david steindl-rast

In sloppy everyday speech we sometimes use purpose and meaning interchangeably as if they meant the same. But remember how we go about a given purpose and how, in contrast, we experience meaning. The difference is striking. In order to achieve our purpose, whatever it may be, we must take hold of the situation, take matters in hand, take charge of things. We must be in control. Is this also true of a situation in which you experience deep meaning? You will find yourself saying that you were touched, moved, even carried away by the experience. That doesn't sound as if you were in control of what happened. Rather, you have yourself to the experience, it took hold of you and so you found meaning in it. Unless you take control, you won't achieve your purpose; but unless you give yourself, you can't experience meaning...

What then is the opposite of work?  It is play.  These are the two poles of activity: work and play.  And what we have come to understand about purpose and meaning will help us see this more clearly.  Whenever you work, you work for some purpose.  If it weren't for that purpose, you'd have better things to do than work.  Work and purpose are so closely connected that your work comes to an end, once your purpose is achieved.  Or how are you going to continue fixing your car once it is fixed? This may be less obvious when you are sweeping the floor.  Can't you go on sweeping even when there is not a speck of dust left? Well, you can go on making sweeping movements with your broom, but your purpose was accomplished, and so the work, as work, is ended.  Sooner or later, someone is sure to ask you why you are playing around with that broom.  What was work with purpose has now become play.

In play, all the emphasis falls on the meaning of your activity.  If you tell your friends that you find it very meaningful to dance around with your broom on a Friday night, they might raise their eyebrows, but they cannot seriously object.  Play needs no purpose.  That is why play can go on and on as long as players find it meaningful.  After all, we do not dance in order to get somewhere.  We dance around and around.  A piece of music doesn't come to an end when its purpose is accomplished.  It has no purpose, strictly speaking.  It is the playful unfolding of a meaning that is there in each of its movements, in every theme, every passage: a celebration of meaning.  Pachelbel's Canon is one of the magnificent superfluities of life.  Every time I listen to it, I realize anew that some of the most superfluous things are the most important for us because they give meaning to our human life.

We need this kind of experience to correct our world view.  Too easily are we inclined to imagine that God created this world for a purpose.  We are so caught up in purpose that we would feel more comfortable if God shared our preoccupation with work.  But God plays.

may you all find meaning and playfulness on this day.  happy thanksgiving everyone.


  1. This is such a cool piece. I so believe it. (And loved an article I stumbled across a while back on this topic...but this sums it up even better.) I think God's playfulness is one of the things that distinguishes his voice/hand/heart from anything else.

    I hope you've had a great Thanksgiving!

  2. Let the play ensue. If we get others on board, we will be the funnest bunch around!