“Choose an activity that will be genuinely soul-stretching…” One of the assignments for Selah, the spiritual director training program I’m in, is to:
Do an activity that fosters a communal and/or rejoicing experience of God. Choose one that will be genuinely soul-stretching for you, not one that is easy or already habitual for you. Do it three times in the course of a week. Summarize the experience itself in a few sentences; then summarize the work that this experience did in your soul. What went on in your prayerful awareness of self, and of God?
The activity I chose from the list of options is, “do something completely playful that might strike you as childlike…” I chose that one because, after the past year, which was full of administrative responsibilities (not my forte) and other tensions, I’ve been feeling like I need to add some lighthearted play into my life. I’ve also been feeling like God is inviting me into a sense of spacious freedom, which seems to include a sense of childlike delight in life.
I chose “Play,” thinking that, while the idea of playing isn’t really soul-stretching, choosing to set aside time to play might be. My first “play” activity was to dye my hair blue. That was both to celebrate the end of those responsibilities and tensions and also to just plain have fun. When I told my spiritual director what I was planning to do, she called it “The Spiritual Practice of Dying My Hair Blue.” And, indeed, it turned out to be a spiritual practice. First, it was just plain fun and silly and whimsical and it made me laugh with delight– a wonderful spiritual practice! Some friends also laughed with me when they saw my hair, and that was shared fun. But then someone expressed disapproval (nicely, but they clearly disapproved). That’s where another aspect of spiritual practice came in, as I explained why I’d done it, without taking their reaction personally. That also sensitized me to how people might feel when they stand out conspicuously in some way that others might react to. I want to be aware and ready to respond with welcoming grace.
Next I ran outside and made snow angels. That was fun and didn’t give me any insights at the time, other than that next time I shouldn’t wear mittens that let the snow in. But seeing my angels around the yard has made me smile every time I’ve gone outside since then; my thoughts go to Clarence, the guardian angel in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” reminding me that this is a wonderful life!
My third form of “play” surprised me by turning out to be genuinely soul-stretching. I bought play dough, eagerly opened it, and… immediately drew a blank. As I sat looking at it, I felt anxiety rising—was I going to fail an assignment to play? Finally, I Googled (how embarrassing to need to Google how to play!), and saw a suggestion to make little play dough animals. That was the jump-start I needed, and I spent the next hour or two happily making multicolor snails, arranging and rearranging them on the table.
While playing with the snails I was absorbed in creating, more unself-conscious than reflective. After playing I felt lighthearted, free, open– eager to explore the spacious freedom I’ve sensed God inviting me into. As I reflect on this later, I think in playing with the brightly colored play dough, rather than my typical watercolors, I have started to break free of some of the artistic “rules” and expectations I have both consciously and unconsciously placed on myself. Perhaps that is another aspect of God’s invitation into the spacious freedom he has for me.