Reflecting on Huizinga and Guardini on Playfulness

This semester I am taking a class called “War and Interpretation”. According to the syllabus, “[…We] begin with the assumption that war is a natural human activity and, as with all such activities, has a variegated historical, political, and cultural significance. […] The objective is to provide an opportunity to engage the intellect with several distinct perspectives on a major expression of one of the constant attributes of human nature.”

While my political science degree requirements include: International Relations; Comparative Politics; and Research Methods, Henry Adams said, “Knowledge of human nature is the beginning and end of political education.” My friend Thomas Cliplef says, “Generally, I find [the quantitative] side of political science very boring as it tells me nothing about the human condition in relation to politics. It doesn’t attempt to grasp the internal perspectives of the leadership or the citizens within a political community. The qualitative or philosophical side of political science does just this.”

And so, when I am annoyed with the efforts to beat out any normativity in students in a statistics class, I find it refreshing to retreat to my class on war.

For this class, I recently read a book called Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga.

Here are some of the important things that Huizinga says about play:

– First and foremost, then, all play is voluntary activity.” (7)
– As regards its formal characteristics, all students lay stress on the disinterestedness of play. (9)
– Play is distinct from ‘ordinary’ life both as to locality and duration. (9)
– [Play] creates order, is order. (10)
– Play has a tendency to be beautiful. (10)
– All play has its rules. (11)
– The function of play in the higer forms which concern us here can largely be derived from the two basic aspects under which we meet it: as a contest for something or as a representation of something. (13)
– Let us enumerate once more the characteristics we deemed proper to play. It is an activity which proceeds within certain limits of time and space, in a visible order, according to rules, freely accepted, and outside the sphere of necessity or material utility. The play-mood is one of rapture and enthusiasm, and is sacred or festive in accordance with the occasion. A feeling of exhalation and tension accompanies the action, mirth and relaxation follow. (132)
– More often than not [the task of a hero] will be tackled as the result of a challenge, or a vow, a promise or whim of the beloved. All these motifs carry us straight back to agnostic play. (133)

Huizinga analyzes play in language, law, war, knowing, poetry, mythopoiesis [myth-making], philosophy, art, and contemporary civilization. What I found most interesting is the relationship between Huizinga’s thoughts on play and those of Romano Guardini in the his chapter “The Playfulness of the Liturgy” within his larger work The Spirit of the Liturgy. Huizinga makes very brief mention of Guardini’s work, but it was enough of a mention to spark my interest in considering the relationship between the play-element in its essence, at which Huizinga aims to strike, and the play-element in the liturgy and in the sacraments, that is Guardini’s focus.

What Huizinga seems to emphasize that Guardini does not is the voluntary nature of play. There is a strong emphasis on the freedom and spontaneity in play, combined with a lack of necessity. What Guardini seems to emphasize that Huizinga does not about the essence of play is that is it, at once, meaningful and purposeless. He says that “to be at play, or to fashion a work of art in God’s sight–not to create, but to exist–such is the essence of the liturgy.”

Early on, Huizinga discusses the nature and significance of play, from children’s games to sacred performances:

The sacred performance is more than an actualization in appearance only, a sham reality; it is also more than a symbolical actualization – it is a mystical one. In it, something invisible and inactual takes beautiful, actual, holy form. The participants in the rite are convinced that the action actualizes and effects a definite beatification, brings about an order of things higher than that in which they customarily live. All the same this ‘actualization by representation’ still retains the formal characteristics of play in every respect. It is played out or performed within a ground that is literally ‘staked out’, and played moreover as a feast, i.e. in mirth and freedom.

For such a general description, the above passage certainly coincides with the theology of the Eucharist. In the Blessed Sacrament, the invisible God takes “beautiful, actual, holy form”. According to the catechism, “the power of the words and the action of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit, make sacramentally present under the species of bread and wine Christ’s body and blood, his sacrifice offered on the cross once for all.”

Huizinga continues:
“The rite produces the effect which is then not so much shown figuratively as actually reproduced in the action. The function of the rite, therefore, is far from being merely imitative; it causes the worshippers to participate in the sacred happening itself.”

This makes sense with the re-incarnation of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Christ becomes present again, not represented, but re-present “in the flesh” in the mystery of the Eucharist.

The congregation participates fully in the sacred happening. Consider the words of the priest: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” After the institution narrative, the congregation says the Memorial Acclamation: “We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your resurrection, until you come again.” The priest acting In persona Christi constitutes what Huizinga references Marett as calling “‘a helping-out of the action.'”

Staying focused on why this matters at all, let’s entertain Huizinga’s conviction about the centrality of play in civilization. He says, “For many years the conviction has grown upon me that civilization arises and unfolds in and as play.” He argues this forcefully saying, “Play cannot be denied. You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God. You can deny seriousness, but not play.”

If Huizinga is right about this, then he is offering an important insight into human nature. We humans are not only knowers, makers, producers, consumers, etc. We are players. This sort of thinking inspires me to remember what my friends and family often remind me: “You are a human being, not a human doing!” This is where Guardini’s analysis is helpful because he strikes at the nature of man as being ordered to live in relationship with God. The meaningfulness lies in the soul’s nature “not to create, but to exist” This has meaning for understanding human dignity apart from achievement.

Guardini says:

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, not to be desirous of being over-clever and grown-up, but to understand simplicity in life. 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?’ It must learn not to be continually yearning to do something, to attack something, to accomplish something useful, but to play the divinely ordained game of the liturgy in liberty and beauty and holy joy before God.

It is natural, when discussing play, to consider what can be learned from children. “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 18:3) In discussing child’s play, Guardini explains what he means by saying that play is purposeless, yet meaningful:

The child, when it plays, does not aim at anything. It has no purpose. It does not want to do anything but to exercise its youthful powers, pour forth its life in an aimless series of movements, words and actions, and by this to develop and to realize itself more fully; all of which is purposeless, but full of meaning nevertheless, the significance lying in the unchecked revelation of this youthful life in thoughts and words and movements and actions, in the capture and expression of its nature, and in the fact of its existence. And because it does not aim at anything in particular, because it streams unbroken and spontaneously forth, its utterance will be harmonious, its form clear and fine; its expression will of itself become picture and dance, rhyme, melody and song. That is what play means; it is life, pouring itself forth without an aim, seizing upon riches from its own abundant store, significant through the fact of its existence. It will be beautiful, too, if it is left to itself, and if no futile advice and pedagogic attempts at enlightenment foist upon it a host of aims and purposes, thus denaturizing it.

These two authors may be discussing play a bit differently. I am still not sure about the essence of play, though I agree with the various characteristics that are enumerated.

With the emphasis on existence, we can return to Huizinga’s reference of Aristotle with regard to play. Aristotle, discussing music (which Huizinga places in the category of play), says that “music conduces to virtue in so far as, like gymnastics, it makes the body fit, breeds a certain ethos and enables us to enjoy things in the proper way[.]”

On this note, a friend of mine recently asked, referring to our mutual friend, why this friend would feel obligated to go to Mass every single day. “As the body needs food, so the soul needs food,” I said. Specifically, I meant the Bread of Heaven.

Recently I read a quotation from Cardinal Basil Hume in the Mystery of the Incarnation. He writes:

The meaning of things, and their purpose,
Is in part now hidden
But shall in the end become clear.
The choice is between
The Mystery and the absurd.

Participating in the Holy Mass is an opportunity to enter into the Mystery. The daily grind is what has my heart echoing St. Teresa of Avila’s words: “Lord, what can I do here? What has the servant to do with her Lord? What has earth to do with heaven?” But then, at the Mass we pray. The priest says, “And so, with all the choirs of angels in heaven we proclaim your glory and join in their unending hymn of praise…” The congregation joins saying:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord,
God of hosts.
Heaven and
earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who
comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

There is a distinct presence in the moment, combined with participation in eternity. The universal Church is praying and there seems to be a timelessness. Before receiving the Blessed Sacrament we say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Here we are echoing the words of the Roman centurion in the Gospel of Matthew. And so, from a return to biblical accounts, to “heaven kissing earth” in the Eucharist, to the foretaste of heaven through joining the choirs of angels, we participate in this “great processional order of existence in a sacred play, in and through which [each participant] actualizes anew, or ‘recreates’, the events represented and thus helps to maintain the cosmic order.”

One of my favorite parts of the Mass goes as follows:

Priest:
The Lord be with you.
People: And with your spirit.
Priest: Lift up your hearts.
People: We lift them up to the Lord.
Priest: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
People: It is right and just.

What I like so much about this part is that it inspires me to contemplate the meaning of justice. Also, thinking of justice in terms of the thanks due to God according to the dignity of His Nature and Goodness inspires a good notion of justice to imitate in community with others. Pope Benedict has written some interesting things about justice and resurrection.

According to this article summarizing the arguments, Fr. James Schall writes:

As the pope cites him, [Theodore] Adorno maintains that, even though he does not believe it, the only ‘logical’ way that there ever could be true justice in this actual world would be for there to be something like the resurrection of the body. Clearly he is right. There is, no doubt, something amusingly ironic about a Marxist
philosopher appearing prominently in a papal encyclical as an upholder of the basic Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body.

At the end of Huizinga’s book, he says:

So that by a devious route we have reached the following conclusion: real civilization cannot exist in the absence of a certain play-element, for civilization presupposes limitation and mastery of the self, the ability not to confuse its own tendencies with the ultimate and highest goal, but to understand that it is enclosed within certain bounds freely accepted. Civilization will, in a sense, always be played according to certain rules, and true civilization will always demand fair play. Fair play is nothing less than good faith expressed in play terms. Hence, the cheat or the spoil-sport shatters civilization itself. To be a sound culture-creating force this play-element must be pure. It must not consist in the darkening or debasing of standards set up by reason, faith or humanity. It must not be a false seeming, a masking of political purposes behind the illusion or genuine play-forms. True play knows no propaganda; its aim is in itself, and its familiar spirit is happy inspiration.

Do we play purely? Is it true that “the liturgy has laid down the serious rules of the sacred game which the soul plays before God”? Could being “spiritual but not religious” be akin to being a “spoil-sport”? Is constituting an end-in-itself the very essence of play? If play is marked by its set apartness from ordinary life and play is a good-in-itself, then is play the aim of life? Is leisure the “basis of culture” as Joseph Pieper called it? (In the same vein as Aristotle, as Huizinga shows.) Can the play-element help us to focus on the goodness and beauty of existence? For human persons, does the goodness of our existence lie (or live?) within rather than outside of us?

“Now what is the meaning of that which exists? That it should exist and should be the image of God the Everlasting. And what is the meaning of that which is alive? That it should live, bring forth its essence, and bloom as a natural
manifestation of the living God.” – Romano Guardini

Blessed are those who do not “work the room”

Today the second reading at Mass struck me.

Here it is:

“My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.

For if a man with gold rings and in fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in,

and you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘Stand there,’ or, ‘Sit at my feet,’

have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?” James 2:1-5

In a room there is a common temptation to scan the room for the so-called important people. The failure to resist this temptation often leads to someone dismissing one conversation partner so that he or she can “work the room.”

A friend with whom I volunteered at a lofty dinner event lamented that one of the other student volunteers turned her back on her mid-sentence to shake the hand of someone who she determined to be more worthy of her time.

Sometimes it seems that adults will follow the person with the most dignified title or position in a foolish manner comparable to how small children will all chase after a soccer ball in a cluster.

The above reading challenges us to recognize the equality in the sanctity of each person. While we can respect certain offices and authorities, ultimately we should be able to shake someone’s hand in a similar spirit of respect and charity whether that person is the prime minister or a person outcasted by much of society.

Mother Teresa was able to do her good work because she said, “I see the face of Christ in one of his more distressing disguises.”

A friend of mine named Laura Locke reflects on this topic very beautifully. She writes:

“Why is it that we so often feel drawn to people on the other end of the spectrum?  We give our attention to the powerful, the good-looking, the rich, the talented, the confident ones who are very successful at looking after themselves.  I guess we naturally lean towards people whom we secretly strive to be – and who strives to be an outcast?  But Jesus invites us to follow in his footsteps, to walk with him down the dusty back roads, seeking the people that normally garner no one’s attention.”

The gospel is filled with paradoxes. This is true of philosophy also and very untrue of ideology.

It is interesting to reflect on the different experiences of community from an informal gathering sharing coffee and donuts with strangers after church to the experience of attending a political convention which tends to consist in swapping business cards and credentials. There is something to learn from both and really from any experience with others. However, I think it is important to balance these sorts of experiences so as to not become blinded by the partiality mentioned in scripture.

At every mass the congregation says, “I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters that I have sinned through my own fault….” Whereas, at political events we tend to essentially find a way to say, “I profess to you my colleagues and acquaintances that I have succeeded through my own achievement…”

The more that we derive our sense of identity from what we do rather than who we are, the more challenging it is for us to see the instrinic dignity of others.

Young people are often encouraged to network so that they can “get ahead”, but this seems to be a perverse notion of relationship. Instead, let us be encouraged to love one another so that we can get to heaven. I think that the authenticity of the latter will bear more fruit both in this life and the next.