We can experience God in a most fundamental way—through the example of a child at play.
Many of us grew up praying to what we considered the God of the Old Testament: the Creator of heaven and earth, the God who banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This God rained pestilence on a defiant Egyptian pharaoh and directed Moses to lead the Israelites through the desert to the promised land.
As our prayer life progressed beyond the memorized prayers we learned in catechism class, God became less distant. We looked upon God with awe and respect, as king and master of the Spanish soldier and saint, Ignatius of Loyola. This God is a majestic king, but one whose throne we can only tentatively approach.
Or perhaps God became a dear and loving Father, as St. Thérèse, the Little Flower, wrote in her autobiography, Story of a Soul. The young Carmelite nun bemoaned that she could not travel far and wide as a zealous missionary. She felt she did not possess the heroic traits of God’s most adventurous saints and martyrs. Yet she felt close to God. And St. Thérèse, at her sister Pauline’s request, worked out the outlines of her “simple” theology, the uncomplicated pathway of spiritual childhood.
As we struggled through our prayer life, perhaps some of us began to look at Christ as a dear friend and confidant—someone we could rush to in our desperate, darkest hours, someone we could pour out our hearts to. Christ said it best: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Mt 11:28–30).
Some of us, such as Thomas Merton, became comfortable hanging out with Christ. No longer king and master, Jesus was our buddy, a college roommate or coworker we could have a beer with, someone who would hike with us through the woods, someone we could take a trip with, as Thomas H. Green wrote in A Vacation with the Lord.
God’s Mystical Side
Perhaps we began to experience the “gift of tears” as the mystical spark hit us, though briefly. Perhaps “the flame of love” engulfed us or “the dark night of the soul” enveloped us, as it did the Carmelite mystic St. John of the Cross. Had we reached out toward the margins of God’s ineffable presence, as Orthodox theologians encourage us to do? Did we find a mysterious God who is unreachable but nonetheless keeps bidding us to come closer?
Maybe, like St. Teresa of Avila, some of us have traveled through “the interior castle” and finally found the King of Glory who, it turns out, is also the spiritual bridegroom or bride. It’s an unusual turn of events for most. But St. Teresa, in her ecstatic vision, recalled: “In his [the seraphim’s] hands, I saw a golden spear, with an iron tip at the end that appeared to be on fire. He plunged it into my heart several times. . . leaving me all on fire with love for God . . . so gentle yet powerful is this wooing that takes place between God and the soul that if anyone thinks I’m lying, I pray that God, in his goodness, will grant him or her some experience of it.”
Though far removed from our mundane experiences, St. Teresa is not alone. Way back in the earliest days of Christianity, the apostle to the gentiles, St. Paul, already talked about this divine-human union: “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me. . . . I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Gal 2:19–20).
In his Confessions, St. Augustine further claims that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves: “interior intimo meo” (more inward than my innermost self).
The Playful Side of God
What if our relationship with God is as simple but as joyful and sweet as spending the day playing with our grandchildren? We are delighted with their every tentative move, questioning eyes, captivating smiles, out-of-left-field antics, half-blurted syllables. Before someone hauls me before the Inquisition for heretical ideas, may I offer the scenario of the third joyful mystery, the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ? The three Wise Men traveled from afar, guided by the bright star, anticipating the once-in-a-lifetime meeting with the promised Messiah.
At the end of their long and harrowing journey, there was Jesus, asleep in the manger—a beautiful, gentle, innocent baby.
Our infinitely loving God will do anything to get us closer. Anything to gladden our hearts. Anything to make our day. Surely, God will happily play with us, as Christ did with his earthly parents, Mary and Joseph. Can we open our hearts, “become like children” (Mt 18:3), and allow God to play with us?