Monday, July 30, 2012

On a swing and a prayer

I just finished reading Holy Listening by Margaret Guenther, which has a delightful section on the relationship between praying and playing. She quotes the Cloud of Unknowing and its anonymous author's counsel about avoiding extremes, "Sometimes their eyes look like the eyes of wounded sheep near death..far better a modest countenance, a calm composed bearing and a merry candor." She suggests a touch of playfulness in prayer helps stretch our boundaries about what is possible in prayer and life and may even help us tap the well of energy we once had in our youth.

I wonder, too, if it doesn't help us avoid spiritual agenda setting. To play is to give over goals and achievement, and instead taking up a "willing spirit" that Psalm 51 (Ps 51:14) asks for. To see what might happen, in the same way that when I was small, I poked at things with sticks, and peeked around corners. It was a willingness to enter into the moment, to play with and in creation, and by extension with and in the Creator. Not as a duty, but just to see what might happen. It fosters a holy curiosity. There is a joyful persistence in play as well, that we could do well to take up in prayer. A child at play can be hard to move, ask any parent of a three year old, not because they know longer is "better," but because they are caught up in the joy of the work at hand, be it messy or even risky.

It reminded me of the comment in Walter Brueggemann's book on the psalms, where he says we all too often
lapse into a "cool, detached serenity" in prayer. The Psalms, he suggests, awkwardly push us toward the concrete, the embodied. It's a call we should heed.

When I was young, I remember my dad helping to build the playground at the new parish school that would open just in time for me to start first grade there. I loved to swing on the swings. I can still remember the delight when I figured out how to pump, and could go higher and higher without my dad pushing me. It felt like flying, and offered an unparalleled view of the flat Illinois farmland that surrounded us. And there was the heady risk of an "underduck". Would I be jounced out of the swing? Would I go higher than ever? Could I stop without ruining the tops of my shoes? If I were pushing, would I get kicked in the head or dump the swinger off?

I hadn't been on the swings since my kids grew old enough to cross the street without me, and I wondered why I had surrendered that wild joy? Yes, it's not dignified. Yes, yes, I might fall off and break something. So last week, on my walk, I stopped at the empty playground, and did more than remember. I pumped until I flew high in the sky. I swung. And I prayed.

Photo is from Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

And I can still hear my mother's exasperated voice about my shoes....


  1. I'm glad you swung. I feel happy just thinking of you doing it.
    Thank you for mentioning the book Holy Listening. I have it but have not read it yet. Now I feel inspired to do so.
    Interesting Brueggemann's thought on prayer... I am not sure I agree. Maybe because my prayers so often are filled with emotions.

    You make me want to find a swing, and pray :-) Thank you.

    1. Claire, Holy Listening is a terrific book, even if, like me, you aren't a spiritual director! I'd love to know what you think when you're done...

      Brueggemann mostly definitely agrees with you and thinks we should give over the calm, cool and collected and not be afraid of the emotional and concrete.

    2. P.S. I tweaked the post so Brueggemann's intentions are a bit clearer! Thanks for helping me sharpen my argument, Claire :)

  2. This is my afternoon-pick-me-up, kind of like the swings but without the swings. I love this post and I feel a call to head to the playground very soon.

    We read another of Margaret Guenther's books in one of my classes in the past year, I will have to search out this one.

    1. Fran, it was rather like a mini-retreat!

  3. Anonymous8:52 PM

    I love swings and go whenever I get a chance, so of course I loved this image. When little, I always used to (and still do!) chant Robert Louis' Stevenson's poem "The Swing" while pumping my legs.

    How do you like to go up in a swing,
    Up in the air so blue?
    Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
    Ever a child can do!

    Up in the air and over the wall,
    Till I can see so wide,
    River and trees and cattle and all
    Over the countryside--

    Till I look down on the garden green,
    Down on the roof so brown--
    Up in the air I go flying again,
    Up in the air and down!

    1. Thanks, I hadn't thought of that poem at all, but it is perfect!!

  4. Julianne5:00 AM

    When I was younger, I had an overly serious approach to my faith. The God who plays is an aspect of God I have only recently discovered. A little while ago I read this line in psalm 104: "And the monsters you made to play with". I am not aware of having seen it translated like this before but I love the image of God playing in Creation.

  5. Play is good. With silence approaching this will be in mind as I travel west

  6. So any qualms if I mention some of this when I put on the hat of preacher dude this Sunday?

    1. No qualms at all! Preach away...

  7. I draw and I pray. Thank you for this post.

    While still a Protestant minister and well before converting (as I did in 2006) one of my favorite verses was (and remains) Ecc 38:39, speaking of artists, artisans and craftsmen, "they shall strengthen the state of the world, and their prayer shall be in the work of their craft, applying their soul, and searching in the law of the most High." This helps me swing and pray and avoid extremes. (I play, draw and write some poetry at if you're interested)

    1. Owen, what a gorgeous image from scripture, the prayers embedded in the work of artists' hands!

      And I enjoyed your watercolor sketch of a looks much like my battered collector of the work of my hands.