Sacred Play

(NOTE: This post is adapted from a sermon I delivered to my UU church in 2003.)

Thalia, Pierian Muse, daughter of Zeus – you whose love is laughter, and whose favorite sacrifice is a merry heart – be with me now and sing through me.

From the book Deep Play, by Diane Ackerman:

For humans, play is a refuge from ordinary life, a sanctuary of the mind, where one is exempt from life’s customs, methods and decrees… The world of play favors exuberance, license, abandon. Shenanigans are allowed, strategies can be tried, selves can be revised. In the self-enclosed world of play, there is no hunger. It is its own goal, which it reaches in a richly satisfying way. Play has its own etiquette, rituals and ceremonies, its own absolute rules. As Johan Huizinga notes in ‘Homo Ludens’, a classic study of play and culture, play ‘creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, limited perfection.’… Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning and maneuvering… It’s organic to who and what we are, a process as instinctive as breathing. Much of human life unfolds as play.

Adapted from Zen Comics, by Ioanna Salajan:

It’s the custom to make and win an argument about the Buddha to obtain a night’s lodging in a Zen temple. One night a traveler knocked on the door of the temple. One of the novices, a young man with one eye, answered the knock. Concerned that he was not ready for the argument, he went and asked the Master what to do; the master suggested he ask to do it in silence.

Later, the traveler appeared before the Master to congratulate him on having such a wonderful student; he said he had lost the argument, and would seek lodging elsewhere. The Master, surprised, asked him to describe the argument. The traveler said, “Well, first I held up one finger – Buddha, the Enlightened One. Then he held up two fingers – the Buddha and his teachings. Then I held up three fingers – the Buddha, his teachings and his followers. Then he shook his fist in my face, signifying all is one. So, he won the debate. Good night!”

Shortly afterwards the novice returned, saying, “Ooh, where’s that guy? I’m gonna beat him up!” The Master, surprised again, said, “What happened? I thought you won.” The novice said, “Won? Hah! He spent his time insulting me! First he held up one finger, making fun of my one eye. Then to teach him to be polite, I held up two fingers – he should be happy he has two eyes. Then the guy holds up three fingers, meaning we only have three eyes between us. I got so angry I shook my fist in his face, and he got scared and ran away!”

“Sacred play” is a way of being in the world that recognizes that while, as Longfellow says, “life is real and life is earnest,” life is also delightful, frequently absurd, and sometimes downright weird; and that this absurdity is also an aspect of Spirit.

Sacred play is not just about laughter for its own sake, although that is also a good thing. It’s play with a purpose – to heal the soul, to expand our spiritual horizons, to break through the walls of conscious awareness that are built around us as we learn to be civilized, productive members of society, and that we continue to build and strengthen our whole lives. It’s about laughing with life, not just at it, and understanding that if the universe doesn’t have sense of humor, then we’re all screwed. There is a Jewish teaching that at the end of our lives, we will be required to account for all the good things God gave us that we did not enjoy; as I see it, an attitude of sacred play is the best way to ensure that we do.

Most religions have some sort of tradition of sacred play; it is perhaps significant that one of the few I can think of that doesn’t, Protestant Christianity, is the one that was the most formative of early American culture. I suspect this is part of the reason that we as a society place such an (over)-emphasis on work and seriousness and progress progress progress – not just the good old “Protestant work ethic”, but the lack of a “Protestant play ethic.” Even the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages had the Feast of Fools near Christmas, when the social order was turned upside-down for a brief period. A Lord of Misrule or Boy Bishop might be elected, and serve for anywhere from a single evening’s revelry to a couple of weeks, with limited but still real power. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia (1917), “The central idea seems always to have been that of the old Saturnalia, i.e. a brief social revolution, in which power, dignity or impunity is conferred for a few hours upon those ordinarily in a subordinate position. Whether it took the form of the boy bishop or the subdeacon conducting the cathedral office, the parody must always have trembled on the brink of burlesque, if not of the profane.

Sacred play is not about humor per se, but humor – conscious, intentional humor – obviously plays a part. I am something of a humor junkie (probably 1/2 to 2/3 of our movie collection is either comedies or cartoons), and I’ve always believed that there are few things that can’t be learned better if you can laugh while you’re doing it. In Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, the old monk Jorge spends a lot of time ranting against laughter and merriment, and in the end is willing even to kill to prevent access to the only copy of Aristotle’s lost treatise on comedy, a book that he thinks would lead people to believe that laughter is not the work of the Devil. I believe (as I’m sure Eco intended) that Brother Jorge is wrong – not merely wrong, in fact, but diametrically opposed to the truth. Laughter is a gift, one of the things that makes life worth living, and sometimes the only thing that keeps us going.

There are, of course, many different kinds of humor, and many kinds of laughter as well, and most of them don’t fall into the “sacred play” or “sacred laughter” category. Most of what passes for humor on TV, for instance, doesn’t even come close. What makes something funny into something sacred, at least for me, is illumination. Sometimes I find something funny, and after I’m done laughing (sometimes days after) I find that I’m still thinking about it, and that somehow my way of looking at the world has changed just a little.

This happens a lot while reading Terry Pratchett. In Hogfather, which I re-read every Christmas, he plays with a number of ideas, including the current theory that Santa Claus is in some way a survival of a pre-Christian solar deity, and the idea that we humans have a built-in need to believe, that we’re “wired” for faith. In the story the Hogfather – Santa – is kidnapped, and the heroes (Death and his granddaughter, Susan) have to rescue him. This bit is from near the end:

“…tell me…”
“Yes! The sun would have risen just the same, yes?”
“Oh, come on. You can’t expect me to believe that. It’s an astronomical
She turned on him.
“It’s been a long night, Grandfather! I’m tired and I need a bath! I don’t need silliness!”
“Really? Then what would have happened, pray?”

And a second example, from Good Omens, the book Pratchett wrote with Neil Gaiman:
“…God moves in extremely mysterious, not to say, circuitous ways. God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players (i.e., everybody), to being involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.”

This is good stuff! The Hogfather passage in particular has stayed with me for several years, and I periodically turn it over in my mind and poke at it a little more, and new interpretations keep coming up. Is he just saying that “sunrise” as a concept doesn’t exist outside of our heads (a position taken, to an extreme degree, in historian Simon Schama’s book Landscape and Memory)? Is the point that we are so programmed to need our myths that we can’t make sense of the world without them? Or is it something else altogether? (Or, more likely, am I being over-analytical and it’s just a funny story?)

It’s almost like a Zen koan, one of those seemingly paradoxical or nonsensical statements that the students must wrestle with until they are able to see through the surface or “real” meaning of the story to the truth behind it. Zen, of course, has a long history of sacred play. Aside from the famous koan, Zen literature is also filled with stories of enlightened masters engaging in deliberately nonsensical behavior, creating chaos and cognitive dissonance, all in the name of helping the student to break through the wall of the self. Once, the Buddha announced that he would give a lecture on enlightenment. When the time came, he sat in silence, holding up a flower, then got up and left. A Chinese master, when asked to make a single pronouncement in accordance with Ch’an (Zen), put his shoes on his head and walked away.

In a slightly different aspect of sacred play, many Native American cultures have a tradition of sacred clowns. According to Peggy Andreas, in her article “Path of the Sacred Clown”:

To Native Americans, the path of the Sacred Clown is…considered a spiritual calling, essential to the smooth functioning of the tribe. Most every tribe had their Clowns. The Oglala and Lakota called them Heyoka (“crazy”), the Arapaho called them Ha Hawkan (“holy idiot”), and both peoples considered them religious specialists. The Salish people honor the memory of a Clown who (not so long ago) challenged a missionary. The missionary was enticing people to come to his church by handing out little mirrors to them while urging them to cover their bodies with white folks’ clothes. It is told with a smile that the Clown… walked into the church one Sunday wearing nothing but a hat and old shoes!… Nothing was sacred to a Sacred Clown. She was a social critic of the highest order… The power of the Clown is the power of life itself. Acknowledge… pain, then let it go. Don’t carry it around with you. Focus on the joy, the mystery, the happiness, the cosmic joke… If [the clown] can somehow find her emotional equilibrium, somehow go THROUGH the pain and come out on the other side, learn to dance on the knife edge of her own Soul, the experience becomes a gateway THROUGH the illusions of life and into the truth of life.

Like the Feast of Fools, the role of the Sacred Clown had a political as well as a spiritual aspect – part of the Clown’s job was to point out the injustices and stupidities of the tribal rulers, and of the people themselves. Unlike the medieval Lord of Misrule, whose power was limited and whose service was brief, the Sacred Clown was basically a free agent, protected from reprisal by ancient custom.

In this respect, the Sacred Clown shared some similarity to the Celtic bard, one of whose functions was that of the satirist. Woe betide the king who aroused the anger of a bard, either through unjust rule or personal slight – his name would be satirized throughout the land in long and frequently slanderous songs and poems. According to medieval legends, at least one Welsh bard is credited with having killed an opponent with the power of his satire, and the Irish Brehon Laws include specific remedies for someone who was unjustly satirized.

This political aspect having been noted, however, I want to return to the more personal side of sacred play – the idea of sacred play as spiritual practice, as soul work.

In therapy and self-help circles there is an idea called “deep play” (see first quote above). It seems to be mostly about unlocking creativity and learning to respond more “authentically”, whatever that means, to the things that happen in your life. This is close to what I’m talking about, and something of a springboard for my own thinking, except that my goal is not necessarily therapeutic, but rather to come into closer relationship with the Divine in the way that is most natural to me, by laughing and singing. In her book, Diane Ackerman talks about aesthetics, about learning to open to the beauty found in a sunset or a Beethoven symphony; while I enjoy both those things, and certainly agree that they can be the catalysts for transformative experiences, my vision of “sacred play” is less about being awed or moved by the grandeur of a sunset than watching squirrels playing in the back yard, or trying to figure out what the heck a platypus is for.

Sacred play is a tool: a means of gaining a small satori, a tiny flash of insight into the Divine; a way to communicate with that which is deepest in ourselves and to relate that to what is deepest in the world; and an excuse to remind ourselves to lighten up and stop taking everything so bloody seriously. Go rock-hopping in a mountain stream, and marvel at how the action of the water over hundreds of years shaped that rock to just the right state of roundness to land you on your butt in the cold water. Go outside at lunchtime and run around barefoot in the grass, just because you can. Above all, remember that everything you see is an expression of the Divine, and if it seems that the universe is laughing at you – laugh back!

I believe that if you can’t see the humor in life as well as the serious stuff, the pleasure as well as the pain, then you are only looking at Life with half of your soul, and will only ever see half of what’s real.


One thought on “Sacred Play

  1. Pingback: It’s a bird! A plane! No, a miscellany! « The House of Vines

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