What Happens When We Play (Pray)

georgiabaptismIn my previous article I compared children’s use of play to the place of ritual words and actions in the life of the Church. I absolutely did not mean to imply that one thing is like the other. I mean to say clearly that they are very much the same thing. And I say this both to change how we understand play as well as how we understand ritual words and action. Play is far more serious than people imagine – and ritual words and actions are more playful than they dare conceive.

The similarities are very instructive. Both have a structure behind them. Play, though sometimes spontaneous and purely creative, still has a reality behind it. Something is being enacted, whether it is a formal game or simply an exercise in imagination. The structure contained within play is part of its fun – it is never meaningless in its movements and actions.

As a young boy I enjoyed toy soldiers. I spent quiet hours creating battles and various scenarios of conflict. Occasionally these war games would involve another child and would last the better part of the day. There were rules to what we did, even if they were rarely spoken. Tanks and bazookas have a particular role and place within the order of battle, for example. Their placement would be critical to the outcome of the imaginary scene that was about to unfold.

I have sometimes tried to remember in my adulthood how we agreed that one side won and the other lost. There was a quiet agreement to allow the tragedy of the battle to unfold. Had there been a competition, a requirement to win, the game could not have gone forward. The game was the battle itself and its possible heroic actions. But the outcome could not be foreseen. Heroism remained, even for the vanquished.

Children who were no fun to play with were those who could not lose. Those who must win are frequently dangerous as well. They are bullies on the playground. And those who could not lose somehow mistook the game for something it was not. It was the something being enacted, a reality beneath and behind the game that mattered. It was this greater something that gave meaning to the actions and preserved the dignity of both winner and loser. For most games need winner and loser. If you are not willing to be the loser, you make yourself greater than the game. And so you cannot play. These are children who, sadly, have become literalists, robbed of the glory of their childhood and prematurely lacking in joy. They are anxious like adults whose lack of faith in the game itself makes it impossible for them to bear losing.

Ritual words and actions share this quality of something beneath and beyond. There is a holy game behind every word, every action. Something within the reality of salvation is shown forth and made present in the sacred play of worship. As the priest stands at the altar saying, “This is my body…this is my blood…” everyone agrees that what matters is that something beyond and beneath is also there. And for a time this man stands in the place of God, this sinner in the place of the Savior. And everyone joins in by proclaiming, “Amen.”

But there are those who will not come into the play. They have become literalists and grumble that “it is only bread and wine…nothing more.” They have forgotten their childhood and the wonder that is the world of play.

The games of children are not silly or full of nonsense. They are probably the most serious activities undertaken by human beings. For in their games, children are searching for the deeper pattern and learning to walk in unseen paths. They are engaging in transcendent activity and becoming ever so much more than they might be otherwise. A child becomes a man, a hero, a dragon.

And this most instinctive of human activities is a gift of God. It is a divine template placed in the mind and heart of a child, an unspoken knowledge that there is a deeper game, a set of rules that may be found and lived, a greater pattern discerned and mastered. Children know that they were born to be more and they seek it with every moment of the day.

It is the forgetfulness of this greatest gift that turns a man into something less than human. When we no longer look for the pattern and forget the way of the game we cease to be what we are created to be. One of the Fathers declared that man is mud who is called to become God. And so children play their muddy games and are not surprised that mud should have such a destiny.

The ritual words and actions that are the liturgical world are the holy game, the game of man and God. Before the world was created the Lamb was slain. And the game of slaying the Lamb would be played again and again. Abel and Noah knew the game and took the innocent from the flock, bound him and offered his life. And the blood of that life was smeared on the doorposts in the game of Passover where the slaves rose up and the masters’ firstborn fell. And the waters drowned the glory of Egypt.

But all of this was the play of children. All of the lambs were the first lamb and the last. Mary had a little lamb and took him to the Temple. And there she heard the ritual words:

“Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” (Luk 2:34-35)

And the words are spoken again with rite and ritual, children plunged into the death of the Lamb and clothed in white robes. And like a children’s game of ring around the roses, a priest leads the child around the font singing, “As many as have been Baptized into Christ have put on Christ!”

The difficulty comes for the adults who cannot bear the Game. They cease to see the deeper pattern or believe that something unseen is greater than what is seen. The Game becomes but a game and they mock the ritual as empty and without value. But it is the life devoid of the Game that has no value. The life that is not rooted in the deeper pattern is a life that has lost its shape. There is no song to be sung for such a shapeless thing, no dance that steadies its gait.

The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world continues to shape the world that is formed for His presence. Everything is Pascha. It is Word made flesh and flesh made Word and emptiness and fullness and redemption. Children continue to play and priests chant and sing and dance and say the words that must be said.

And a little child shall lead them.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


20 responses to “What Happens When We Play (Pray)”

  1. Andrew Avatar

    I really enjoyed reading this analogy to play. I would NOT have made that connection myself; I am a bit of a cold fish, and could use more of this recognition of the importance of play, and the playfulness of ritual.

    I almost feel sorry for low church Protestants. They are cheated out of something.

  2. Kurt Avatar

    In your previous post you said: “Unlike the nervous self-consciousness of Orthodox inquirers, children take to the ritual life of the Church as though they were born to it.”

    I am an inquirer and “nervous self-consciousness” perfectly describes how I felt for the first few months. Now I’m more at ease and can more fully enjoy entering into the liturgy and it does feel like play sometimes. Now my wife is coming with me and I can sense that she’s in that nervous self-conscious phase and I can only encourage her to lower her inhibitions and join in.

    My children are grown so it’s too late to raise cradle Orthodox, but I hope one day to have grandchildren who take to it in a way that my wife and I couldn’t so easily.

  3. Joyce Avatar

    When I was a little girl, in the early 1950s, I remember finding two candles in the house. I lit them and knelt down as if I were in a little church. The only thing was that my actual church, a Baptist one, had no kneeling or candles. I don’t know how I had the idea or thought of making this little church. It was as if it was instinctual. This is one of the clearest memories I have of my childhood.
    I’ve been Orthodox for almost 15 years now, first being Baptist, then Lutheran for 31 years. I tell people that I am a convert to Orthodoxy, which is technically correct, but perhaps it was always apart of me and I was coming back to it.

  4. Ronda Wintheiser Avatar
    Ronda Wintheiser

    I think the analogy is a profound one. Maria Montessori would approve. 🙂

    Maria Montessori believed that children have internal desire to learn about the world around them. After much observation as to how children actually acquired this knowledge, she concluded that they learn best by experiencing things as opposed to fantasizing or pretending about them. In fact, she believed that fantasy play happened primarily because a child’s environment was deficient of stimulating activities.

    While traditional education methods of her time might show children a diagram of the different parts of a plant and have them read about the process of farming, or others might have children playing games where they act out the different parts of the life cycle of a plant from the farmer sowing seeds to the seeds growing and then being harvested, Montessori had children actually plant a garden and observe the growth cycles of plants while they took care of them.

    If one visits a Montessori school, one will see children working with materials as opposed to sitting in rows regurgitating what the teacher was saying, or involved in the guided fantasy play. When questioned, Montessori stated, “Play is the work of the child”, meaning that what looked like “play” to the causal observer, was in reality deep engaging work for the child that taught them in great depth about the world around them.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “she concluded that they learn best by experiencing things as opposed to fantasizing or pretending about them.”

    Her observation seems correct. It is how we are created. It is why we are liturgical beings far more than almost anything. We are liturgical even before we can read, etc. God has given us our liturgical life that we might truly experience rather than fantasize or pretend – or just talk.

  6. David Avatar

    thank you Father. shared with this caption:

    “those with children [& Chesterton] will love this…fun read. don’t miss it.”

  7. Byron Avatar

    More wonder. More good stuff! Thank you, Father!

  8. David P Avatar

    Very interesting and illuminating analogy. I must admit that in my Protestant background, it’s hard to view “serious” ritual and “lighthearted” play as essentially the same thing!

    I realize it wasn’t exactly your intent, but I took more from this article about games than about rituals. Even as an adult, I struggle with frustration over games (my friends have numerous board/card game interests). Recently, I decided that I would be happier simply not playing, and it seems I was right. But your thoughts about play here are making me question this decision, especially the statement, “If you are not willing to be the loser, you make yourself greater than the game”. When I have lost badly in the past, people have often told me that “it’s just a game”, expecting this to calm me down. But it seems like you’re saying that the point is that to the players, it is more than a game, and it is precisely when we start to think of it as “just a game” that we miss the point. Is this an accurate summary? Because if so, that is very, very interesting.

  9. Ronda Wintheiser Avatar
    Ronda Wintheiser

    Having been raised in an evangelical mix of denominations from Holiness churches to Pentecostal to Baptist, I remember feeling absolute boredom in church; the only thing I looked forward to were the hymns.

    I’m the oldest of six. Sometimes my dad would make us sit in the pew in front of him (my mom was always playing the piano or organ) so that when we wriggled too much or misbehaved he could reach over the back of the pew and thunk us on the head. For that reason, I preferred sitting next to him so he would hold my hand to help me endure.

    I am so glad my kids have had a different experience.

    My older daughter has autism. Her need for structure and routine, her fear of the unknown, of what’s coming (the future), her love for the past (it never changes), and her love for all things familiar; also how acutely “sensorial” she is in how she experiences the world — not to mention her inability to express herself verbally and her preference for nonverbal communication — all these needs have been beautifully met in her experience of Orthodox liturgy and ritual. Divine Liturgy happens the same way every Sunday! 🙂

    But as children both of my daughters “took” to Orthodox worship like ducks to water. Children always want to be doing what the adults are doing, naturally — but more than that, every time we entered the nave, they seemed to feel immediately at home: “So this is what we’re to be about!”

  10. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Thank you for this simple and profound reflection.

    As another “cold fish” who’s slowly in my grown-up years warming up enough to play again, I’ve often reflected on what a mercy it is that God frequently takes away props and pretenses from elders, inviting us again to simply dance and play. In Christ this is not the tragedy our culture says it is. Restoring childhood at the cost of adult strengths makes us more fit for the Kingdom.

    The earth overflows with your creatures!
    And the sea, so great and wide! —
    with its moving swarms without number
    of living things both large and small.
    There, the ships sail back and forth —
    and Leviathan whom you made to play with.
    Psalm 104(103):25,26 (L. Mancuso)

    Allow the little children … for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to ones like these.
    Matt 19:14 (EOB)

  11. The Master Avatar
    The Master

    After reading these last two post and my new found understanding that when we participate in the liturgy that it’s where heaven and earth merge (as symbolically depicted in the Icon that’s usually right behind the alter of Christ in Mary’s Womb) it made me think of Christ’s statements, and there deeper implications in Matthew 18:3:

    “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

    –The Master

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    If there is a very strong theme through a large portion of my writings, it is this presence of “something else” that runs through all things and all of life. Pat. Bartholomew has said that the whole world is a sacrament. I think I would be more precise and say that the world is iconic. There is an iconicity to all things. Liturgy as play is a useful way of speaking about this. Modern people are frequently quite “flat” in their perception of reality. There is no depth perception in their world. But if you can get someone to return to their childhood, it is quite possible that they will remember that they once upon a time saw a depth to things. Play is one of those places where the depth can be revealed.

  13. Mary Bongiorno Avatar

    Father I remember writing that. In a journal a long time ago I ask for prayers in Christ name servant mary round rock tx

  14. Beth Avatar

    Dear Father

    Thank you for this beautifully written blog-post. I found it truly inspiring in so many ways. There is something in the tone or style of this particular post that remind me of G.K Chesterton – perhaps especially “The Everlasting Man” even though, I don’t think he makes this precise point.

  15. Christopher Avatar

    David P,

    Your comments reminded me of something. As a child, I was a “poor loser” when it came to games (particularly when adults were involved, not so much with my peers). Years later, when my grandfather fell asleep in the Lord, I was asked to give the eulogy. While preparing, when I was thinking about how my grandfather taught me chess, I realized that I “lost” about every other game. He was trying to teach me the larger lesson of “losing the game”. One of many cherished memories.

    Father Stephen,

    These posts brought to mind something related: friendship. Have you thought about friendship in relationship to childhood/adulthood and “games”, or have you written about friendship before?

  16. Chris Avatar

    Would it be correct to say that when we participate in the liturgical life of the Church, when we “play,” the reality of Christ’s kingdom is made “real” or manifest to us? I see the parallel between this reality and the reality of children pretending to be adults. Eventually that play becomes innate “adult” behavior.

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. I think that is correct.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I have not written on friendship. It would be quite difficult, I think. For though I have friends, I wonder if I have been a good friend. And I have, through the years, lost many whom I thought were friends, and many may have lost me. It is bittersweet at best. I reflect positively on the thoughts of Lewis and others about friendship. Though his own life suffered plenty of the difficulties that often beset friends. The relationship with Tolkien was rocky sometimes, especially for Tolkien.

    In my lifetime, I have endured several major “battles.” I was deeply engaged in some of the debates, etc., in contemporary Anglicanism, during my Anglican years. That experience left a battlefield littered with relationships. Some few have survived. The landscape of social change in modern culture also wreaks havoc on friendship. There are many people whom I love but who are now separated by various gulfs of understanding and dislocated loyalties.

    All of that is to say that might clay feet (it seems to me) make me ill-prepared to write well on the topic. Perhaps I could author an article entitled, “A hypocrite’s take on friendship.”

  19. Christopher Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I can imagine (but only imagine) what you went through because I experienced it as well, though it was much easier for me as a lay person and the fact that Anglicanism was briefer way-point for me on my journey to Orthodoxy. I have been part of various Orthodox parishes (one with more than 700 regular Sunday communicants, my current one with only about 25 regular Sunday communicants) for about 20 years now. Yet, it has been quite a while since I had any real friendships with my fellow congregants. I have been reflecting as to why lately. One reason is practical, in that my wife has never liked “coffee hour” so I only get to spend a token amount of time there. At my current mission parish, those who I think are most likely to be my friends happen to live out of town and drive in when they can for liturgy.

    One way our modern situation has impacted me is that I can hardly count the various places I have lived since becoming an adult. College, graduate school, my wife’s various schooling’s, jobs, etc. have had us moving too much. Now that we are somewhat settled (I have lived in the same small city for just over six years now!) I would hope to have more friendships than I do.

    I have also found that what friends I do have tend to come from my “hobby” worlds – and thus they are typically quite secular. Yet, in some ways they have been the most “playful”…

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Your description is spot on for many people, I think. Parishes in the contemporary world are often ad hoc communities, at best. They are not the natural communities of family, geography, etc. We are often commuter churches, stretched far too thin. With a range of converts we come without mutual associations. When I see natural community start happening in the parish – friendships, etc. outside of coffee hour – I rejoice. It is an essential part of the fabric of life too often missing for most.

    I spoke recently at a retreat on the topic of community. The stresses created by a mobile culture and the lack of stability were an important part of my observations. This is very much the dark side of modern economies. We relocate for economic reasons, almost without thinking. The price has been the destruction of the extended family and many other fundamental structures of a culture. It is atomizing and makes friendship almost impossible.

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