Two Christmases ago, Miska gave me a splendid coffee table book, New Treehouses of the World. I have never owned a treehouse, but my cousin Tim and a few of his pals built a magnificent tree fort that I envied as a child. Tim was a few years ahead of me, and the fort was in disrepair by the time I was old enough to have been able to enjoy it. However, in seminary, I stayed with my aunt and uncle several nights a week, and each day on my way home from class, I’d pass that rotted-out beauty and pine for what might have been.
The book sat on my dresser for an entire year unopened until last December when I was packing for two days at Holy Cross Abbey, a Trappist monastery where I planned to retreat. I was exhausted and in much need of a spiritual infusion. On a whim, I tossed the bulky Treehouses into my backpack. I had not opened the book in the entire year prior, and this beefy hardback was not the sort of book you take on travels. Nor was it the sort of spiritual tome one would normally consider part of the reading list during days with the Trappists. Yet there it was in my North Face pack, and I couldn’t possibly tell you why.
On the drive north, I began to think of what God might have for me during my time, and the word that repeatedly returned to me was play. This was not the word I would have picked, which is at least half a reason for thinking it’s something to pay attention to.
I pulled into the parking space for the retreat house, aware that the crisp air and the tree’s brittle branches matched the tone of my soul. When I stretched out of the car, an old, very fuzzy grey cat slowly strolled my way. The cat, acting as guestmaster, purred a hello, turned to point me toward the front entrance and then, having done his duty, slowly patted away. I’m not one to pause for a cat, but I stood there for a moment chuckling. The greeting struck me as magnificently playful.
That evening, I laid on the twin bed in my monastic cell; and though I had planned to spend time in focused, contemplative prayer, my brain had all the perkiness of cold molasses syrup. I opened a book of Thomas Merton’s spiritual letters to read, followed by a volume of poetry and a couple theological works. I thumbed several pages of each, but they all made me weary. Run out of options, I pulled out the treehouse book and into the wee hours of the night, I gobbled up pictures of play spaces from around the world. I remembered my boyhood fantasies and my love of rugged spaces. I considered what it would be like to craft one of these tree abodes, hopefully building it with my sons. In that little cell, I played.
St. Gregory of Nazianzus, that theologically prolific fourth-century bishop, reminded us that “man is the play of God.” God’s high creation, his own image, came as an act of play, of joy and delight and imagination run wild. When our theology is so serious and our discipline so stringent that we no longer have hearts at play, then we have massively missed the point. Prayer and play, these are two ways of talking about the same thing.