Slowing down to play

I sat in the first row of one of Magdalene’s twelve passenger vans as the residents piled in. Leanna–one of the drivers– and Marlena–the other intern–were in the front seat, and we were picking the Magdalene residents up from a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. We were heading to Centennial Park where Marlena and I would be leading our weekly group. Many of the women were not excited to spend an hour outside in the Nashville summer heat. Marlena and I had decided to center our group meetings around spiritual disciplines, and this week, as we explained to the women once we arrived at the park and gathered in a shady spot, we would be practicing Slowing. Slowing, according to the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook we’ve been using as a resource, “is one way to overcome inner hurriedness and addiction to busyness. Through slowing, the sacrament of the present moment is tasted to the full” (Calhoun, 88). To practice this, we asked the women to take a few minutes to walk slowly around the park collecting twigs or leaves that we would be using to decorate picture frames. As I distributed supplies and helped the women–who, now that we were sitting under a shady tree in a bright flower garden, remarked that the weather really wasn’t so bad–lay out their gathered materials, I reflected on these projects, these works of art we were creating together. According to John W. de Gruchy, art “is related to friendship, education or formation, play, and happiness” and I felt each of those relations deeply as we sat and laughed and created together (Christianity, Art, and Transformation: Theological Aesthetics in the Struggle for Justice, 148).

In de Gruchy’s understanding of theological aesthetics, the ability to create beautiful things is a divine gift. He writes, “Genuine artistic creation is then understood as a gift, a Spirit-inspired construction which breaks open that which is hidden” (120). The task of artists and creators is to respond “to that which is given and discerned in creation and redemption.” In this way, the artist’s and the theologian’s goals are on the same plane: to respond to what is given to them by God. Creation and creativity are gifts. In this particular project in the park, we responded to creation by taking pieces of it to make something beautiful that we would use to frame images that are significant to us. The particularity of the final product we created together points to a theologically aesthetic response to creation. De Gruchy emphasizes the importance of responding to creation and God’s redemptive power within and through our own particular contexts. He writes, “There is, in fact, no other way whereby we can truly know something of the mystery of God incarnate than in terms of images that relate to our present reality and experience” (121). The picture frames we created were a profound example of a product made with materials collected in a particular time and location. These creations would then be used to house and to highlight precious images from our particular experiences.

Picture frame made of twigsThis group session in the park presented an opportunity to have fun together in community as we worked on our individual frames. A key component of this creative task was play. According to Bonhoeffer, play “goes beyond the categories of doing, having, and achieving and leads us into the categories of being, of authentic human existence and demonstrative rejoicing in it. It emphasizes the creative against the productive and the aesthetic against the ethical” (de Gruchy, 157). Though this project was centered around the practice of a spiritual discipline, what we were asking the women to do in the park that day was to play. We had an hour to be away from the Magdalene houses and offices, work, therapy, and other responsibilities. As Bonhoeffer understood, play is a necessary experience for flourishing. As the women work and learn to gain independence and full autonomy upon graduation from the program, these moments that “break open fresh possibilities” are a necessary part of healing. Just as Slowing counters mental hurriedness, play counters the constant emotional work that comes with the healing process. It cuts through the inevitable tension in a community of trauma survivors. Play has true, relentless, strong, salvific, redemptive power.

Beyond the depth of the creating we were doing together and within the grumbling complaints about the heat and sharing of supplies was an undeniable presence of friendship. Bonhoeffer underscores friendship’s differentiation from other relationships with legal or contractual components. It is “unlike marriage in that it has no recognized rights but must depend on its inherent quality. In distinction from marriage, work, state, and the church, each of which has its own divine mandate, friendship belongs to ‘the broad area of freedom’” (147). The residents of Magdalene routinely refer to themselves and graduates of the program as their sisters as a way of fostering connection and reminding themselves of the women who came before them. But fully investing in bonds of sisterly friendship while also focusing on individual recovery must be a freely taken choice. Bonhoeffer also suggests that the church ought to be an arena to foster friendships that are beautiful and “a key element in ‘aesthetic existence’” in addition to formal, legal relationships. The church, he argued, could be the point of intersection for art, education, friendship, and joy. In my time at Magdalene House­–particularly on that day in the park–I feel situated at a similar intersection as we learn, laugh, create, and play.

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