In his book Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Ratzinger) uses a rather striking analogy for understanding the liturgy. He explains that the liturgy most resembles the play of children. While such a comparison may strike as unusual, when properly understood it has an incredible potential that can move us beyond an overly rigid understanding of our relationship with Jesus Christ.

Pope Benedict was not suggesting that we needed to be innovative in the liturgy nor was he promoting the vast myriad of ways that some have tried to “improve” the Eucharistic celebration. Such a view misses the point altogether. To truly enter into the dynamism of play, we must play by the rules. Structures, rules, expectations, and regular rhythms are at the heart of all the highest forms of play. What would the great sports be if the players did not internalize and master the rules and skills of their respective sports?

For this reason, children tend to agree that they do not want to play with other kids who have little regard for the rules and structures of the game. In fact, the expectations that rules provide allow us to move into whole new realms of spontaneity and creativity precisely because structure opens up a whole host of possibilities. Play without rules simply treads the surface.

With that in mind, we must recognize that there is a threshold morality which we all must achieve. The basic moral norms of Christianity provide a bare minimum of Christian living, and without moving past this gateway stage of discipleship, we will never move on to the greater intimacy of contemplation. Chastity, obedience, respect for authority, and other Biblical norms provide an entryway into higher forms of Christian living.

This higher form of living is a life in the Holy Spirit in which believers penetrate the mysteries of God. As we internalize the moral norms and acquire the virtues, we enter a deeper form of communion which goes beyond our personal intention. This pathway opens our hearts to a new horizon of divine/ human cooperation in which Christ comes to work with us and in us. Play means that we learn to surrender to Jesus Christ by allowing us to move beyond the surface of discursive and analytic thinking.

Thus, we must learn to enter into the play of the liturgy as well as the play of personal prayer. We need to cultivate an attitude of spontaneous play must permeate our personal meditation as well as the totality of our lives. A playful heart is open to the intuitions of the Spirit, open to the boundless potential that is made possible in Jesus Christ. By learning to enter into prayer with such a disposition, we learn to be awakened to the reality that prayer has no limits.

Today, let us dare to play in the Spirit. Let us follow the rules and so allow the Spirit to play in us, gently conforming us with greater abandonment to the Father’s will.