Have you ever noticed with amusement that when children are let loose in a big, empty field they will immediately start running around gleefully, inventing some game, playing tag, finding random sticks to use as swords—completely unprompted and with complete, joyous abandon.
Where does that spontaneity, creative energy, and love for games go once we are adults? Do we leave behind play once we enter the world of work? As adults we place a heavy emphasis on work. Americans spend more hours working than most other nations. In fact, the United States ranks among the worst countries for work-life balance according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Better life index.
It can seep into our spiritual life, too, through a tendency to activism or white-knuckling our growth in virtue. We are sometimes tempted to think we must “prove” ourselves to God as though by our own efforts we could gain salvation! As Jesus told the busy Martha as she complained that she was doing all the work while Mary sat as his feet,“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part” (Luke 10: 41-42).
What Is The Theology Of Play And Its Importance For Catholics?
What is the function of play in our lives as Catholic Christians? Is it just to relieve the stress of the workaday world? Is it only for children? Is it a sign of laziness or lack of virtue? Or does it serve a more significant purpose?
Rather than denigrating play, many philosophers and theologians correlate it with God’s own creative activity, with worship and with the highest of human endeavors, contemplation.
St. Thomas Aquinas believed games (when played in accord with reason) exhibited the virtue of eutrapelia, or playfulness or pleasantness, which was appropriate when one is weary from work: “Just as man needs bodily rest for the body’s refreshment, because he cannot always be at work, since his power is finite and equal to a certain fixed amount of labor, so too is it with his soul …Consequently, the remedy for weariness of soul consist in the application of some pleasure.” And: “words or deeds wherein nothing further is sought than the soul’s delight are called playful or humorous.”
God himself sets an example of appropriately resting after the creation of the universe, having paused to contemplate his work: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31). “And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done” (Gen 2:2).
Is God Playful?
Can God be said to be playful? Creation is the “play of the Lord” writes philosopher and Jesuit James Schall in his delightful book Far Too Easily Pleased. God created the universe and man not because he was lacking in anything, but out of the sheer joy and freedom and love of it. “Creation is a field of play for God.” In one translation, Wisdom is “always at play, playing through the whole world” (Prov 8:30-31).
“Leisure describes the life of God,” observes Schall. And, because of this “divine leisure,” we too should make it a priority.
Leisure is not simply “taking a break” from work. It is not so that we can work harder. We work to have leisure, as philosopher Josef Pieper says, restating an Aristotelian point. Human beings are not made for labor; we are made for leisure!
The fundamental aspect of leisure or play is so that we can contemplate those things that are. Schall compares contemplation to watching a game: there is an essential joy in contemplating what is given to us as gift; we did not create it, but we watch in silence and awe, wonder and excitement—and eventually, celebration. Games also bring us outside of ourselves to appreciate and celebrate life and so, in a small way, exemplify contemplation. Which is why Schall says that “To be able to be diverted is the beginning of wisdom.” Furthermore, when we worship God we are actually expressing delight in God’s presence. Contemplation is the beginning of laughter and prayer!
Leisure is, by its nature a celebration. We want to rejoice in the universe and praise God. Furthermore, “We achieve our highest freedom when we encounter glory and rejoice. It is little wonder that play and playfulness, games and athletics bring us closer to the Infinite, for they begin to teach us what there is to do when we are fascinated by something that is utterly beyond our needs and necessities. That we were created in abundance in order to rejoice before glory…”
So, let’s practice the virtue of eutrapelia and gather in joyous celebration with our friends and family, strengthening the bonds of love as we play wholesome games—such as Know Thyself! The Game of Temperaments, from Sophia.
1 James Schall, Far Too Easily Pleased: A Theology of Play, Contemplation, and Festivity (Washington, DC: The Catholic Education Press, 2020), 33
2 Ibid., 72
3 Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 20
4 Schall, Far Too Easily Pleased, 63
5 Pieper, Leisure, 49
6 James Schall, Far Too Easily Pleased, 91