Rites and play: things very much forgotten
In the weeks of the Soccer World Cup we are experiencing moments full of rites, celebrations and symbols. The opening ceremony was a sequence of rites and symbols linked to soccer, principally the presentation of the teams, and the singing of the national anthem. An environment of celebration filled the cities, adorning the streets and the windows of the houses.
Here we tackle the theme of rites and celebrations, whose human and social meaning not always is thought about, and often is forgotten. First, without rite there is no celebration, because a celebration moves within the symbolic world of rites and symbols. We eat and drink in a celebration not to satisfy hunger or thirst. For that, we eat at home or in a restaurant. Rather, it symbolizes the friendship and joy of the encounter and of participating together in an event such as a soccer match. Singing in a celebration is not intended as a display of music as art, but as a ritual expression of exuberance and existential relief. And how we celebrate and drink when our favorite team wins a match or the championship!
«What is a rite?» the Little Prince asked the fox who had captured him in the famous book by Antoine de Saint Exupery of the same title. And the fox responded: «it is something very much forgotten, it is what makes some days different from the others, one hour different from the others. There is a rite among those who hunt me, they go to dance with the girls of the town on Thursdays, and therefore, Thursday is a marvelous day! I can stroll up to the vineyard. If the hunters danced on just any day, all the days would be the same and I would have no rest» (p.27).
A rite is, then, what makes a celebration different from other days. But it only gains expressive strength if there is preparation and inner anticipation, as occurs before a soccer match between two famous teams. This is why the fox advises the Little Prince: «it would be better if you always came at the same time, if you would come, say, at 4 in the afternoon; at three I would already start to be happy… but if you were to come at any old time, I would never know how to prepare my heart. The rite is necessary» (p.71).
Only with the rite will there be celebration, because then everything loses its natural consistency, taking on a profoundly human symbolic value. Things lose their actuality (are useless), in order to gain their true meaning. The sound of footsteps would never scare away the fox, they are like music that portends the proximity of the Little Prince. The wheat fields do not remind him of bread (actuality) but of the golden locks of the Little Prince (meaning).
Besides in the afore mentioned events, the presence of rite is generally strong in religious celebrations (marriage, for example, or priestly ordination). The rite expresses the meaning of things better than language, which, as the fox comments, «is full of misunderstandings». Therefore a rite is particularly expressive when it comes from the depths of our beings, from our deepest archetypes, where our personal identity is found.
Every human being, including the most secular and rational, is mythical, in the sense of ritual and symbolic expression. Humans who want to express their inner selves, their joy, their sadness, their passion, or their love, do not use cold concepts, but metaphors or life stories, that are the true myths. Through them, the mystery of the personal journey of each one emerges without violating it. Rites and celebrations always demand seriousness and concentration.
Everything we speak of about rites also has much to do with play. I am not thinking of the play that has become a profession and big international business, such as soccer and others. They are more sports than acts of play. Play, as it occurs in popular environments, on an improvised site or on the beach, has no practical utility, but it carries profound meaning as an expression of the joy of being, and of having a good time together.
There is an old tradition of the two sister Churches, the Latin and the Greek, that references Deus ludens, homo ludens and even eccclesia ludens (playful God, man and church). They saw creation as a great game of a playful Divinity: God launched from one side the stars, from the other the Sun, below, the planets and, with tenderness, the Earth, at just the right distance from the Sun, so that she may have life. Creation is a kind of all embracing happiness of God, a theatrum gloriae Dei (a theater of the glory of God).
In a beautiful poem the great theologian of the Greek Orthodox Church, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus (c.330-c.390), says: «The sublime Logos plays, adorning the whole cosmos, for pure pleasure and in every way with the most varied images». In effect, play is a work of creative fantasy, as children show: it expresses a freedom without coercion, creating a world without practical end, free from profit and individual advantages. One of the finest theologians of the XX century, the brother of another eminent theologian, who was my professor in Germany, Karl Rahner, strongly recommended that «because God is vere ludens (truly playful) everyone must also be veres ludens».
These considerations show how our existence here on Earth could be serene and without anguish, especially when it is transformed by the jovial presence of God in His creation. So we do not have to be afraid. What takes away freedom is fear. The opposite of faith is not so much atheism as fear, especially fear of solitude. To have faith, more than to adhere to a series of truths, is to be happy, feeling oneself in the palm of the hand of God, and being able to live before the Divine like a child who plays with utter abandon.
Free translation from the Spanish sent by
Melina Alfaro, email@example.com,
done at REFUGIO DEL RIO GRANDE, Texas, EE.UU.