What Happens When We Play (Pray)

In 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.



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One response to “What Happens When We Play (Pray)”

  1. Inna Budko Avatar
    Inna Budko

    Dear Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you so much for your series of articles about playing games and our lives! Your ideas helped me to see one more side of our reality. I noticed some time ago that when we were children we played games and all our goals always stayed inside these games. When you stop playing then goals and rules of the game stayed in this interrupted play. And later, we were pushed to keep goals outside of any game. We got trained to have a set of not so important goals standing along of everything important in our lives. Standalone goals required the rules to be made standalone also. This turned playing to the empty and senseless action. And, to be honest, having these odd goals and rules does not bring any joy or pleasure in my life. I do not want to catch something with somebodies rules. It’s not mine cup of tea at all. And this is a nonsense in a face of eternity. I believe our world created with a big chunk of sense 🙂
    I push myself to rethink the value of life. And I found that only life as a process has sense in eternity. The process with incorporated rules and goals that are build in and not staying apart. Your thoughts about game and play gave me a clue that the joy and pleasure could always be a part of this way if we accept them.

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