Playing at Prayer

In recent years I have discovered contemplative prayer, an ancient practice of praying that focuses on listening to God more than talking. Henri Nouwen has described three kinds of prayer: crying out to God (supplication as monologue), conversation with God (speaking and listening to scripture as prayer), and contemplative prayer.[1]  All three are important, but the latter has become particularly meaningful for me. 

My pattern is to attempt contemplative prayer early in the morning before the demands of the day have started. The idea is to empty yourself of thoughts and distractions in order to simply be present with God, having no particular objective in mind other than opening up to God’s presence. Contemplative prayer aims to let God shape the content of the experience, rather than directing it by your own agenda or petitions.

My morning prayer ritual has been interrupted lately by a puppy. A two-month-old Miniature Schnauzer joined our family this Christmas. We’ve named her Skye. She often wakes first in the morning, insisting on attention and constant motion. She knows exactly how to pull me back into her world if I start to focus on something else, by chewing on me or anything else that’s off limits to puppy gnawing. The bouncing, nipping, dashing, chasing, biting, require constant attention while Skye burns off recharged energy from a good night’s sleep. 

As a result, my morning routine of quiet, still contemplative prayer has been a bit hampered. Whereas prayer as meditation attempts to let go of distractions in order to be fully present with God, a puppy is nothing but demanding distraction. How does one pray with a puppy?

Then the thought comes: might a little Schnauzer have something to teach me about prayer?

As I’ve tried to contemplate that question, it occurs to me that puppy Skye represents the essence of the goodness of creation: bouncing, running, jumping, tumbling, irrepressible energy. She reminds me of the Genesis 1 story of God’s creation of lively life: birthing, growing, moving, flocking, swarming, swimming, flying, running life. Puppies, like all creatures, incarnate God’s celebration of the vitality of life. Perhaps God is somehow present in every puppy. And if that’s so, God must be saying, “Let’s have some fun together!”

Without intending it, trying to pray with a puppy turns prayer into play, which in turn suggests that play is sacred. True play, like contemplative prayer, has no objective in mind, no goal to achieve. In play you don’t try to accomplish something, other than just seeing what fun thing could happen. Might there be a sort of contemplative prayer that amounts to playfulness in the presence of God?

A passage in Proverbs 8 comes to mind. The chapter describes how Wisdom (Hebrew: hokmah) was at God’s side while the cosmos was being created. Verses 30-31 of Proverbs 8 might be translated, “I [Wisdom] was with God like a little child. For me every day was pure delight, as I played in God’s presence all the time, playing everywhere on earth, and delighting to be with humankind.”[2] I’m fascinated by the notion of the Wisdom of God playing at creation, an idea that resonates with the whimsical appearance of many of God’s creatures. 

As a Baby Boomer in whom the Protestant work ethic is deeply ingrained, I find random playfulness to be a somewhat challenging concept. And I can easily think of prayer as duty.  To be sure there’s a discipline to prayer in the sense of developing a routine, but the essence of contemplative prayer may be more akin to play in God’s presence than to work.

The very term “contemplative prayer” sounds somber and monkish. But Skye seems to be teaching me to take praying less seriously — in the right way. 

Perhaps I’m discovering that prayer can be play. And play can be prayer. 


[1] Henri Nouwen, Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith (HarperOne, 2015 ebook), chapter 5. 

[2] The intriguing Hebrew word ’awon may carry a basic sense of “someone who is taught,” which has led to ideas of it referring in verse 30 to a “master artisan” or to a “little child.” The latter is the approach I’ve taken. For versions that illustrate this translation of the word or the idea of play in these verses, see Jewish Publication Society’s TaNaK (1917), New English Bible, Complete Jewish Bible, and The Passion Translation.

* Photo of Skye, ten week old Miniature Schnauzer.

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