Playfulness is the inner atmosphere of all the virtues, the true climate created by mature virtue, as well as the disposition in which virtue and holiness grow most fully, freely, and expansively. As opposed to rigid seriousness that is perpetually watching itself, critiquing and measuring against an abstract ideal, trying to prove something (whether in fear or in pride), playfulness is lighthearted and forgetful of self. It does not calculate and measure, but simply responds with depth and spontaneity, with trust in the goodness of God and in his provident care for each moment and circumstance of human life. Playfulness can be defined (if a definition is actually possible) as a wonder-filled and gratuitous responsiveness to the unique beauty and meaning of each moment as the sacrament of God’s love and a space of encounter and intimacy with him. As such, it is marked by lightheartedness; by a carefree abandonment into the embrace of God and to the values inherent in creation that speak of him; by awe and gratitude and wonder; by an innocent humor that is the rich fruit of childlike receptivity to what is real, and a deep reverence for its word. Christ was so incredibly and beautifully playful, at every moment of his life, precisely because he was a perfect man—and also fully God, in the everlasting play of the Trinity’s life!—and lived the sanctity of human existence to the full.
Sanctity is lightness, the lightness of humility and the lightness of love. And as these two dispositions come together, humility and love, so many of the supposedly complicated questions of life, so many complex questions of discernment, find a simple answer. The heart comes to be so malleable, so relaxed and surrendered, that God is able to work directly and freely within it, guiding and molding and fulfilling. The heart discerns, and, in its purity, sees. “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.” Mature discernment, indeed, looks not like a long and drawn out consideration of options, of pros and cons, but is rather the inner vision of the heart which, simply contemplating, simply sees and knows.
“Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this on account of the people standing by,” Jesus prays in John’s Gospel (11:41-42). This simple statement made in prayer in the hearing of his disciples and the crowds has profound import. It reveals the bold confidence and lighthearted security of the Son in the love of his Father. The Son has only to ask, to let his heart speak a simple sigh of longing or desire or hope, or pain or sorrow or lament, and the Father hears all of it. And in hearing, he answers; he provides. And not only this. The path goes in the other direction as well: the Father is always speaking to his Son in the silence of his heart, and in every moment of life, in every particle of reality, as well. And so he speaks, too, to each one of us.
Playfulness perceives, receives, and rejoices.
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If playfulness is the all-pervading atmosphere of authentic sanctity, and the fruit of the virtues—free, spontaneous, and lighthearted—then how shall we distinguish this from leisure? These are two distinct realities, and it may be good to say a word on leisure, to understand its place in human life and its specific meaning. If playfulness pervades all of life and lifts it up in the likeness of the very disposition of the Blessed Trinity, leisure is, rather, a specific activity that occurs at certain times, and yet in which play (as both activity and disposition) is given a more explicit and exclusive place to expand and express itself.
In our American culture (in particular), we have a deeply ingrained bias against leisure, or more accurately speaking, against a life in which leisure is given primacy of place. Founded on a concept of the person which is deeply pragmatic, and an ideal of life that aspires towards achievement, success, and material well-being (or, on the other side of the spectrum, on a concept of morality based almost entirely on obedience to laws and acceptance of impersonal tasks), many today feel a deep-seated animus towards gratuitous and “useless” activities. That is to say, when they are truly gratuitous, born of the deep surrender of the heart to those elevated values that speak a specific word from God, lifting us up into a different manner of living that calls for the devotion of our whole life. Entertainment, on the other hand, we don’t seem to feel dislike towards at all. In fact, we live in a culture in which entertainment has almost entirely replaced leisure, and in which workaday striving has almost entirely replaced the pursuit of beauty, goodness, and truth. We are working ourselves to death for the sake of success or a feeling of worth, but we don’t even believe in the objective nature of truth anymore, or have any understanding of the true meaning of reality! Hence we stand, in our rare moments of silence and solitude, before a feeling of profound futility, if not of absurdity. This is the symptom of a world turned on its head.
How far we have fallen from the profound and sacred insights of the Middle Ages, grown and born from the womb of Christian Revelation! How far we are from the life of monastic and mendicant orders, marked by radical poverty and hard work, by deep charity towards the poor and suffering and total devotion to worship and evangelization; and a life, as surprising as it may sound, that is totally gratuitous and permeated with leisure, because permeated with the pursuit of those things that are good for their own sake, manifestations of the beauty of God, and ultimately of communion with God himself. If only we could rediscover the holy longing, the sacred thirst, that burned in the hearts of those who founded our western civilization! Indeed, if only we could tap into this innate longing that is present in the heart of every culture and every religion, and which Christianity has taken up and carried to its fulfillment! Without this about-face, this turning back to the gratuitous beauty of reality for its own sake, in an ardent thirst for the truth simply because it is true, and beauty simply because it radiates truth, and goodness simply because it is the voice of God’s desire for our happiness in union with him…without this, our civilization is destined to fall.
These reflections led us a bit off track, so let us return now to the theme with which we began. What is leisure? Leisure is constituted, we could say, by two fundamental things: first, by the releasing of all goal-oriented motives and all direct, pragmatic responsibilities; second, by the wholehearted focus on beauty, goodness, and truth (on the radiance of reality) for its own sake, simply because it is deserving of such a response. Whether listening to music, going for a walk, watching a movie, reading a novel, or exercising one’s body in a playful way (or any other examples), leisure is marked by being a place explicitly set aside to be pure gratuity, and thus to be a taste of eternity. It is a faith-filled participation in the mystery of the Sabbath, as the time of rest and restoration, and ultimately in the Eternal Sabbath that awaits us at the end of time, in the everlasting consummation, in which all shall be so permeated by the pure gratuity of love and intimacy that all will become, as it were, pure leisure, pure communion.
And God has intended us, as human beings fashioned in his image and likeness, to desire and to need times of explicit leisure. They are, indeed, high-points of life, or still-points near the center that help to give fresh life and vigor to all the other aspects of life as well. In fact, despite being distinguished from playfulness as a disposition, it must be strongly affirmed that leisure can and should pervade all the activities of life as the innermost truth, the inner disposition and act, of our heart before everything, even our tasks, responsibilities, sufferings, and the busyness of everyday existence. This is because, when this disposition of childlike receptivity, wonder, and gratuitous affirmation grows to pervade one’s whole being, the attitude and act with which one explicitly plays in leisure lives in all things, not only sanctifying and illumining them from within, but also precisely in this way alone revealing their deepest beauty and meaning.
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If true leisure is a gratuitous rejoicing in beauty, goodness, and truth, then it is marked by its capacity to renew and deepen our contact with the whole of reality anew. After a time of authentic leisure, we return to the living of life with a renewed vigor, with a more sensitive heart, with eyes that have, as it were, grown in the capacity to see, ears in the ability to hear, hands in the ability to touch with reverence and to act with freedom. Leisure is, thus, a “natural sacrament,” a living contact with a little thing which is in fact a great thing, for it holds and communicates more than it itself is. For example, a novel holds, in the folds of its characters and its story, insights into the meaning of reality, and graces buried only to be uncovered, which can teach deep lessons (“heart” lessons as opposed to merely head knowledge) that open up a more rich, free, and expansive relation with all that is.
As a counter example, we need only think of many forms of “entertainment” present in the first-world culture today, which fracture mind and heart from the center to the periphery, which beget impatience, a competitive spirit, and a thirst for the stimulation of the senses, fostering a more and more voracious appetite for base pleasures. So too, much fiction today, in whatever medium, fails to direct hearts and minds back to reality, but rather creates an “alter” reality in which one is meant to lose oneself, forgetting all cares. But no story, no co-created world can be real without manifesting the real, without bearing, and indeed illuminating and unfolding, the innate ontological truths of the actual universe that God created, without being a form of wonder-filled play in what truly is. This is indirectly expressed by G.K. Chesterton in his words on faerie stories, when he wrote:
When we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him. This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.i
All authentic art, whether the written word, or a painting or sculpture, or music, or anything else, seeks to manifest the objective logos, the true word present in reality, and to allow this word to unfold itself. Art is a service, a service of objective beauty, goodness, and truth, and not a mode of mere self-expression or self-assertion. Humility and honesty in expression, therefore, are essential traits of the artist, as is an ardent and passionate love for the real, for truth as it is given in reality, and not as a product of our own making or achievement. True art, thus, lives on receiving, on giveness, pure virginal openness before reality as it presents itself to us and speaks to us a word from God, indeed the Word from God, who seeks to wed himself to us through beauty, from the littlest to the highest, in every detail and aspect of life.
Let us take a final step. Is it not possible, even in this life, to anticipate the unity and harmony of the eternal life that awaits us? Is it not, in other words, possible to enter into that space in which work and play become one, or at least are inseparably intertwined? In which gratuity and fruitfulness are united? In which all service is playful and we are the “playful servants” of God, since we are his cherished, beloved children? In which leisure and labor sing a single song? In which every moment is permeated by the perfect playfulness of the Persons of the Trinity? For the eternal Trinity, after all, work and play are one, rest and activity are indivisible. This is because, for the divine Persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, life consists in nothing but prayer, that is, nothing but interpersonal love and heartfelt communion, birthing all things, permeating them, sanctifying them, giving them meaning, and bringing them to fulfillment. And, as children fashioned in God’s image and redeemed by his grace, the same can be possible for us. And the gateway, indeed the living-space, is precisely prayer. Life comes into harmony in us whenever work, play, and prayer become one. For prayer pervades every moment of life, and makes of it a ceaseless dialogue, an abiding communion, with the blessed Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and, in them and with them, with the beauty of creation and with each one of God’s precious and unrepeatable children.
i. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter IV, “The Ethics of Elfland.”