Much has been written, by scholars, about the connection between religious activity, liturgy and rites; and humanity’s propensity to ‘play’. Sometimes helpful anthropological connections are drawn, about the way in which human beings communicate, build internal models to make sense of things, and share symbolism in order to share complex communication that transcends the spoken or written word.
At other times, theories are less convincing, when all ‘religious’, habitual or superstitious human activities are bundled into one box for analysis, along with all forms of play, and handled in exactly the same way as though play itself were the defining attribute of human beings -when so many animals also play, and form habits, and hold unreasoned fears.
I am not one of those people who puts prayer into the category of ‘play’… partly because it’s neither particularly fun nor necessarily follows any rules, it can involve complete inactivity, and the longterm effects are palpable. Liturgy, however, because it is shared with others and has an element of organisation, and also because there is something serious and awesome about it and also something bordering on the ridiculous -because here we childish, ancient, human beings are- a little lower than the angels, made of dust and ashes and crowned with glory… it’s both delightful and bittersweet…
Nonethless, I like to keep an open mind about these things, since I only know a very little, and it’s always interesting to see the different ways that other people engage with prayer and liturgy -and to wonder how the ways in which we seek to draw near to God are shaped both by culture and instinct. Earlier in the week, I took my three-year-old daughter to the morning Eucharist, having been to morning prayer earlier in the week… and as we arrived in the small Lady Chapel where the weekday services are held, she began to tear round and round, running in a circle in the middle space.
‘Don’t trip!’ I said…
‘I’m making a circle so we can pray’ she said... and kept running round and round intently. ‘ ‘Righto… we will use that when we come to share the Eucharist I expect’ I said… rather surprised, but trying not to be at all offputting… after all she knows as much as I do about what God is up to.
After the Eucharist was over, and we had indeed gathered round in a closer circle ‘drawing near with faith’ to recieve the bread and wine. We grown ups cleared up, replacing the dustcloth on the altar and so forth and everyone began to depart. I was about to leave the chapel and head for the church door when I turned back to see her lying on her front and scuffling round the floor… ‘What are you doing?’ I asked, rather sharply.
‘I’m rubbing it out now we’ve finished, we don’t need it any more’ she answered unperturbed. Without a glance at me, she finished her circuit of the chapel and got to her feet.
‘There.’ she said, and took my hand.
…It could have been an echo of a game she had played elsewhere, perhaps at playschool… or it could have been something deeply and instinctively human… but there was something so unsurprisingly in tune, about making space for the sacred, setting aside an area for a time, and then dismantling it as though it had not been there -it was very tribal… it made me wonder how much of humanity’s minds is switched off and partitioned away if they do not have the spiritual space they need to express themselves as they reach out and relate to the divine… And I’m very glad that the narrow-minded and aggressive biological secularism that prevailed in the earliest days of science are beginning to be replaced by a more holistic understanding of the miraculous and complex creatures that human beings are… dust and ashes perhaps, but filled with the breath of life and crowned with God’s glory.