2017 - Issue Three

A Gift for Doing Nothing: Ordering Play, Liberating Work

Erik van Versendaal Download Article

1.      The Freedom to Be

Because children are more my creatures.
                Than men are.[1]

As Friedrich Schiller has it, “man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays.” [2] This sentiment would seem to fly in the face of mature human action—helping, teaching, making, planning. Isn’t the human person at his best when he is responsibly and seriously committed to the good of the world in and through the domestic, professional, or ministerial task allotted him? Though a permissible diversion, a deserved and desirable consolation for the overtaxed soul, how can play be said to reveal the human person at his most human? If we accept Schiller’s judgment, don’t we commit ourselves to disdaining all pragmatic, goal-oriented, thankless industry as ignoble—even degrading?

In her play, the child gives irrefutable witness to the adult homo economicus that his life is not exhausted by position, production, commerce, the acquisition and maintenance of property. At bottom, personal life is not subject to exchange, cannot be earned, and has no value that can be prospected. Absent the habit of accepting life as given for free, and thus staying attentively true to the simplest sense of be-ing, man seeks to manufacture the meaning of his life through enterprise. His aspiration will be frustrated from the outset unless he owns that he is counted worthy of love as a matter of sheer grace: that of being created. As Josef Pieper so clear-sightedly taught, leisure is the sphere of life that most amply recollects this abyssal foundation of creaturehood, and all leisure, no matter how noble, always retains the festive, “pointless” character of play. “Leisure,” Pieper writes, “is only possible when man is at one with himself, when he acquiesces in his own being.”[3]

Does the little girl at play then make a mockery of the pursuits and duties with which her parents are daily preoccupied? Does celebrating the seemliness of play compel us to scorn adult cares as misguided delusions, or as the betrayal of one’s humanity, a cowardly concession to a fallen world-order? Does ascribing primacy to play in human life relegate work to the mechanical, the unfree, the impersonal and dehumanizing? Or can play actually teach us what it is to do “good work?”

2.      How Nothing Gets Done

But the children are only interested in making the trip…
They don’t go, they don’t run in order to get there. They get there in
               order to run. They get there in order to go.[4]

Perhaps no note is more emblematic of play than that of gratuity. This means neither that play is arbitrary, nor that it is, on the other hand, “good for nothing.” Play is gratuitous most simply in the sense that it is self-rewarding—it satisfies, and is worth partaking in, apart from any further boon that might come of it. This character of play as done “for its own sake” takes up and rests upon the pure givenness of being, by the free and utter donation of which God affirms the world as good, and very good, in principio. The child has a native instinct for discovering and revealing the unmerited bounty of finite existence, which is already justified by the divine fiat alone. On this basis, she is gifted with the freedom to happily surrender to the playfulness with which all things present themselves to her. This comes to view with special clarity in her readiness to entrust herself to the games to which she is called. (What task is not a game for the child? And to what game does she not give herself with the most earnest abandon?) Her willingness to take this risk of play manifests her inborn, implicit trust that it is good to be, and that being is so securely delivered, so supportively available, and so personally meant, that its goodness can be taken for granted, like the mother and father through whom this goodness is first mediated to her. Indeed, taking being for granted can be a form of cherishing it—by intimately engaging with the community of all that has been let-be. Play, as a modality of love, takes seriously the useless end of a created universe: be-ing together.[5]

To play is to offer oneself in an answer to an acceptable invitation, where surrender justly grows into purposeful involvement. The very attribute that best defines play—its gratuity—gives rise, by necessity, to what might seem to be the antithesis of play: the form of the game, its body of rules. The game’s goodness can only be received for its own sake through the player’s disciplined obedience to the order that the game generates of itself. For it is precisely in its rules that the game communicates its intrinsic end, so that its gratuity is preserved and appropriated only by way of upholding these rules. Likewise, the player’s freedom for self-risk is not foreshortened, but augmented, by his conformity to this order. In submitting and committing himself to this pattern, the player actualizes his freedom by executing definite tasks and accumulating habits, attaining a greater command over the game, and over himself, in the process. Through this discipline, possibilities of play open up to the player, and he becomes a more versatile agent without ever outgrowing the fundamental rules of his art. Indeed, the integration of prior forms is what frees the gymnast, martial artist, or ballerina for more purely spontaneous action in the flesh. As he more ably manifests his freedom, his body is likewise more fully gathered up into spirit. The virtuoso pianist is so flexible, and his hands and the keys they manipulate are so fluently at his command, precisely because he has so deeply yielded his freedom to the given constraints of his instrument. The game is most at his disposal because he fully belongs to the game.

And so we talk of play whenever the mastery of the spirit over the possibilities presented by the body has in some way attained its perfection, a perfection that shows itself in the easy agility, the shimmering elegance of some acquired skill; when word, sound or gesture has been made obedient and pliable to the spirit; when the physically visible has become the expression of an inner fullness that is sufficient to itself. [6]

Play in the vocation of the athlete or artist gives clear expression to the way in which personal concreteness intensifies through conformation to a rule. Without a doubt, effortlessness (not relaxation) is the mark of excellent play, as the counterpart to carefree, uncalculating presence to the game. Yet any field of play manifests how sovereign facility arises out of long, severe obedience to its narrow forms and tactics. However much an inspired maneuver or poignant line of verse may transcend convention, it is only admirable to the extent that it confirms the very rules it seems to bend. In fact, the most elastic move flows from a fuller appropriation of rules, or from a deeper penetration into their meaning and a vaster sense for their best application. Sidestepping from or transgressing against the ordinances of the game, even in the name of a masterful play, is always an implicit form of forfeiture, and a sign of being less free than one desires.[7]

The stable rules of play do not merely hover above the game, but are principles given to be interiorized and corporeally performed in the player’s own unprecedented, unrepeatable, and, yes, gratuitous feats. Since they give a game its own inward determination, these are not arbitrary restrictions on the player’s free self-enactment, but mark the very path along which he perfects himself along with and against his fellow players. To the extent that the principles of a game are simply integrated with one another towards one good, the efforts that play demands can already be undertaken as a form of rest. This is no less the case for every sport that requires competition and culminates in a single winner. To let one’s freedom be obediently “ruled,” or organized, by the pattern of the game, is to enjoy fulfillment—victory—within the dance of action—the contest. For all their zeal, both the champion and the defeated can approve the outcome with disinterested admiration in the measure that each has already shared the point of playing in the first place—that is, the performance itself, a good game. Though rivals never really play unless each fights to overcome the other, it is just as true that neither really competes unless they do so for the sake of play alone.   

3. Working for Free

Because no one ever works except for children…
And because all that is made in the world is made for them.[8]

 It is tempting to romanticize the genuine witness represented by the child. Nostalgia for the ecstasy of formless spontaneity and uncommitted possibility is symptomatic of our age. If work is reduced to a technical endeavor whose demands and successes are external to my freedom, however valiant it may be to submit to its oppressive necessity, weekends and vacations will seem to promise a reprieve from purpose. Lament for lost childhood, however, finally perverts the irresistible ebullience of youth, whose wonder must ripen into more conscious, steadfast, and structured forms of presence. The regressive attempts to safeguard one’s “child-self” against the commitments that define the person in maturity disfigure the beauty of “the beginning.” They are nothing less than rejections of the growth and fruitful death to which freedom is called; they are symptoms of the “old man” (Eph 4:22‒24). An opposition between work and play, in which work ceases to be meaningful for the life of persons and play ceases to be refreshing and fulfilling, only represents the adult’s failure to integrate the virtues of childhood. 

The child’s joy in the world gives way to the solemn discipline of adhering more and more wholeheartedly to the truth of his being. When St. Paul exhorts us to leave behind childish ways (Rm 14:20), this does not mean a simple turning away from the imperfect to the perfect, the inchoate to the fully-formed. Christ calls us, paradoxically, to “grow into childhood.” Christ’s invitation for man to be reborn in the kingdom is not a license for entering “a second time into his mother’s womb” (Jn 3:4). The only path to rediscovering the child’s easy liberty is through a long education in the practice of faithfulness. This resurgence of simplicity is the flowering of the good in the heart of the person: the free-play of endless praise, the uninhibited agility of holiness. The boundless, serene boldness of the child is only preserved, enriched, and transfigured through letting one’s life be ever-more fully determined by the good in daily action. 

What bearing, then, might play have on the nature of work, which takes up so much of an adult’s waking hours? Work appears at first glance to be defined against those very features that most qualify play as play. Unlike, say, the dance, whose “gratuitous finality” is paradigmatically immanent to its performance, the doing of work is directed to an end outside itself. Whereas play is unmotivated and self-rewarding, work is inescapably instrumental. I want to suggest, however, that the play’s superiority to work is exactly what enables it to provide an inner foundation that (a) informs all good work and (b) affirms the specific, irreducible genius of work: rightful utility.[9]

Though justified for its own sake, and so standing apart from workaday productivity, play has salutary effects besides itself and is in this sense useful—or fertile.[10] This counts for all genuine leisure, especially communal festivity and aesthetic-philosophical contemplation. It is true above all of the sacred game of the liturgy, participation in which imparts to the rest of life a deeper readiness to receive God’s loving presence at the heart of all that exists.[11] Good leisure disposes one to more aptly recognize that all natural beings are intrinsically “worthwhile,” and refreshes one from the mania of always evaluating the things one encounters in terms of what profit they may yield and how they can fit into one’s life-plan. The Sabbath, as the fullness of play-time, habituates the worshiper for loving fellow creatures as willed by God for the sake of their own participated goodness, and so for attending first to what or who they are rather than their exchange value. Such availability enriches human work during the week, without of course being functionalized as one step in its processes. Work serves ends distinct from its own activity, and yet all worthwhile work finally rests on a good that deserves affirmation “just because.”

Play is rooted in an act of saying Yes to one’s existence in a sacred world. The risk of self that play demands rests on the intimation of the ever-richer gratuity of being welling up constantly in and through every nature it preserves, at the behest of the merciful Father. We might say that such consent has the form of hope, or of the natural precursor to this properly theological virtue. Hope is a unity of striving and rest; it is already the possession of the promised good that one does not yet possess.[12] So it is that the good player enjoys the end of the game at all stages of its execution. Play, in being more fully its own end than work, illustrates better than work the look of the restful possession, the rejoicing, after which one hopes. Insofar as it is taught by play to serve the wholes that are its end, however, work’s instrumentality perhaps supplies a clearer image than play of hope’s endurance and receptive desire.

In the measure that the worker lets the end of his distinctive field order (or justify) each of the means he directs to producing and obtaining that good, his work becomes a form of generous intimacy with the good he serves. By recognizing the dignity of the piece he is hired to make, the craftsman can give himself over to his charge. He can forget himself in attention to his practice, and can pliantly receive its demands with a positive indifference: what does this good ask of me? What materials are needed, and what steps must I follow, to do a “good job”? Such obedience, as in disciplined play, is where man becomes himself most purely, and learns more perfect spontaneity. Here the reward of work begins to be discovered within the effort itself, so that labor bears the imprint of the very rest (or feast) whose promise motivates the worker. This doesn’t exclude the need for one’s work to also garner wages: though work cannot retain its goodness as work if it is exhausted by this subordinate goal. The procedure, practice, and means of work are not, then, merely the fragmentary preparations for an unrelated outcome that will leave them behind like so much scaffolding. Rather, the worker’s sketches and trials already partake of the fulfillment after which he aspires to the extent that his method acquires its integrity from its ordination to this good. In turn, the cultivated crop—which is harvested first and simply to be enjoyed (or offered)—will gather up and preserve in its beauty all the toil that stands behind it. Yet even as the worker can know the satisfaction of the end—a satisfaction of which his wages are only a symbol—as already (proleptically) present in his labor, it remains the case that the fruit stands incommensurably beyond his own contribution, if never alien to it. Hope is the atmosphere, or animating breath, of this dramatic relation between foretaste and fitting surprise. Its not-yet is as pronounced in the farmer who endures the variability of weather, as in the merchant who endures the fickleness of the market, as in the teacher who endures the meanderings of the young minds he addresses.

Significantly, hope is a response: a desire for the destined end as if it were already present. In his pursuit of a hoped-for achievement, the craftsman works in the peace of receiving the result of his technique as if this good came forth wholly from itself and for itself. In this sense, the chalice the silversmith has forged precedes him, so that his work is pervaded by and flows out of a more basic confidence in a gift that is independent of his control.[13] For all this, he is no less actively responsible for its finished form, even as his responsibility always has the character of making-space for a descending “godsend.” His work of making not only issues into a final rest (delight in the completed chalice to be blessed and used for the transubstantiation of wine) but abides within this rest from the beginning (contemplative reception of the sacred vessel to the service of which he rightly consents to be commissioned).   

Play liberates the worker to see how the gratuity of an intrinsically good telos can be enjoyed throughout the effort to embrace it. To the extent that its methods are integrated by or take their form from such an end, work can serve freedom’s own growth towards unified versatility. If the fulfillment of play is present through the excellence of its performance, there is a danger that the player will so take the grace of this accomplishment for granted that he will think his victory is solely his own. Against this temptation, work reminds the player how radically finite earning is always grounded in a prior bestowal. That use is best which already bears its purpose within itself; that earning is best that knows itself to always be supported by an all-sufficing generosity.

Perhaps work shows us better than play the lot of man the wayfarer, as it instills a sense for the goodness of time in its passage, its repetitions, and its openness to an eternity that, though definitively promised and already present, is still coming. The skilled tradesman, like the poet or plastic artist, shows us what it is to avail oneself and so await, from within one’s diligence, a result beyond one’s own producing. To see that this letting-go is of the essence of hope is to see that all instrumentality has the pattern of plowing, planting, waiting, and harvest—the open-handed self-offering that alone bears fruit. When the relation between the means and the end is lived in hope, work schools the player in that intimate dependence on the Giver of all good things that underlies any victory. If play epitomizes fruition, work initiates us into the confident patience that is the inner condition of fruitfulness.

4.      Post-lude

It’s a miracle. A perpetual miracle, a miracle in advance, God made the first move, a mystery
of all the mysteries, God took the initiative.[14]

The world, the theater of Wisdom’s play, is no illusory ruse, though it is a “moving image of eternity” (Plato). God is no compulsive or arbitrary gambler, though he stakes everything on the partner he has uniquely freed to share his game. Though a play of love, creation is not an empty whim to be laughed away. It is not a pastime for God, but his magnum opus. Yet the world can only be cherished in its full weight by a heart that is carefree enough to let itself go and play along. In turn, work teaches the player that this self-entrustment must mature into discipleship, dissemination, and cultivation.

It is often noted that the word used in Proverbs 8:30 to describe Sophia as a “little child,” may also be rendered “master craftsman.” The beloved Son who is unceasingly pleasing to the Father, who is “daily his delight,” is the same Word without whom “nothing was made that was made” (Jn 1:3). God’s unstinting and effortless benevolence is at once the ardor with which he takes meticulous, non-invasive responsibility for the birds of the air, the lilies of the field, and every hair of your head. As Péguy saw, our hope in God mysteriously reflects God’s own long-suffering patience, the labor-pangs of a divine hope for us. “All of the feelings, all of the movements that we ought to have for God,/God had them before us, he began by having them before we did.”[15] In being sent into the vineyard of the world, the Word who goes forth from the Father’s mouth, like the rain and the snow that water the earth, does not return empty (Is 55:10‒11). So our Father, “who is at work even now” (Jn 5:17) awaits, in our return, the choicest fruits of his creation: “a sacrifice of praise,” eucharistia, “the fruit of lips that confess his name” (Heb 13:15).

Erik van Versendaal is a Ph.D. student at the John Paul II Institute for studies on marriage and family.

[1] Charles Péguy, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, trans. David Louis Schindler, Jr., (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 3.

[2] Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man [=AEM], trans. Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L.A. Willoughby (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), 107. 

[3] Josef Pieper, Leisure The Basis of Culture, trans. Alexander Dru (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 46. Shortly thereafter (48) he adds: “Leisure is possible only on the premise that man consents to his own true nature and abides in concord with the meaning of the universe (whereas idleness, we have said, is the refusal of such consent). Leisure draws its vitality from affirmation.”

[4] Péguy, Portal, 115.

[5] This universal inter-play is already a mode of rejoicing in the goodness of the Creator. Because the perfection of every creature is always at least a tacit form of praise, the self-fulfillment of each creature in cooperation with every other is rightly described as a “cosmic liturgy.” 

[6] Hugo Rahner, Man at Play, trans. Brian Battershaw and Edward Quinn (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), 6‒7. Rahner goes on to write: “The happily playing child, the virtuoso playing upon his instrument—and how few in fact really ‘play’ upon it—the genius whose work flows from his fingers with the effortless ease of one playing a game—all these are but realizations of man’s deep-seated longing for a free, unfettered, eager harmony between body and soul.”

[7] So Huizinga notes that the cheater “robs play of its illusion—a pregnant word which means literally ‘in-play’ (from inlusio, illudere or inludere). Therefore he must be cast out, for he threatens the existence of the play-community.” Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study in the Play-Element of Culture (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2016), 11. Schiller, in the text cited above, similarly reflects on the character of play as a positive “semblance,” which through the artificial order of its rules is able to give purified expression to truths of nature. 

[8] Péguy, Portal, 12, 24.

[9] Though it perhaps goes without saying that work is necessary, and that play alone cannot suffice for the life even of a child, it is more difficult to articulate why work is good. The finally non-competitive relationship between play and work can help in this attempt. To acknowledge a higher order as higher never commits one to altogether rejecting a genuine good of lesser ontological weight.

[10] To say play is for-itself is clearly not to say that all forms of leisure are the “be-all, end-all” of human action, for each form of leisure belongs in a hierarchy of ends. As such, even play can be directed to higher ends “instrumentally.” We use abusively only when we either treat means as ends closed-in on themselves or despise means as mere, disposable vehicles.

[11] “It is in this very aspect of the liturgy that its didactic aim is to be found, that of teaching the soul not to see purposes everywhere, not to be too conscious of the end it wishes to attain . . . The soul must learn to abandon, at least in prayer, the restlessness of purposeful activity; it must learn to waste time for the sake of God, and to be prepared for the sacred game with sayings and thoughts and gestures, without always immediately asking ‘why?’ and ‘wherefore?’” Romano Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. Ada Lane (New York: Herder and Herder, 2015), 71.

[12] This structure of hope is retained when it is fulfilled and taken up into the end towards which it is directed. The rest of human persons is an ecstatic intimacy with God, perfectly known and loved as comprehending and exceeding one’s created powers infinitely. This surrendered grasp-in-being-grasped is analogously prefigured in all natural finality. This claim must await a different occasion for due elaboration and justification.

[13] To invoke an example and a line of thinking proposed by Heidegger in his “The Question Concerning Technology.” This essay can be found in Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008): 307‒41.

[14] Péguy, Portal, 72.

[15] Ibid.



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