Fatherhood and Play

“Play is the language of paternal love and kindness.”

I was listening to an audiobook this spring as I zoomed downed the highway. These words brought one of those epiphany moments– in which the veil is briefly lifted, time seems to hold still, and – as long as the moment lasts – I feel embraced by deeper Truth. For me, those are moments in which the hosts of heaven beckon (in the words of C.S. Lewis): “Come further up! Come deeper in!”

In case you are curious, the words were from Kelly McDaniel’s 2021 book entitled Mother Hunger. She writes from the perspective of a secular therapist, and in the process affirms several core biological, emotional, and relational truths about motherhood – all of which are strongly reinforced by the latest findings of neuroscience and attachment theory. My May blog posts benefitted from a few of her insights. She is writing to adult daughters, inviting them to consider what they needed and didn’t entirely receive from their own mothers. And then she casually drops in her comment regarding fatherhood, kindness, and the language of play.

In that timeless moment of hearing her quote, I was immediately transported back one year in time to Tallahassee, where I was assisting as chaplain for the priest retreat at the John Paul II Healing Center. As is common, the 18 priest participants showed up with fears, resistance, and defenses. It was amazing to watch those melt away in unexpected ways. Play played a huge part!

I already shared with you last June about the “human sculpting” exercises we engaged in each day. Bob Schuchts invited me, three days in a row, to play the part of God the Father. Another played God the Son, another the Holy Spirit, along with several human and angelic (and demonic) characters. We were invited to follow our intuitions and interact with each other in a visual scene. I felt fear and constriction at first – the familiar perfectionistic pressure to perform well – or else. I turned to Bob and whispered, “I’ve never done these before – what am I supposed to do?” He smiled and shrugged. I felt the familiar dread in my gut. But I reconnected with my body and was able to tap into my deeper desire and intuition. Each sculpt was a surprise. Many participants received insight or healing. For me, it was a oneness with the heart of the Father that shifted my connection with him. I felt his poverty of heart – the way he willingly honors our freedom amidst his ache for our flourishing.

Each day, play opened us in receptivity and a rediscovered joy of fatherhood. The team there ever so simply invited us into play each evening – a cornhole tournament with Sister Miriam as a DJ taking song requests, a Pictionary competition with three teams, a trip to the cinema to watch Father Stu, a group hanging around the campfire each night and laughing together. Everyone felt more authentically human – which is so important to being a healthy priest, much less to being true spiritual fathers! Then Bob shared (without naming names) about the retreat for bishops they have started doing. He described busy bishops, buried beneath impossible pressures and ugly problems, laughing and playing together like little children. How healing! Obviously, deep prayer is the foundation.  But without a playful heart, fathers cannot be fathers!

I can only imagine the plight of bishops. It’s hard enough to be a parish priest these days. I am at my worst when I am in a scarcity mentality. In those moments I feel a drivenness that screams loudly “I don’t have time for that!” – no time to slow down and delight, or savor, or play, or connect, or rest. It is then only a matter of time before I wind up in a place of resentment, and then entitlement – seizing small pleasures that bring no true joy.

At times, I still have the hoarding heart of an orphan – a heart that is terrified of needing and depending on the Father or others. In those moments, fueled by shame and fear, I stockpile and self-protect; I hide my truer and deeper self. At my core, I am highly sensitive, highly creative, eager to connect, and totally playful. But I frequently feel inhibition around play – or at least around being seen in play. It’s so much easier around children, or when I am unaware of anyone watching. It is in those moments when I am the most childlike in my faith, and when I am willing to engage in play with others, that God most powerfully shows up. It is then that I receive the most, and then that others receive the Father’s love through me.

On the retreat, Jake Khym left us with profound words on the Father’s love, encouraging us to anticipate his affection day after day: “Over and over, I will be good to you, my son.” He invited us to notice and receive those frequent moments of affection, to allow the Father to be playful with us and delight in us.

If I pause in the afternoon or evening to reflect on the day in a General Examen, it is a marvelous request I can make to God the Father: Show me how you were affectionate to me today. If I allow myself the time and space for that meditation, it is remarkable how quickly he shows me moments small or large in which he was playfully affectionate to me. He is always a good Father, tending to me in my poverty, and inviting me to become playful as he is playful. I just struggle to believe that it can be so simple and so effective. I struggle to trust amidst that poverty that he will keep showing up and keep being affectionate. Yet he always does!

I believe all men are called to be one or another kind of father – not in the toxic masculinity of the last few hundred years, but in our uniqueness and individuality. Whatever fatherhood may look like for each of us, playful affection will be the language the Father speaks to us, and playful affection will be the language he teaches us to speak to our children.

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