Reverend Fathers, Faculty, Families, Students, Alumni, and Graduates: Those of you who were fortunate enough to see “Circo Giovanni” last night already know a lot about this class. It was no accident that Mr. Fitzpatrick set his “chopera” inside a circus, and it is no accident that a serious story about the shameless and unrepentant womanizer Don Giovanni feels a little different under the big top when every scene is punctuated by funny and wonderful clown pantomimes. The play’s mixture of high and low, beautiful and silly, grave and frolicsome all clashing into one another and then often mysteriously coexisting at the same moment is perhaps a good way of glimpsing the special character of this class.
Like the play, (and like any good circus) this class has a high volume of clowns. I would definitely say more than their fair share. There have been ‘moments’ in the past four years – sometimes very long moments, lasting days and weeks – when it seems like the clowns have completely taken over the show.
But, as in any good circus, they are not all clowns (or at least not all the time)– there are strong men, ring masters, lion tames, fire jugglers, and so on. And there is a kind of epically joyous quality to the class as a whole that is very circus-like – they want to do everything, and they want to include everybody. In the very last week of school they were asking if we could somehow take the whole school roving on the last weekend of school. Usually only one class goes roving, because the singing has to be well coordinated and because you have to fit into bars and restaurants, but they thought it would be grand for the whole school to be roaming and roaring about Scranton in one raucous body, and they wanted to do it as a surprise to the rest of the students – just tell them to get in the bus and don’t say why or where we’re going, they urged me. They like surprises.
On April Fools they woke up the whole student body at 2 oclock in the morning and got everyone to begin their day with morning prayer of course, breakfast, cleanup, and then – classes, yes they conducted their own classes. When their noisy middle of the night shenanigans woke up some of the dormstaff the boys never broke character and put on such a convincing show – I am sorry sir, I don’t understand why you are so upset, I am just cleaning my room – that the dormfathers either joined in the fun or went back to sleep confused. Their upside down day went on all night until morning prayer when they had to start the day all over again. It was epic and it was joyous.
So what does one say to a class full of boys whose predominant virtue seems to be playfulness, clowning about, pranks, and buffoonery? (and by the way, is playfulness even a virtue?).
I suppose I could just say, have fun guys, have a great life! — and we could be done? Well, there is a bit more I could say…
But, if you think I am going to spend the rest of this talk going on about playfulness, clowns, buffoons, and circuses at a grand occasion like this, if you think I am going to praise these boys for coming up with clever pranks, at a time when the world needs sobriety and clear headedness more than ever, if you think I am going to tell jokes about William Howerton playing the fiddle (or the bodhran) while Western Civilization burns, well…. you’d be on the right track. I’m going to do something like that.
I am going to talk about play and playfulness not, I hope, for frivolous reasons, but because we actually take play rather seriously at the school, as we should, because the thing we call play is indeed profound and goes to the heart of life’s mystery. At Gregory the Great our students play continuously: one could easily think of this school as a giant playground. Students act in dramatic plays like “Circo Giovanni”, they play in song, they play through juggling, they play games of sport. Are not mathematical exercises and discussions about “the greatest that has been thought and said,” a form of play? And one might even think of the noblest action of prayer and liturgy as the highest form of play available to man.
So let us now praise this thing called play and men who are playful.
Aristotle says that play is one of the virtues essential for human happiness, he calls iteutrapelia; it is the golden mean between buffoonery (the type of person who can’t resist getting a laugh at any opportunity) and boorishness (the person who can’t ever relax and enjoy a good joke). The virtuous habit of soul called eutrapelia occurs in one who is serious about the serious things and lightsome about the light things, and knows how to mix the two in just the right proportions.
So if play is a virtue, then it is something we ought to take seriously. Friedrich Nietzsche writes that “A man’s maturity consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child at play.” Think of how absorbed and intent that child at play is. For Nietzsche the child and the man at play enters more truly and completely into the realm of serious and mature action.
Plato takes us more deeply into the mystery of play. In his last work called Laws, as an old man he writes:
I seek to expound the best way in which men can shape their lives, and in this I appear to be a shipbuilder who in laying down the keel already determines the shape of the whole ship. Like him, I am carrying out a kind of keel laying when I seek correctly to determine what conduct and what attitude of mind will best help out little ship to steer past the rocks of this human existence… What I would say is this: serious things must be treated seriously, but not those that are not serious. In deed, and in truth, however, it is God who is worthy of all our deepest and most blessed seriousness. Man, on the other hand, is, as I remarked previously, a plaything in the hand of God, and truly this is the best thing about him. Everyone, therefore, whether man or woman, must strive toward this end and must make of the noblest games the real content of their lives. (The Laws, Plato)
Plato advises us that since God is ultimately the only thing really worth taking seriously and since we are a kind of plaything in God’s hands, the wise man will seek to play the noblest games, the best games God created for him to play. So what are these games and what does it mean really to play?
Charles Peguy describes heroic action itself as a kind of exalted play:
Heroism is essentially a skill, a condition and an act of sound health, good spirits, joy, even merriment, almost a frivolous playfulness – in any case, an act of pleasure, well-being, an act of the unconstrained, relaxed, productive person, of security, self-mastery, almost (so to speak) of custom and routine, of good manners. It is without any posturing or ulterior motive, and, above all, without any self-pity; without sighs and lamentations, without the wish to win a reward. The person who only wants to win is a bad player. What makes a great player is the will to play. He would far rather play without winning than win without playing.
There is a famous story of the Spartans preparing for the battle of Thermopylae by lavishly combing their hair. The Persian spies who witnessed this act of luxurious repose before battle were shocked by the kind of mettle that must reside in such men. A less well known story is of Tailifer the jongleur who entertained the Norman knights before the battle of Hastings by tossing his sword in the air while singing the Song of Roland. The two stories are related but I believe the story of Taillefer, who was both a jongleur and a knight, tossing his sword and singing bespeaks a form of joyous playfulness toward the hard game of battle that surpasses the grim equanimity of Spartans carefully combing their hair.
In the Song of Roland, we are told that Roland and his knights “hold their lives like playthings” and precisely because “they hold their lives like playthings” they embody a heroism that surpasses the martial prowess of the Paynims (or muslims) that they are fighting. As we read the poem carefully we discover that the reason they hold their lives like playthings is because they know themselves to be held in the loving embrace of God. Confident in being held, they are confident and even reckless in giving their lives (up) (back to God) in a cause that is noble and just.
I will never forget the phrase a young monk from the French abbey of Fontgombault used in this very room almost 20 years ago when summing up to our students what the life of a monk consists of. He said “Ludens coram eo omni tempore” which means playing before his face all the time. The life of a monk, he explained, consists in the most beautiful kind of play, a play of work, a play of prayer, a play of loving contemplation, always before the face of God. The phrase comes from the book of Proverbs and a bit more of the text is worth quoting:
When he established the heavens, I was there…
When he marked out the foundations of the earth,
Then I was beside him, like a little child;
And I was daily his delight,
Playing before him always,
Rejoicing in his inhabited world, and
Delighting in the sons of men. Proverbs 8: 27-31
The fathers of the Church understood the playing child to be the Wisdom or the Logos of God, that is to say, the son, the second person of the Trinity. “For the Logos on high plays, / Stirring the whole cosmos back and forth, as he wills, / Into shapes of every kind.” Writes Maximus the Confessor. By the way, the Hebrew word for play is the same word used to describe David’s action of dancing before the ark of the Covenant.
The Logos creating the world is a playing, an act of unconstrained joy, a dancing before his father. “A rejoicing in his inhabited world, delighting in the sons of men.” The great English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins captures this truth by identifying this play of God within man as man when he is acting out his most essential, most personal, most interior and free essence.
I say more: the just man justices
Keeps grace that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –
Christ – for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
And speaking of Christ “playing in ten thousand places…” I wonder if the image of William joyfully playing the fiddle or the bodhran while civilization burns, as crazy as it sounds, is really the most right answer, the profoundest answer, to how we can best navigate the difficulties and crises of our time. For Christ was playing through these boys in their encounter with the pro-Life and pro-Abortion forces shouting at one another, that Isaac described for us. We all felt this: there was a strength of happiness to our song that was deeper, stronger than ourselves. Or perhaps, put in a different way, it felt like we were being enfolded in a singing, in a joy that was us and more than us. And it was palpable and persuasive.
The man in front shouting the loudest through his microphone would have to leave off shouting at us because he couldn’t help dancing to this music. I believe this experience was a playful analogue of what is happening when a saint fights against evil through the power of good, of love, of joy. We are not saints, far from it, but in this encounter, this noble game of singing and dancing and juggling, I think we were given a gift in play of understanding something of the mystery of the charity and playfulness of God.
I would like to end by exhorting these young men, these merry men about to go out into the world, to continue to play well, which will not be easy, and to continue to seek out the noblest of games. Men today are becoming hollow men, zombies in fact, who are filled with empty inanities from things only half seen, texts only half read, deeds only half done, Youtube videos glutting and blocking the pathways to their inmost heart. Such men have never known or are fast forgetting how to play, how to enter deeply into the games of this created world of wonders. But you gentlemen, have played many games with gusto and with joy. You know the joy that comes from giving your entire body and spirit to a noble action – whether that be rugby or song or laughter or liturgy.
So, never submit to being the spectator of other people’s lives lived on a 3×5 inch screen, and eventually, a spectator of your own life (in those rare moments of rueful self-reflection), but instead be a player, continue to play your part in the dramatic game of this your own life, continue to enter more deeply into the joyous dance that is at the heart of all creation and of God himself. And in doing so, you will become the warriors, the poets, the jongleurs, the fathers, the teachers, the monks God made you to be – playing, dancing, rejoicing before His face all the time. Ludens coram eo omni tempore!