Playing with God

There are things that children understand instinctively. And the things that children know and understand are worth consideration. They have much to teach us.

Among the most natural things children do is play. Depending on how you define play, it is among the first activities in which we engage. It comes to dominate the lives of children and is the hallmark of their existence. Play is what children do.

It is quite interesting to read discussions about the theory of play. Why do children do it?  Developmental theorists (Piaget most famously) see play as essential for children’s growth and maturation. My own observation of these theories is their drive to discover some utility for play. All of their explanations seek to find a purpose for play beyond itself. Children play in order to do or become something else.

All of us as adults probably remember the end of childhood. Play became less and less possible as school and more “serious” activities became more demanding. Most adults have not lost their capacity for play. But they have little time for it and frequently consider it a luxury, even a frivolous waste of time.

I would like to suggest quite the opposite. Play is among the most essential of human activities and is extremely important in our relationship with God.

We were created for play because God Himself likes to play.

This last statement will (obviously) require some support. I will get to that later in the article. But first, we return to children.

What are children doing when they play? Clearly they are “having fun,” but their “fun” can often be quite serious. Play frequently has rules – indeed no football fan is more insisting on correct observance of the rules than a child at play.

But what is a child doing?

In simple, straightforward terms, a child at play is a child engaging in ritual activities. Rituals have rules, meaning, purpose, even repetition. It is not childish – it is merely human.

I first began to think about this as I watched children in Church. Unlike the nervous self-consciousness of Orthodox inquirers, children take to the ritual life of the Church as though they were born to it. They understand kissing icons, bowing, censing, pretty much the whole of a Divine Liturgy, without so much as a question (for they seem to understand it long before they are capable of speech).

Unlike most adult activities (particularly modern adult activities) ritual is not driven so much by word as by action. Its words themselves are ritualized (not unlike a children’s rhyme). And the actions often speak for themselves.

Many priests have noticed in their parishes young children who “play Church.” I have seen children (including a grandson) grab a small toy at the end of a string, begin to swing it and “cense.” I have served liturgies where a young child has brought his own censer to the service so he can “cense along.” Worried mothers have sometimes asked, “Is this ok?” I not only think it’s ok. I’m flattered and welcome the company.

In our Cathedral in Dallas (I was once told) there was a teenage boy who was mentally handicapped, who would go up on the solea when the bishop was censing, and swing his own “play” censer. A number of the parishioners were alarmed, but Archbishop Dmitri (of blessed memory) assured them that everything was fine. Vladyka’s story about this gave me the assurance to be patient with children myself.

It is adults who do not understand liturgy and ritual. Some adults, having lost their true humanity, even use phrases such as “empty ritual.” Like many other enemies of tradition, they eradicate all the truly human pursuits in the name of “higher” rational activities, invented only in the last few hundred years.

Play is a primary form of human learning, an activity in which we engage in the patterning required in our lives. Like the early babbling of a child by which they slowly learn to replicate the sounds of the adults around them, play establishes the same thing for other activities. And this form of learning apparently extends to things divine.

Those who utter phrases such as “empty ritual” (something I’ve heard all my life) forget that it is God who first gave ritual to the people of Israel. This primary story about the faith runs counter to modern intuitions. For we presume that real things and true things are in the mind. It is thought and sentiment that we consider to hold the lofty place of the holy. But it is ritual that is given this place in the Scriptures.

In the later chapters of Exodus, we are told of Moses’ 40 days on the mountain in the presence of the Lord. During that time he is shown “the pattern” of all the furnishings of the Tabernacle. He is given the “pattern” of worship as well – the ritual of Israel. Christian understanding from the New Testament forward has always seen these patterns as a foreshadowing of Christ and His Pascha. The gospel was hidden in the patterns given to Moses.

I will stretch this a bit and suggest that God taught Moses how to “play Pascha.” For, like a child whose games foreshadow its later life (dolls, playing house, etc.), so the rituals of Israel foreshadowed the mystery of the Kingdom revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ.

The foreshadowing is nothing new – it is my suggestion that we place this in the category of “play” that might seem shocking. This is because we imagine “play” to be somehow of little value, a diminutive activity that reduces the importance of its subject. But this is a deep distortion of play. As the primary focus of children, play is among the most important of all human activities. We do not disparage the importance of a child’s learning to walk. Play is just as essential – and perhaps for a greater purpose than learning.

The activity of play is falsely seen as the sole province of children. Human beings never cease to play. And though modern culture sees play as frivolous and even wasteful (productivity of things is given the highest value), we nevertheless devote a significant amount of money to play.

Not all play is equal, of course. Some play is frivolous, or even destructive of our humanity. Much of the play in our meaning-starved culture is a thin substitute for the authentic rituals of faith. It is not absurd when people observe the near religious status of public sport in many areas of the world. Such games seek to fill a deep religious need in the heart of modern culture. That they fall so far short of true transcendence, failing even to rise to the nobility of the game being played, is simply part of the tragedy of the modern world.

But the “game” of the Divine Liturgy is something else. There the presence of God is so profound that we hesitate to use the word “game” to describe the ritual play of the service. But we are indeed children, who, though having transcended the revelation given on Mt. Sinai, nevertheless continue to point beyond ourselves towards something that is mystically made present in the ritual action of the Eucharistic assembly.

St. Paul notes:

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. (1Co 13:11-12)

The maturity to which he refers, when childish things are at last put away, is not a phenomenon of this age – it belongs to the age to come when “we shall know just as we are known.” But in this age, we continue as children, playing at Pascha, until Pascha itself swallows us into the complete maturity of our humanity.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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25 responses to “Playing with God”

  1. Byron Avatar

    Having worked with children in some capacity throughout my life, I find this very wonderful! Thank you, Fr. Freeman, for seeing the importance of play in life and the reflection of faith in play.

    Fr. Damick has posted a sermon on community today which, it seems to me, goes hand-in-hand (in some ways), with this blog post. A very interesting day of reading and reflection. Thank you, again!

  2. AJ Avatar

    Love this post!
    We have the sweetest little boy in our parish who gives the sloppiest, noisiest kisses to all the icons and if he can’t reach he just kisses his hand and gently slaps the icon with his wet hand. It makes me smile every time.
    If only I wasn’t so self concious and could freely kiss ( without the slobber) without worrying about what everyone behind me thinks.

  3. Meg Photini Avatar
    Meg Photini

    Father, you’ve found a picture from right next door to my home. It’s St. Sophia, the chapel for the students of St. Clement primary school, located on the same campus as the Archdiocese of Kenya headquarters. Just thought I ought to share! 🙂

  4. Dino Avatar

    wonderful Father!

  5. Paula Romano Avatar
    Paula Romano

    Wonderful insights. Thank you.

  6. Kathy Johnson Avatar
    Kathy Johnson

    When I was a little Methodist girl, I loved to play preacher. There was a creek in our woods with boulders, one shaped something like a pulpit and another shaped something like a pew. I’d stand on the one and my sisters and cousins would sit on the other, and we’d play preaching, praying, and singing. If we didn’t mind getting in trouble, a little baptizing might go on too. I’d never heard of a woman preacher, but I wasn’t pretending to be a man. I was pretending to be a preacher, if that makes sense. I am not here to argue about ordination, and as an adult woman, I have no desire to be ordained, but I am curious — how would the Orthodox react to such a little girl?

  7. Randi Mcallister Avatar
    Randi Mcallister

    At our Orthodox Church, the children are very much at home. They sing loudly, kiss icons, make the sign of the cross, and run to other adults or teens for hugs and hand holding.

    When a child is fussy, often the parent will take them over to the icons and point out a saint by name. This has a calming effect.

    Thank you for this post. I especially like that you say God taught Moses how to play Pascha.

  8. Kathy Johnson Avatar
    Kathy Johnson

    Wonderful! Thank you, Fa. Stephen.

  9. Karen Avatar

    Father, your post reminded me of this case in point (first saw this on the Byzantine TX site):

    Kathy, your comment reminded me of my own Methodist childhood. I would go home and play “Sunday school teacher” and hold the little catechism book with the front page turned all the way back and with a pen in hand just like my teacher and try to sit my little brother, older sister, and any friend I could around me in a circle as my “pupils.” They usually lasted about 30 seconds!

  10. Jakob Avatar

    This post made me see the 1 Cor 13:11 – 12 in a new light. I always interpreted it as St Paul writing about growth and maturity (and I still believe this is the main point that St Paul is making). But I realized that it can also be read in the light of that it is the childish that is true. It is when we put away the childish that we loose the clarity and we only see things dimly. It is as “grown ups” that we have a hard time being known in full. Maybe the “then face to face” can also refer to our childhood when intimacy came so easy? Thank you for this post fr. Stephen and for your faithful work

  11. Reid Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, your story about Archbishop Dmitri reminded me of a story I once heard about St. Athanasius. This version of it is from the Wikipedia article on him (taken originally from the Catholic Encyclopedia):

    “Rufinus (Hist. Eccl., I, xiv), relates how Bishop Alexander had invited fellow prelates for breakfast after a great religious function. As he waited for his guests by a window, he watched boys playing on the seashore below. He soon noticed that they were imitating the elaborate ritual of Christian baptism. He sent for the children and discovered that one of the boys (Athanasius) had acted as bishop. The real bishop (Alexander) determined to recognize the make-believe baptisms as genuine, and invited Athanasius and his playfellows to prepare for clerical careers.”

  12. AtP Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen,

    One time, in the comment section, you described your daily practice of being quiet/still before God; I can’t find that or remember the post it was attached to, could you repeat your instructions? Thank you so much.

  13. Robert Avatar

    Father, much here resonates with the Montessori-inspired Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program that many parishes are embracing in place of Sunday School (ours included). The word “play” is much disparaged, as you say, so the children’s activity is called “work” within the program, but it truly is the play you describe above. It’s beautiful to witness and it enlightens both doctrine and ritual for the adults who are blessed to play along with the children in encountering God.

  14. Ruth Ann Avatar

    This is beautiful. When I’m deep in prayer I have a sense of playfulness or childlikeness. Sometimes I have the image of doing cartwheels which I used to find delightful to do in my childhood. It has something to do, I think, with a feeling of freedom and joy.

  15. newenglandsun Avatar

    The children is one aspect of the Ruthenian-Greek Catholic parish I attend (though not as regularly any more as I’m more of a committed Anglican Catholic now that I am baptised). They often times play around during the liturgies and they walk up to Father in the middle of the liturgy after the Gospel reading to kiss the Book Containing the Gospels. Sometimes, parents will take them for a walk around the parish looking at the icons in the middle of the liturgy. The liturgy is about prayer but the liturgy is also very children-centered I’ve noticed in the Byzantine Rite. This is my favourite part about it. I wish us westerners were more like you in the East.

  16. Gayla Avatar

    I echo the comment about Catechesis of the Good Shepherd that we have also adopted for our church school. The truths of which you spoke permeate the philosophy & methodology of CGS, a Montessori hands-on method of Formation. Many of the works & materials in a CGS classroom (called an atrium) come straight from the Divine Liturgy. Thank you for sharing these beautiful insights.

  17. Margaret Avatar

    So happy to see this blog post AND the comments referring to Athanasius “playing” on the sea shore, as well as references to the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd which our church has also adopted and I am privileged to be a catechist. Fr. Stephen, you know God is with you and I thank God for your life and also for this blog. May God bless all your life and family! Glory to God for all things!

  18. Andrew Avatar

    Robert or Gayla, I am curious, are either of you using this program in an Orthodox parish. I am intersted in Church school curriculums but at first glance, the CGS seems to have a few un-Orthodox elements. (delaying first Communion was one.)

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I know that the Antiochian parish in Franklin, TN (St. Ignatius) uses the CGS – but it’s been adapted for Orthodox usage – so I’m sure it would have a proper treatment of baptism. One of my daughters was telling me about it recently. I’ve been wanting to look into it as well. Nothing teaches the Orthodox faith as clearly as our liturgical life. Lex orandi, lex credendi.

  20. sehnsuchtsojourner Avatar

    Funny enough, as I’ve been inquiring, my mind has been going back to questions of play and psychoanalysis (I had an unexpectedly wonderful class in undergrad called “Post-Freudian Theories and Religion”). What would you say distinguishes Orthodox play from other forms of spiritual play (whether other branches of Christianity, non-Christian religions, shamanic tribal traditions, etc.)?

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Play is a mode of being. What distinguishes it in Orthodox would be, I think, the “game” that lies underneath.

  22. Robert Avatar

    As usual, we’re in the minority: most online resources you’ll find are directed at Catholics and Anglicans. Adapting CGS to an Orthodox setting, though, is quite simple. The best online presence of an Orthodox atrium I’m aware of is the program at St. Athanasius in Santa Barbara, CA.

  23. TimOfTheNorth Avatar

    I wonder if this juxtaposition of worship and play helps to explain something that has perplexed me for some time.

    As an infrequent visitor to an Orthodox church, I have been struck by how easy it is to lose track of time when worshiping there. I may arrive for some part of Orthros and stay for the Divine Liturgy and end up with two and a half hours of (mostly) standing and experiencing something that is still very disorienting to me. And yet, when it ends, I find myself thinking “This can’t be over yet; we’re just getting started.” Contrast this with how within just the first hour into a service at an Evangelical church I find myself feeling antsy, checking the time, thinking about the rest of the day.

    I’ve tried to explain this to myself as simply the novelty of a new experience–if I would do this (worship with the Orthodox) regularly, I would eventually find it just as fatiguing. Or, perhaps, it’s just the rush of sensory stimuli–the incense, the singing, the art. Maybe it’s just a rock concert with better music. Perhaps these are true to some small degree, but neither explanation gets to the heart of my experience.

    Instead, the closest analogue that I have found in searching my memory is the way I would get “lost” in play with a childhood friend. The sense at the end of the liturgy is like the disappointment that accompanies a parent’s voice saying “time to go home.” The play with a friend was not usually “exciting” in the sense of heart-pounding, screaming-for-joy exuberance (sometimes it was.) Yet it was rich and real in a way that I don’t know how to describe but which seems to be echoed in what I see written above.

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think you are accurate in your description – but with the caveat that we adults will quickly lose that correct sense of “play” and make even heaven boring. The problem isn’t with heaven…

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