (128-129).

When we choose to listen to that music, when we choose to dance to that tune, when we choose to

follow the playful spirit within us, we rediscover the human and the divine. Gerardus Van der Leeuw says,

"The game points beyond itself: downward to the simple, ordinary rhythm of life; upward, to the highest

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forms of existence" (112). As a "spirit of play" permeates our lives, we sometimes look beyond our lives to

an eternal play. In this moment of true play, we may touch the holy.

Holiness. Johnston says, "The 'consecrated spot' cannot be distinguished from the playground" (47). As

we begin to play, we not only discover who we are, we encounter the "Thou."

One man who encountered the holy in play was Saint Thomas More. He was a "holy fool" in the

Middle Ages. He was constantly making jokes and laughing. When he was killed for his faith he told his

daughter that he would "merrily" meet her in heaven. Another "holy fool" was Saint Philip Neri. He was

known for playing tricks and telling jokes, and his humor "grew greater, rather then less, in direct

proportion to his holiness" (Saward 97).

We may discover this holy play in the Sabbath rest. Believers in the Jewish and Christian faiths

set aside one day each week to worship God and rest in His provision. Eugene Peterson connects the

tradition of the Sabbath with play by saying:

The two biblical reasons for sabbath-keeping develop into parallel Sabbath activities of praying

and playing. The Exodus reason directs us to contemplation of God, which becomes prayer and

worship. The Deuteronomy reason directs us to social leisure, which becomes playing. Praying

and playing are deeply congruent with each other and have extensive inner connections. (36)

The writer of Hebrews lifts the Sabbath from a weekly observance to a whole way of life. He

says, "There remains, then a Sabbath rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God's rest also rests

from his own work." The Sabbath not only refers to a physical day but a spiritual concept which finds its

fulfillment in Christ. Therefore, we are encouraged to enter into God's rest. What is God's rest? Couldn't

His rest be His play.

Is it possible that the way of play is the way of grace. As we enter into God's play, we cease from

our own works and receive his mercy and grace. The state of faith, of playful celebration, allows us to

remain in His presence and experience His holiness. Judson Edwards sees this connection when he states,

"Our God is either the businesslike grocer demanding payment or the grace-full one who comes with free

fare. Our Christianity, in other words, is either transactional or celebrational" (43). Saint Francis of

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Assisi's faith was celebrational. He says, "It is the lot of the Devil and his supporters to be sorrowful, but

ours is always to be happy and rejoice in the Lord" (Saward 86).

C.S. Lewis incorporates this idea into The Chronicles of Narnia. Lucy discovers the passage to

Narnia when she is playing in the wardrobe. In the midst of her play, she is transported to a spiritual place.

Johnston says that "Play's potential for holiness became a life-long concern for Lewis" (77). He points out

that in Lewis' works, the players can only play. They do not control when the transcendent moments come.

They merely play. Occasionally, in the midst of play, they touch the divine. "By allowing us to transcend

ourselves and enter a new time and space, play becomes the avenue through which God communes with

us" (79-80). But he is quick to warn, "The player who plots, even if it is for God and neighbor, is no longer

playing. Play is not for the sake of anything else. . . . If we would but play, we might be surprised by the

Joy of God Himself" (81).

Even worship can be considered a form of play. Romano Guardini writes that "worship is a kind

of holy play in which the soul, with utter abandonment, learns how to waste time for the sake of God"

(Miller 158). Is it possible that the God we worship likes to play?

God at Play

If God created us in His image, then our playful nature may be derived from His. Cornelius a'

Lapide writes, "The Son is called child because of his proceeding everlastingly from the Father, because in

the dewy freshness and spring-time beauty of His eternal youth he eternally enacts a game before the

Father" (Miller 108). Harvey Cox also envisions a playful God. He says, "Christ was present at creation--

dancing" (151). Creation seems to be a result of the play of God. Does it exist for some utilitarian

purpose? Is creating one way He plays?

Consider Chesterton's meditation on God at play:

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free,

therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and

the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not

strong enough to exalt in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exalt in

monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every

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evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all

daises alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of

making them. He has the eternal appetite for infancy; for we have sinned and grown old,

and our Father is younger than we. (Orthodoxy 60)

Is it possible that sin keeps us from playing? From celebrating with God in his creation? Is it

possible that as we receive God's mercy and grace and embrace his love that we might also relearn the

meaning of play?

Play is rooted and grounded in the nature of God. He is a God at Play. He invites us to play with

Him. As we rest in His grace and celebrate His life, we are transformed through His eternal love. The God

of play has created us to come and join in His eternal play. Thomas Merton captures this notion as he

describes the eternal dance. He says:

What is serious to men is often very trivial in the sight of God. What in God

might appear to us as "play" is perhaps what He Himself takes most seriously. At any

rate, the Lord plays and diverts Himself in the garden of His creation, and if we could let

go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to

hear His voice call and follow Him in His mysterious, cosmic dance. We do not have to

go very far to catch echoes of that game, and of that dancing. When we are alone on a

starlit night; when by chance we see migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of

junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children;

when we know love in our own hearts; or when, like the Japanese poet Basho we hear an

old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash--at such times the awakening, the

turning inside out of all values, the "newness," the emptiness and the purity of vision that

makes themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.

For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of

the spheres is the music of a wedding feast. The more we persist in misunderstanding the

phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex

purpose of our own, the more we involves ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair.

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But it does not matter how much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of

things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the

midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it

or not.

Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our

awful solemnity to the winds and join in the dance. (296-297)

God's whole nature is rooted in wonder, love, and unending life. He is the "Lord of the Dance."

Playful Implications for Spirituality

The way of play permeates night and day. All nature joins in a dance. In the cross, we meet a God

who becomes the fool that we might join him in eternal play. Can these few ideas on the nature of play

help us develop an attitude and an expression of play that might inspire our walk with God? Below are

several ideas which apply play to spirituality:

1. Foolishness - We must recognize our own foolishness and follow Foster's advice to laugh at ourselves.

As we play the fool, we realize our need for God's divine mercy and grace. We "humble ourselves under

the mighty hand of God, that He may lift [us] up in due time" (I Peter 5:6).

We also play the fool in this world. Following the pattern of Jesus and the prophets, we make

light of this world's topsy-turvy value system. Edward Hays says, "How can we have a truly "whole"

spirituality without merriment, without joyfully living in an inside-out house in the midst of a world that's a

Crazy House?" (26).

In addition, this attitude of foolishness can lead us through trials of our faith. Hays says, "The

next time you feel caught up in some problems which has you upset or worried, call in the clowns.

Exaggerate this issue as much as you can" (29). As we exaggerate many of our problems, we realize how

trivial they are, and in the laughter, we may find a deeper faith in God's sufficiency.1

1 This laughter is not an existential response to the meaningless void. It is laughter based in trust
that our problems are not greater than God.

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2. Wonder - An attitude of play responds in wonder to all of creation. Life is magical. Just as the young

child constantly asks "Why?," we adapt this same puzzling response to all of life. Instead of always

responding to questions with empirically based answers, we open the door for wonder. Just as Chesterton

looks at God as a youthful creator who delights in telling the sun to rise, we might also began to grasp a

wonder-filled response to a marvelous creation.

Cynicism can give way to a world of possibilities. When God told Abraham and Sarah they were

going to have a child, they might have responded with a cynical realistic attitude. Instead, they laughed and

eventually had a son—named Laughter (Genesis 18:12). Wonder can pretend and play "make-believe."

Wonder is not limited to the constraints of this world. Wonder can "hope against all hope," but it is not

blind optimism. It is playful trust in a loving God--who sometimes makes our make-believe reality.

3. Celebration - God invites us to dance with him, to laugh with him, to delight in him, to worship him. A

playful spirit can celebrate alone him or with others. The celebration is often focused on the common, the

ordinary. We celebrate the raising of the sun. We celebrate the food we eat with prayers of thanksgiving.

A celebratory spirit does not take the ordinary for granted but recognizes God's hand even in simplicity and

delights in the common blessings of daily life. The celebration may be a solitary praise to our Creator, or it

may become a community gathering of laughter and rejoicing in God's goodness.

4. Recreation - Leisure and rest are essential elements of play. There are times when we cease from the

daily activities of work and play games or simply do nothing--just relax. We allow God's hand to re-create

us. This is the Sabbath. It is a time of praying and playing. We rediscover the enchantment in life.

Without these times of leisure, we begin to lose a sense of genuine play. Our life becomes activity

centered and driven. In life, we need a rhythm of activity and non-activity. These rhythms may operate in

daily, weekly, monthly, and possibly even yearly cycles. Each day we set aside time to rest in the Lord. To

pray and play before the Lord. Each week we set aside a day. Each month a weekend. And each year one

to two weeks. These seasons of grace allow us to receive restoration in some areas of our life and

reacquaint us with the wonder and mystery of God's love. This love is the basis for all our interactions with

other humans. As Merton says, "Go into the desert not to escape other men but in order to find them in

God" (Seeds of Contemplation 53).

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Recreation also embodies a sense of playing games. As children play "hide and seek" and are

delighted when they discover their friends' hiding places; God plays "hide and seek" with us. He moves in

and out of the shadows. As we learn to play and enjoy him in the darkness and the light, we are often

surprised and delighted by his unexpected appearing. We also become open to discovering him in different

places. Jesus said he liked to hide in the poor, weak, and needy (Matthew 25:34-36). With a spirit of

discovery, we grow open to finding, meeting, and loving him in many different places.

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Closing Thoughts

These ideas provide a beginning for understanding play in relation to spirituality. As we

contemplate the elements of play, other applications will surely surface.

We are all invited by God to discover the way of play. Richard Foster says, "Let's with reckless

abandon relish the fantasy games of children. Let's see visions and dream dreams. Let's play, sing, laugh"

(198-199). What if people in the world forgot about how serious we're supposed to be and began acting

like children? What if a few people began to play and sing and laugh? Others might soon join in. Would

you like to dance?

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