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Playing heaven and the real liturgical deal

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Fr Rene Tacastacas SJ celebrating the liturgy with servers, Easter Vigil 2014, Ateneo de Davao University, Davao City, the Philippines. Photo: Br Jeffrey Pioquinto SJ, cc by 2.0

The first world drips with entertainment.

Televisions beam sporting events, the latest series or reruns from our youth. The sides of buses are plastered with advertisements for movies, while the screens on our smartphones flash yet another injunction to download the mother of all strategy games.

Our lunch hours are as much spent catching up on the next drama in our friends’ lives on social media as they are about munching on our sushi rolls. So centred are we on imbibing various forms of entertainment that now even the things that we use to organise our societies — be they our news outlets, our public figures and our educational institutions — cannot garner the same amount of attention from our ears or eyeballs unless they are reformatted to mimic our entertainment experiences.

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Put another way, we in the first world have reached a stage where we rarely invest ourselves in things of public significance unless they bear the glossy package of a piece of entertainment. Interestingly, however, when we do, we not only become merely more engaged. In some cases, it can reach a point where the investment becomes transformed to produce a level of collaboration, creativity, and depth that was not previously there.

A case in point came a few years ago when editors of the Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom exposed a public expenditures scandal by presenting 170,000 pages of questionable receipts in an app-based game, and then releasing it for gamers to download and analyse themselves.

Our predisposition towards gaming or play, and the extraordinary observations and results gleaned or generated from states of play, has been the subject of a field of study known as Play Theory, the most well-known exponent of which is the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

In 1981, Csikszentmihalyi wrote that states of play are more than just acts of generating self-centred pleasure. Csikszentmihalyi wrote about a psychological concept called “flow” where, in states of play, one can deeply immerse in a task to achieve extraordinary results with very little effort.

More fascinating, Csikszentmihalyi suggests, is that “flow” is connected with states of play. This is because play — whether in the context of a game, dance or theatrical performance — does not only focus the player on the task. Ironically, the focus on the task is a flow-on effect of an extension of one’s reality beyond the horizons of the task itself.

In other words, in play, one is immersing oneself in one thing in the present world by also crossing the borders into an alternative world. Play, or what another play theorist, Richard Schechner, called “performance”, is not so much an act of distracting one from a culture as it is an act of enlarging it.

There are fascinating overlaps between the observations of Play Theorists and what the twentieth century Thomist, Josef Pieper, wrote in his suggestively-titled book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture. This will need to be explored in another piece. What I will focus on now, however, is the way in which Play Theory’s association between play and the generation of new worlds, which in turn expand our culture’s horizons, can give us new insight into what is taking place in the divine liturgies.

At first glance it would seem banal, even sacrilegious, to call something so solemn and sacramental a game or a state of play. This link, however, does not sound so ridiculous once one realises that all liturgies, especially the Eucharist, are orienting us towards and giving us glimpses of a state of play. It is the party that literally ends all parties — the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. In the Liturgy, this eschatological party at the end of history crashes into history, a history marked with pride, enmity and violence.

Remember that, in play, the world becomes expanded by being reframed. In the Liturgy, the world becomes reframed as a dining hall for a wedding reception. In other words, what the Eucharist is is not only the entry of the Body of Christ in our broken world, but extending and envisioning an alternative to that broken world, to borrow Csikszentmihalyi’s words.

At another level, because the Eucharist is supposed to bring us ever closer to the beatific vision, which is characterised by an eternal revelling in the presence of God, it is thus proper to consider the Liturgy’s relationship to play. One is not so much reducing the Liturgy to a form of entertainment, but is providing the blueprint of true play (and thus calling into question whether entertainment can be true play), by which all other forms of play in contemporary culture can be judged. It can also be the means by which the Christian can critique society’s relationship to play, in particular in entertainment societies where a narrow vision of play is now seen to be the highest good, but producing instead only counterfeit forms of enjoyment by peddling simulations of heaven.

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