12 October 2013

Worshipping Animals, or Man at Play

The Scriptures frequently summon all of creation to give praise to God and for our purposes this morning one selection, the final verse of the Psalms, will be sufficient:
Let everything that breathes praise the LORD! Praise the LORD (Psalm 150:6)!
We know that the highest form of praise which the Church can offer to God is the Holy Mass in which the sacrificial love of Christ Jesus is re-presented to the Father. Indeed, the Eucharist "is the culmination both of God’s action sanctifying the world in Christ and of the worship men offer to Christ and through him to the Father in the Holy Spirit" (Eucharisticum mysterium, 6, emphasis mine, quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1325).

This being the case, we don't often think of the animals participating at the Mass, though sometimes the medievals did, even if only as a bit of fun.

I mention all of this simply because Damien Kempf has been sharing such images (from Walter MS 102, from A.D. 1300) on his Twitter feed which greatly amuse me, as I hope they will you:

A rabbit calls creation to worship with the tolling of bells.
A rooster with the thurible (the incense), though someone needs to teach him how to make it smoke.
A goat with the processional cross (which should now be a crucifix).
A ram ready for the sprinkling rite.
These images demonstrate a quality of the Middle Ages that I have always found endearing: there is a light-heartedness to them that shows the medievals often did not take themselves too seriously.  They remind me of the notion of the homo ludens, the "playing man" or the "grave-merry man".

Plato said that "fun and gravity [seriousness] are sisters" (Epistulae, 6) and in the Book of Sirach we read, "Leave in good time and do not be the last; go home quickly and do not linger.  Amuse yourself there, and do what you have in mind, but do not sin through proud speech" (Sirach 32:11-12).  In our more enlightened days in which we take ourselves far too seriously, we often forget these words.  Even Saint Thomas Aquinas kept these words in mind when he wrote, "Therefore, unmitigated seriousness betokens a lack of virtue because it wholly despises play, which is a necessary for a good human life as rest is" (Eth. ad Nic., IV, 16, 854).

This concept of the man at play is masterfully explored in Hugo Rahner's, S.J., excellent book simply titled Man at Play (New York: Herder and Herder, 1967).  In it, he describes the homo ludens as:
a man with an easy gaeity of spirit, one might almost say a man of spiritual elegance, a man who feels himself to be living in invincible security; but he is also a man of tragedy, a man of laughter and tears, a man, indeed, of gentle irony, for he sees through the tragically ridiculous masks of the game of life and has taken the measure of the cramping boundaries of our earthly existence.
And so, only one who can fuse these two contradictory elements into a spiritual unity is indeed a man who truly plays.  If he is only the first of these two things, we must write him down as a frivolous person who has, precisely, played himself out.  If he is only the second, then we must account him as one who cannot conquer despair.  It is the synthesis of the two things that makes the Homo ludens, the "grave-merry" man, the man with a gentle sense of humour who laughs despite his tears, and finds in all earthly mirth a sediment of insufficiency.  This grave-merriness - the wonderful "humour" has been worn so threadbare, has indeed been so grossly misused - is something suspended between heaven and earth (27-28).
In our time, we tend between one or the other extreme, a boor or a buffoon; only rarely do you find the two intermingled and when you do, you often find a saint (or at least a saint in the making).

Rahner sums up his description of the man at play thusly:
The man who truly plays is, therefore, first of all, a man in whom seriousness and gaiety are mingled; and, indeed, at the bottom of all play lies a tremendous secret.  We had some intimation of it, surely, when we were considering the creative play of God.  All play - just as much as every task we set ourselves to master with real earnestness of purpose - is an attempt to approximate to the Creator, who performs his work with the divine seriousness which its meaning and purpose demand, and yet with the spontaneity and effortless skill of the great artist he is, creating because he wills to create and not because he must (28).
It should be obvious that the playing of man is not simply about entertainment but is also of tremendous spiritual importance.  So it as the Saint Gall wrote, "Lo, under the gentle / vine, O Christ / the whole Church / plays in peace" and the great Romano Guardini wrote of the Mass wrote of the liturgy as a divine game.  Saint Bede the Venerable recognized this centuries before when he preached that "to the eyes of the beholder the person appears to come out of the baptismal font the same as he went in, and all that is done seems no more than a piece of play" (Homiliae, II, 12).

This is indeed true; it is a game, but as we normally think of games.  In one of his hymns on the Cross, Saint Bede sang, "It is as play for the faithful / to enjoy thy embraces / for thou begettest such great joys / and openst the gates of heaven" (Hymni, 13).

Deep within our hearts is a desire to be always at play.  As one example of this, simply consider the refusal of the modern world to grow old, the makeup and hair dyes, the face lifts and surgeries all performed to give the appearance of youth, however false.

The religious man, like all men,
hopes for freedom, rest, release from all the preoccupations of mind, for untroubled gladness of soul; he longs to be once more like a child, a child in utter security, and, like a child, to play; he hopes, in a word, for that complete heartsease that will allow even his body, freed now from the burden of its earthly life, to move and sway to the measures of a heavenly dance (60).
Because in the Liturgy, and especially in the Eucharist, we are united with the heavenly Liturgy, worship and praise is the man at play truly plays (CCC, 1326).

So it is that Rahner can say,
Man redeemed has one more become a child, even as he was at the time of his earthly birth and of his begetting out of the Church's primal sacrament [Baptism].  A child once more, he plays....
The child in man desires to play - and the final answer to that longing, the answer of truth to all our searchings, is the word of him who being himself the Word, became a little child: "Unless you become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3).  That is why the streets of the heavenly city will be full of playing children and the Ancient of Days, whose face is forever young, will never cease to say to men: "Ite et ludite" [Go and play] (63-64).

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