30 April 2009

St Maximus on the 'Theology of Play'

In a brief moment of idleness, I was just browsing Fr Andrew Louth’s book of translations of select pieces from St Maximus the Confessor (Maximus the Confessor [London: Routledge, 1999]), and I unexpectedly found some poetry. It seems Ambigua 71 is St Maximus’s commentary on some lines of a poem of St Gregory the Theologian:

The high Word plays in every kind of form, mixing, as he wills, with his world here and there. (p. 164)

Here is part of what St Maximus has to say about this:

The divine Paul, the great Apostle, who is both an initiate himself and initiates others in the divine and secretly-known wisdom, calls [this mystery] the foolishness of God and his weakness, because, I think, of its transcendent wisdom and power; the great and divinely-minded Gregory calls it play, because of its transcendent prudence. For Paul says, ‘The foolishness of God is wiser than men and the weakness of God is stronger than men’ (I Cor. 1:25); while Gregory says, The high Word plays in every kind of form, mixing, as he wills, with his world here and there.’ Each, by privation of what with us are most powerful attributes, points to what the divine possesses, and by negations of what is ours makes affirmation of the divine. For with us foolishness, weakness and play are privations, of wisdom, power and prudence, respectively, but when they are attributed to God they clearly mean excess of wisdom, power and prudence. (pp. 164-5)

Fr Louth introduces the Ambigua by pointing out that St Gregory’s reference to the ‘high Word’ playing ‘in every kind of form’—

recalls the similar imagery, used to rather different purpose, by Gerard Manley Hopkins [in his sonnet, ‘As kingfishers catch fire’, here]:

For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

While I can’t comment on Hopkins’s intentions in using this imagery of ‘play’, St Maximus’s comments on St Gregory’s use of the same imagery make it clear that as Orthodox we do not understand such things in the way that many Protestants may who are under the influence of what is called a ‘theology of play’. One blogger, for instance, has asked how play cannot be part of what our Lord intends when he says we should be like children (Mark 10:15). As Orthodox, however, we have the examples of the Saints to show that this is so. Concerning, e.g., St Theodosius of the Kiev Caves, it is written (The Hagiography of Kievan Rus’, trans. Paul Hollingsworth [Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1992], p. 37):

Moreover, he would not approach the children at play, as is the custom of youths, but abhorred their games. His clothing was poor and patched. For this reason his parents compelled him to dress in fresh clothes and go out and play with children. But he would not heed them and wished instead to be as one of the poor and, moreover, to be entrusted to a teacher to study Scripture.

Similarly, the Venerable Bede tells us, in his Life of St Cuthbert, that when another child prophesied the future career of the Saint, upbraiding him, ‘It does not become you to be playing among children’, he ‘immediately abandoned his vain sports, and returning home, began from that moment to exhibit an unusual decision both of mind and character’. In this way, St Bede writes earlier, the future bishop ‘most abundantly laid aside all those childish things’.

It would seem that these Saints recognised the truth that St Maximus expressed, that ‘play’ involves a deficiency in ‘prudence’. Of course, there is also a certain saying about St Anthony the Great that we should take into account (from Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, rev. ed. [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1984], pp. 3-4):

13. A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, ‘Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.’ So he did. The old man then said, ‘Shoot another,’ and he did so. Then the old man said, ‘Shoot yet again,’ and the hunter replied ‘If I bend my bow so much I will break it.’ Then the old man said to him, ‘It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.’ When he heard these words the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened.

So it would seem that in particular cases, some sort of recreation may be necessary for those of us who are less advanced on the path to salvation (and after all, the story about St Anthony concerns monks—how much easier might it be to ‘stretch’ laymen ‘beyond measure’?). But at the very least we would do well to recognise that ‘play’ is not, according to the Patristic tradition, something we can find in God, at least not in a way likely to appeal to modern Americans accustomed to amusing ourselves to death and then looking for a moral justification for it. Incredibly, as they grow closer to Him, it is not entirely uncommon to find even wise and holy children themselves leaving play behind and moving on to something higher.


orrologion said...

"Beware the newly revealed game of soccer" (St. Barsanuphius of Optina).

Benjamin Ekman said...

what, to your mind, is the difference between the sort of "play" that is objectionable to the saints and the christian folk culture of dance. i think for instance of that scene in Eliot's Four Quartets:

"In that open field
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire
The association of man and woman
In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie—
A dignified and commodiois sacrament.
Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Whiche betokeneth concorde. Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter
Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long since under earth
Nourishing the corn. Keeping time,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of the coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death."

is this necessarily a lack of prudence?



Zac said...

Does it need to be qualified-- children and animals play naturally ("there goeth Leviathan whom Thou hast made to play therein")?

Also, what counts as "play" that is folly or lack of prudence? Does running/racing for bodily health? How about hobo gypsy cookouts? It'd be good to define exactly what we think the fathers are condemning.

aaronandbrighid said...

Sorry for the delay in responding to these comments, guys. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been extremely busy with this book, and to top it all off, there’s been a crisis recently in my wife’s family. So I’ll do my best!

Chris> Excellent point. I remembered reading that, and thought it quite insightful!

Benjamin> Well, first of all, I don’t claim to understand fully what St Maximus means by calling play a lack of prudence. Second, neither do I understand fully all of the philosophical/moral/cultural implications of dancing, whether in a Christian folk form or other. I would point out, however, that in the Lives of Saints, dancing (usually of a folk sort) seems to be one of those activities that would fall under the category of frivolity, and therefore, I would suppose, a lack of prudence. But I’m not sure that this means they would in all cases argue that no Christian should ever dance, or that dancing can’t serve some good cultural or moral purpose. I always think of Elder Sophrony’s statement that as he became more drawn into prayer, the arts just held less interest for him.

Another point I would make is that there is surely a hierarchy of more or less ‘prudent’ dancing. Christian folk dancing, with its ‘dignified’ and ‘sacramental’ charactre, in Eliot’s words (which remind me somewhat of some of Lewis’s remarks about ‘ritual’ in the Preface to Paradise Lost), seems to me to be much more ‘prudent’—if not wholly so—than, for example, hip-hop dancing.

Zac> Well, obviously, there’s nothing wrong with hobo gypsy cookouts! (What prompted you to bring those up, by the way? Be aware that just because I’ve done something myself does not mean I can or will defend it on moral grounds!)

But seriously, the fact that animals and children play naturally does not necessarily mean that play and prudence are compatible. I would be surprised, for instance, if animals were expected by God to exhibit a human virtue like that, and furthermore, part of being a child is having to learn and acquire the virtues. No one expects children to be born with perfect justice, prudence, courage, and temperance. We tolerate this in them as an immaturity, but we hope that as they grow older they will learn to cultivate these virtues. The fact that some Saints have displayed extraordinary prudence as children is not so much a mandate that all children immediately go out and do likewise, as it is a reminder that even for children games and frivolities are not the ideal, much less for adults.

With regard to adult activities, I still believe that running and hobo gypsy cookouts are not always entirely prudent (the latter especially). Some form of deliberate exercise may be necessary in many cases today—especially for those of us who work in offices and have to drive cars everywhere and therefore never get exercise in a natural way—but I still think it would be better if, rather than running solely for the sake of health, we were also getting somewhere worthwhile. Otherwise it seems like it can become a form of self-indulgence or narcissism merely disguised as a health necessity or even as a quasi-ascetic endeavour. I never heard of Saints jogging, though I could see them going for walks in order to pray.

Generally, I agree that it’s important not to just go around taking quotes from monastic Fathers and applying them as absolutes to life in the world. Certainly, I think discernment is important and in dealing with these questions at the practical level, the guidance of one’s spiritual father is paramount. And I don't claim to be able always to identify what is or is not foolish or imprudent. But I think it’s clear enough from the Patristic and hagiographical witness that games and such are not ideal Christian activities. My problem with the ‘theology of play’ is not per se that people are in fact playing, but that they’re trying to claim that their playing is some sort of spiritual activity. By contrast, I’ve never claimed that hobo gypsy cookouts were somehow ‘Christian’!

I think it’s important that we not let cultural, contemporary biases affect our readiness to accept the Fathers’ teachings. It’s too easy to just take the modern obsession with entertainment for granted and explain away anything in our Tradition that seems to call it into question. And keep in mind that I have as much a tendency to do this as anyone else!

s-p said...

Very interesting post. "Play" has a creative aspect to it, and a relational aspect since play usually involves others. Monks are "playful" with people, even some of the most advanced ones. In that sense it is not entertainment (at someone else's expense, or for gratuitous self indulgence) nor is it a formal "game" where the bottom line is competetiveness and oneupmanship of some kind. Why does God "play"? Ultimately to reveal Himself to His created ones in love. The same reason a Christian should play.

Zac said...


Forgive me if I sounded like I was putting your feet to the fire-- I certainly didn't mean it that way. I'm inclined to agree with you, although I think there are couple things worth considering:

1) Children play in order to learn and grow. I think that's pretty accurate-- most kids go about playing like it's a job, and they learn lessons from it like bravery, teamwork, etc. They also get exercise for their growing muscles. There's a "prudence" at work there, I'd say, even though they'd never never give those reasons themselves. Same with puppies and other animals.

2) Are there "prudent" adult ways that we play? Certainly there are imprudent ways: video games or, I dunno, other wastes of time that really have little redeeming qualities. But my point in bringing up the hobo gypsy cookout was not to condemn it but to defend it. It seems to me that things like that are prudent adult ways to play... you celebrated culture, you shared a joyful time with your friends, and you made music! God doesn't begrudge us the innocent pleasures of life-- and I think you'd be hard-pressed to find the most austere of ascetics who would say otherwise.

As for exercising, I agree that it's probably better to combine exercise with something meaningful and productive: prayer, labor at a craft, etc. But I think bodily health is also a worthwhile thing. As our mutual friend Stefan once told me: there are no icons of fat people! Harsh, but true, and it's awakened me to my own need for moderation in diet and a dedication to fitness and activity.

You bring up St. Anthony's condescension to his disciples by enjoying himself with them-- this was certainly not a sin, and was perhaps even part of the commandment to love and bear another's burdens for the great ascetic. Another example that comes readily to mind would be the royal passion-bearers, Tsar Nicholas and his family. If memory serves me correctly, they would often learn and enact the plays of Chekhov and Ibsen together-- the Emperor and Empress also participating in the plays.

aaronandbrighid said...

s-p> I'm a little confused. Are you using 'play' in St Gregory's sense as informed by St Maximus?

Zac> Oh, don't worry, I took no umbrage! You make good points here, but the question remains: are we not still over-justifying 'play'? St Maximus has called it, in the human sense, imprudent. Many of the Saints have given it up even as children. Even if we accept that there may be occasions for it or that it may serve good purposes, surely we must confess that play is no theological virtue, that it is suboptimal, and that it, perhaps, more or less partakes in the vices of imprudence or frivolity?

Obviously, I felt that the hobo/gypsy party wasn't some terrible sin to be avoided legalistically. I believed, and still believe, that the good things about it that you mention are true. Even though I do believe that there are more prudent ways to play (I could, e.g., wax quite philosophical about the virtues of the hobo/gypsy party!), these seem to me to be entirely the exception and not the rule in 21st-c. America. One of my purposes in activities like that one was precisely to provide an alternative, even to create a dissatisfaction with the usual entertainments.

But might it not have been even better to spend the evening in prayer and repentance? I'm trying to put my own 'feet to the fire' here! ;) I for one probably over-indulged in alcohol that evening, I spent a great deal of effort in trying to amuse others through witticisms (thereby indulging in vainglory), I was quite off my guard against sinful thoughts in general, and, if I remember correctly, due to my exhaustion after everyone left I went straight to bed without saying my prayers.

Now it may be that, as I am obliged to believe myself the chief of sinners, I am the only one who experiences these failings and temptations when I am 'playing' and that I am thus exaggerating the dangers of 'play' because of my own weakness. But the writings of the Fathers and the Lives of the Saints suggest to me that it is a universal problem! And I'm not talking about God 'begrudging' us anything, as though He's out to get us for violating some kind of legal code. I'm talking about the temptations that are involved in even the most 'innocent' of pleasures, temptations that we should be aware of for the sake of our own well-being.

I wrote this post not to put an end once and for all to games, dances, music, and diversions, like some kind of Puritan, but, first, to say that a 'theology of play' is silly and misguided, and, second, to caution generally against refusing to be honest about the ethics of play, especially when we ourselves are, for one truly justifiable reason or another, indulging in it. Even if there is such a thing as 'good play', we must face up to what our Tradition has to say and recognise the extreme discrepancy between this and the most basic assumptions of our modern culture. I think it worthwhile to remind ourselves of that discrepancy with some frequency!

Zac said...

I agree with your main points, especially about not academically trying to come up with a "theology of play" as though we could confuse ourselves for the holy fathers in the clefts of rocks saving themselves and us by their prayers.

But you know just because we don't have a theology for it doesn't mean it's bad. Going back to running and exercise-- very "useful" forms of play in that they can add health and energy to the body-- I was talking with my priest about this (and I was in ROCOR at the time, mind you). He told me that I needed to find a healthy form of exercise to shed some pounds and help alleviate stress-- like running. I asked him, "Father, are there any patristic writings on running or other bodily exercise?" And he said, "No! And there doesn't need to be any!" I find myself inclined to agree with that.

I'm heartened by your candor and the scrutiny to which you put yourself in your evening, but certainly both merriment and fasting are part of the Church's experience, and both are sanctified. We need to be aware of our tendency as fallen creatures to over-indulge and abuse, but moderation is the middle road for that... neither confusing ourselves for saints and mysticizing our cookouts nor shunning every type of wholesome activity simply because the time could better be spent praying. Balance is important, is my point-- maybe there's no "holy play" but there must certainly be justifiable "play" "relaxation" "feasting" "merriment" etc.

But I like what you say, and certainly we need to be aware of how our culture in particular is infected with a pathological need for entertainment and idleness.

aaronandbrighid said...

Of course we need balance! My point is that we don't often consider this more austere view of things, i.e., we have no 'balance'. The post was meant to put an emphasis on the side of the balance that tends to be neglected.

s-p said...

Hi Aaron, Yes, I believe so. "Play" as St. Maximos explicates (if I read him correctly) involves essentially the unexpected. And what is a joke but the unexpected? Play is ultimately creative and reveals the "player", it is the antithesis to what you are describing as self indulgence and vainglorious self aggrandizement at the expense of others.