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.

Photo by Edi Libedinsky on Unsplash

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.



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10 responses to “Playing with God”

  1. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you for these words, for placing into print these true and loving words concerning our Good God Who Loves Mankind! I was immediately reminded of this quote by GK Chesterton from his writing “Orthodoxy”:
    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 exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be an automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
    Glory to God For All Things!

  2. John Lickwar Avatar
    John Lickwar

    Excellent article Fr. Stephen. The comment above by Margaret is equally important!

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you! It is, indeed, a lovely quote (Chesterton always maintains a playfulness in his writing). Some of my happiest times have been spent in the company of a dog (I don’t have one at present, sadly). But they have a playfulness that is instructive. Something becomes broken in us (or disconnected), it seems to me, as we become estranged from play. Anxieties and concerns about “important things” overwhelm us. In the well-known Mary/Martha encounter, Martha is “concerned about many things,” but Mary, Jesus says, “Has chosen the one thing needful.” I think we overlook the “playfulness” of Mary’s activity as listener. We turn her into the one doing the “really serious thing.” But listening the Jesus teaching was where the “fun” was as well – she put off the “serious” stuff of her sister’s concern to enjoy the teaching of the Master.

    There’s probably a balance in all of this – but it’s important, I think, to recover play in our lives – particularly with regard to God.

  4. Tom Avatar

    I needed this. Too often I find myself struggling to get “dialed-in” during vespers or liturgy, and then find myself frustrated with myself for not being 100% focused. Then I am frustrated at being frustrated. About then, the young Fahling girls who have been sitting on the floor playing with their dad’s shoelaces – seemingly unattentive to the service – will sing out loudly with the choir Gladsome Light or some other hymn. This makes me smile and snaps me right back into the presence of God.

  5. Lewis Avatar

    I know you practice what you preach, Father Stephen, right there in the church.

  6. Nicholas Avatar

    When I was younger, I remember seeing a mural painted on a wall in some college town. It might have been Athens, GA, or maybe Pasadena, CA. It depicted children running and playing, and had an inscribed quote that I only vaguely remember. It ran something like,

    “Play has brought forth…(something)…even the Kingdom.”

    It struck my very Calvinistic self-from-back-then as vaguely heretical, but also very beautiful. Now, looking back, I think it was exactly correct. The trouble is, I can’t remember exactly where it is or what it said. Has anyone run into this image or quote? Because I think it’s about this wonderful article, and also the Chesterton quote from Margaret.

  7. Nancy Avatar

    Thank you, Father.

  8. Elias Avatar

    Our Creator wants us to share in creation in word, thought, and deed — and attitudes — rather than negativity and destruction?

  9. Matthew Avatar

    “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. ”

    So true. Thank you.

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