20 September 2018

On the Importance of Play in Contemplative Life

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, I wrote you recently about justifying the inner work you have undertaken in the last couple of years. I thought it pretty atypical of hermits and wondered if you weren't fooling yourself, though I did not put it that bluntly. Now I see you posting about coloring pictures in "adult" coloring books. Are you serious? This is kid's stuff!! Play time!! When I think of eremitical life I think of it as the pinnacle of monastic life and perhaps the most sober expression of religious or consecrated life we know. The Church charges hermits with the ministry of prayer and expects hermits to be a sign of the call to "pray always". The Church charged YOU with this ministry and responsibility! How can your director allow this kind of frivolous time wasting? I am not really surprised but I am concerned that what you do passes for either prayer or contemplative life. Surely it is far from the life of real hermits! Does your bishop know about the way you spend your time?]]

Thanks for your observations.  I had hoped the comments I made on the drawings/colorings I shared contextualized why I do what I do --- at least partly. Your comments remind me that I forgot to specifically mention the importance of play in the contemplative life, indeed, in any truly Christian life --- so let me start there! In the post you reference, I spoke of becoming absorbed in various activities as an aid to growing in contemplative prayer; I also spoke of attentiveness and listening, but I did not speak about a very special form of simply being ourselves without pretense or posturing; I did not speak about play. Play, however, is one of the primary places we assume such a position vis-a-vis reality. We play without self-consciousness; in play we quite literally lay aside many of the attitudes we ordinarily let define us --- even as we also learn to embrace those attitudes which are necessary for living full and loving adult lives. What happens in play is something like what happens when we get drawn into Jesus' parables and unburden ourselves of much of the baggage defining our usual existence in order to be drawn actively into the Kingdom story.

In "play" we are simply our truest selves and grow into ourselves in an unplanned, spontaneous way rooted in true obedience (hearkening) to our hearts --- and thus, to the God who dwells there and grounds our Being. When I was a child two forms of play in particular allowed this kind of absorption and "self-emptying": violin (from age 9) --- mainly in the form of improvisation --- and coloring or painting (well before age 9). These also opened me to the experience of transcendence and community (orchestra especially did this latter).

For reasons that are not important here, I left coloring/painting behind while still fairly young and certainly before I was ready. In doing so, I lost not only a personal gift, but a privileged way of playing, creating, and even praying --- and thus of being myself (and vice versa). It was natural in undertaking the inner work I have done over the past couple of years to pick up coloring again as an effective form of play which was aesthetically, intellectually, and emotionally challenging, expressive, and supportive. I had prayed this way as a child (because prayer and play can be interchangeable -- especially for children!), and, some of the time, when things became  particularly difficult with the work I had undertaken, I prayed in this way in the present as well. By the grace of God, this play was a way to personal healing, reconciliation, and communion with God. Not to be too obvious or heavy-handed about this reference, but you will recall that Jesus said, "Unless you become as little children, you shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven." I think play, the most characteristic form of the utter seriousness (and joy!) of the child, is a symbol of heaven --- of participation in God's own life.

My director knows all this, I think. About 27 years ago she referred to the importance of play; a good friend of hers was reflecting on the reality of play at the time and Sister Marietta mentioned this. We didn't pursue the topic but what she did say struck me and I remembered it. It was only a couple of months ago when, because of the limitations imposed by my broken wrist, I was reflecting with Marietta on my current inability to improvise music on the violin, I came to understand the place improvisation had in being myself in the midst of trauma that militated against this. In the conversation we had that day I described  what "playing violin" meant to me and then, with my own growing awareness of what I was actually saying, I emphasized I also meant "playing" in the more general sense children mean the term when they become absorbed in their blocks, crayons, dolls, action figures, or make-believe worlds.  By extension, and rooted in my own experience, I thus only very recently came to understand conceptually and theologically the potential and meaning of play itself. (In some ways I might not have seen it as clearly as I do now had it not been for your objections about the utter childishness of play and its supposed antipathy to eremitical life!)

But please understand, play is deadly serious stuff! Again, it is the most characteristic form of the utter seriousness (and joy!) of children. Yesterday we heard the Gospel reading where Jesus says, [[“To what shall I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children who sit in the marketplace and call to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, but you did not dance. We sang a dirge, but you did not weep.’]] When I reflect on that in light of what I have come to know and said here, it occurs to me that the people of  "this" generation to whom Jesus spoke were seen as incapable of or entirely resistant to being themselves in response to whatever "tune" God plays or sings. It is an almost inconceivably tragic portrait of who we have become when the best analogy to that is of children who themselves resist or have actually become incapable of play!

Martin Buber once called play "the exaltation of the possible." The people Jesus was speaking to were incapable of "play," of freedom and spontaneity, of genuine obedience, selflessness, and the kenosis typical of children at play. They could neither dance with the abandon nor give themselves over to grief in the whole-hearted,  unself-conscious way children at play are capable of. Because of their own religious and other baggage they could not put aside their partisanship or their concern for what others thought in order to embrace the new, the possible, the future God desired to create; they could not (let themselves) be the compassionate persons God called them to be in responding to Jesus (or John the Baptist) and the Kingdom messages (kerygma) they proclaimed.

One more story, a story I have told before and recently I think, might also be helpful here. Around 1993 I was working with a young violinist on the Bach Double Violin Concerto. (She had helped me with Scottish Fiddle and was now working with me on Classical violin!) During this time we had a conversation regarding improvisation because both she and I loved to do that (no, not on the Bach Double). In explaining her own experience Laura described seeing "a river of music moving throughout the universe." When she improvised, she said,  she experienced/thought of it as "tapping into that river of music." I told her I knew the same experience except that I called that river "God"! It was while I was sharing this story with my director that I came to understand how "playing" (improvising on) violin, was a way of truly being myself, a way of being open to God, a way of praying. I came to see it had always been a contemplative way of being. In fact, it was the most natural way I knew of doing that --- and I was only seeing this clearly as I dealt with the prospect and pain of perhaps having lost it due to injury. Coloring is a little like that --- as is the absorption of "hobbies" I described in my last post more generally. No pretense, no posturing, just worship -- liturgy -- because yes, I think play is a form of liturgy --- the work/worship/liturgy of Children of God.

You may not agree with all (or any of) this, of course, but I know its truth as do those who share some responsibility for my vocation. My life as a hermit not only makes play possible; it makes it necessary. As Dom Robert Hale, OSB Cam told me a dozen years ago when he looked at the Rule I was submitting before perpetual profession, "Please make sure to build in enough time for recreation (play) and rest!" He was so right!!