“Man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays.” ~ Friedrich Schiller
Do you ever have “I’m sailing!” moments? You know, like from the movie What About Bob? when Bill Murray is tied to the sail boat mast and yelling for joy because he’s finally sailing? Don’t tell me, I’m the only one.
Mine sound like this: “I’m sewing! I’m sewing!” This happened when I finally got around to learning how to use my sewing machine after it had been sitting in my closet, untouched for years. I might have actually said those words out loud.
“I’m planting! I’m planting!” This happens every spring as soon as the weather warms up enough to dig in the dirt. Spring is always, always exciting.
Lately, my joy-filled cry is: “I’m painting! I’m painting!” For some reason, I’ve had an itch to paint. I bought some canvases a while back. I bought paints and paint brushes. Then those art supplies gathered dust in my closet for months. The itch grew really strong a few weeks ago. So strong, in fact, that I took out the paints and canvases and brushes. I went through photographs to find one that I wanted to try to capture in paint. I watched a you-tube video on how to get started. And then I started laying down layers of paint. Oh my goodness, is it fun. “I’m painting! I’m painting!”
Do I know what I’m doing? Nope. Is it any good? I have no idea. Does it matter? I don’t think so. It’s pure play. It brings me joy. My paintings make me happy while I’m working on them and even when I look at them afterward. I can’t wait to paint some more.
When do you experience “I’m sailing! I’m sailing!” moments? Those moments when you just love what you are doing and feel so happy that you get to do it? Is it running? (I can’t imagine, really, but that’s so awesome for you.) Hiking? Cleaning? Making music? Cooking? Biking? Swimming? Creating? How do you play?
I’m sure there are all sorts of psychological and emotional benefits to play. What if I told you that playing could be prayer? That you could actually be practicing contemplation in the middle of play? And I don’t mean that we should make our play all serious!
If, like Buechner said, our mental chatter gets in the way of noticing God’s presence in our lives, contemplative prayer is one way that people can try to quiet that mental chatter. Often we think of contemplative prayer as being still, being silent, closing our eyes and trying not to think about things. There are many beautiful, quiet contemplative practices. But sometimes, this quiet seems pretty impossible to achieve.
Contemplative prayer is really just paying attention. Maybe this is why playing might be a great way to start a contemplative practice.
In his book on prayer, God & You, William A. Barry, S.J. encourages us to try contemplative prayer by doing “something we like to do and ask[ing] God to be with us.” He says, “I can invite God to make his presence felt as I do what I like to do.” That’s it. What enjoyable activity will take your attention away from your mental chatter, your self-concern and anxieties? Try that.
According to Margaret Guenther in her book Holy Listening, play and prayer have been linked with the work of contemplative living for centuries. Guenther says that when we play, “[w]e are freed from our compulsion for right answers, freed from the need to acquire and achieve, freed from anxiety by the transitory nature of play.”
I find this to be true when I paint. It’s just for me. I’m not analyzing it or judging it. I’m not thinking of much else while I’m painting. I’m actually paying attention to the picture in front of me. And I can sense God’s joy and delight when I create. Painting is also teaching me to bring this non-judgmental attitude toward my other activities. (That’s what a contemplative practice eventually does.)
So how do we communicate with God while we play? Barry reminds us that God’s communication is most often ordinary: feeling peace or comfort, feeling God’s closeness, or feeling a sense of well-being or gratitude. Do you feel these things when you play? Maybe that’s God saying “hi.” And all we have to do is say “hi” back.
We tend to make things–especially God things and prayer–more difficult than they need to be.
I still have a hard time sitting down and praying with a lot of words. I love to sit in quiet, but my brain likes to jump all over the place. Praying as painting or gardening or cooking? That actually sounds beautiful and fun to me. What kind of play as prayer sounds beautiful and fun for you?