Playful Prayer

“First Steps” by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)

In your prayer life, how often do you pray “like a child”? The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing encourages us to become like children in our prayer life, to pray simple, humble, honest, playful prayers before our heavenly Father. In the selections below, you’ll find in bold text, summary statements about playful prayer, followed by selected quotes from Cloud Devotion: Through the Year with The Cloud of Unknowing (my translation/paraphrase of this classic work, published in 2020) with dates where those selections are drawn; followed by the Middle English text of The Cloud of Unknowing presented by Evelyn Underhill (1912); followed by the translation by Carmen Acevedo Butcher (Shambala, 2009).

The author of The Cloud  encourages us to learn from people who are gifted contemplatives, to learn from them how to pray in a simple, playful, childlike way. This approach to faith is directly from the lips of Jesus. “Unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

  • Cloud Devotion (April 26th): Learn from them how to rest and play and pray. With Mary, they have chosen the third and best part.
  • The Cloud of Unknowing (Chap 21, Underhill): And meddle you not of contemplatives. Ye wot not what them aileth: let them sit in their rest and in their play, with the third and the best part of Mary.
  • The Cloud of Unknowing (Chap 21, Butcher): Don’t bother contemplatives. You don’t know what crosses they bear. Leave them alone. Let them sit in the peace of Mary’s third and ‘best’ part, and play.

As children of the living God and children of light (John 12:36), we are encouraged in The Cloud to play two kinds of childlike “games” in our prayer life. First, play “hide-and-seek.” Second, play “make-believe.”

  • Cloud Devotion (August 14th): As children of the living God, learn to be playful as you pray. First, learn to play hide-and-seek. Hide from whatever is false, ignoble, wrong, impure, repulsive, corrupt, detestable, or dishonorable. Seek whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy. Second, play make-believe. Pretend you are not pretending in your faith in God.
  • The Cloud of Unknowing (Chap 46, Underhill):  Learn thee to love listily . . . and, gamingly be it said, I counsel that thou do that in thee is, refraining the rude and the great stirring of thy spirit, right as thou on nowise wouldest let Him wit how fain thou wouldest see Him, and have Him or feel Him.
  • The Cloud of Unknowing (Chap 46, Butcher): Learn to love with gentleness and joy, kindness and good manners. . . Let me suggest how you can do this. I’m going to advise you to play a sort of game with God, seriously. Pretend you don’t want what you want as much as you want it. When you feel that beast, desire, stirring inside you with tremendous power, restrain it. Act as if you don’t want God to find out how much you long to see him, know him, and feel him. Hide all that.

In The Cloud, God is described as a loving father who loves to get down on our level, on the level of His children, to play with us as we pray, to cover us with kisses and hugs.

  • Cloud Devotion (August 15): Learn to play these two little childlike games of hide-and-seek and make-believe and you’ll discover God’s grace flowing into your actions and feelings, causing you to become more like Christ, both in your mind and heart. As you play hide-and-seek, and play make believe, you’ll discover more and more of God’s goodness filling your life. Like a loving father or mother who loves to get down on their knees to play games with their beloved child, God will come to be with you, covering you with kisses and hugs.
  • The Cloud of Unknowing (Chap 46, Underhill): This is childishly and playingly spoken, thee think peradventure. But I trow whoso had grace to do and feel as I say, he should feel good gamesome play with Him, as the father doth with the child, kissing and clipping, that well were him so.
  • The Cloud of Unknowing (Chap 46, Butcher): Perhaps I sound like a child making up a game, but I mean it. I’m confident that anyone with the grace to put my advice into practice will eventually experience the joy of God’s playfulness. God will come to you, the way an earthly father plays with his child, kissing and hugging, making everything alright.

Some adults are very uncomfortable with the thought of becoming childlike. The author of The Cloud acknowledges this obstacle, yet, still encourages us all to become childlike, even though some will mock us or scoff at us for praying in a childish, silly, immature way. Wise, mature followers of Jesus have prayed this way, like children, for centuries. Learn from them and learn to pray in a playful way.

  • Cloud Devotion (August 16): You may be surprised at this invitation to be childlike and playful in your prayer life. Some view this way of prayer as childish, silly, or lacking in maturity. There are specific reasons to call you to this way of prayer. Consider what was written in Scripture centuries ago. Jesus invites us to pray to our Father. Jesus welcomed little children to come to him, and he blessed the children and told us that unless we become like little children, we would not be able to enter the kingdom of heaven. Such instructions have been practiced by countless wise and prayerful people through the ages.
  • The Cloud of Unknowing (Chap 47, Underhill): Look thou have no wonder why that I speak thus childishly, and as it were folly and lacking natural discretion; for I do it for certain reasons, and as me thinketh that I have been stirred many days, both to feel thus and think thus and say thus, as well to some other of my special friends in God, as I am now unto thee.
  • The Cloud of Unknowing (Chap 47, Butcher):  Here’s one reason you should hide the longing of your heart from God. He sees the yearning you hide more clearly than what you bare, and your desire is fulfilled more quickly. There’s no better way of “showing” him what you want. Here’s another reason I believe this approach works. Learning to conceal what you wish revealed will wean you from a dependence on your fragile, fickle human emotions and deepen the purity of your spiritual awareness. Finally, this way helps you tie the spiritual knot of burning love between you and God in a mystical oneness of wills.

The author of The Cloud provides good reasons for childlike prayer, as though playing hide-and-seek with God, including being less distracted and having our prayers more quickly answered and our hearts more fully rewarded by our loving Father.

  • Cloud Devotion (August 17): Here are a few reasons to pray playfully. First, when you play hide-and-seek in a secret prayer place, you tend to pray with less thought for what you may get, and worry less about what others think of your prayer. In your hiding place of prayer, you will be less distracted, your prayers will be more quickly answered, and your heart will be more richly rewarded. Another reason to play hide-and-seek as you pray is that in secret, you are less inclined to rely on many words, excess emotions, and strange bodily contortions. In secret, you are more inclined to pray simple, pure prayers from the depths of your heart. Such playful prayer will help ignite your soul with sparks of love, kindling your heart and Christ’s heart together in spiritual unity and goodwill.
  • The Cloud of Unknowing (Chap 47, Underhill): And one reason is this, why that I bid thee hide from God the desire of thine heart. For I hope it should more clearly come to His knowing, for thy profit and in fulfilling of thy desire, by such an hiding, than it should by any other manner of shewing that I trow thou couldest yet shew. And another reason is, for I would by such a hid shewing bring thee out of the boisterousness of bodily feeling into the purity and deepness of ghostly feeling; and so furthermore at the last to help thee to knit the ghostly knot of burning love betwixt thee and thy God, in ghostly onehead and according of will.
  • The Cloud of Unknowing (Chap 47, Butcher): Don’t be surprised that I speak in what seems like a “childish” and foolish way, as if I’m lacking in sense, for I have my reasons. For some time now, I’ve been led to feel, think, and speak in this way to some other special friends in God, and now to you.

We are encouraged in Scripture and in The Cloud to pray “in the Spirit,” for God is Spirit; to learn to pray to God in a simple, humble, childlike way, with heartfelt joy expressions that flow from deep within our lives.

  • Cloud Devotion (August 18): Understand that God is Spirit, and all who want to pray learn to pray in the Spirit and in truth. If you desire deeper union with Jesus, discover the joy of praying genuinely and deeply in your spirit before God’s Spirit, rather than thinking prayer is only about words and body posture. God knows all things, and nothing is hidden from him, either in body or soul. The deeper something is hidden in your soul, the more openly it is known to God. As the ancient songwriter prayed, “Deep calls to deep” (Psalm 42:7). Physical desires are farther from God’s heart than spiritual desires. All human desire is a mixture of body and soul. When you overly stress your body or your soul in prayer, you are less able to draw close to God than when you come to God simply, genuinely and deeply, with a childlike and playful spirit.
  • The Cloud of Unknowing (Chap 47, Underhill): Thou wottest well this, that God is a Spirit; and whoso should be oned unto Him, it behoveth to be in soothfastness and deepness of spirit, full far from any feigned bodily thing. Sooth it is that all thing is known of God, and nothing may be hid from His witting, neither bodily thing nor ghostly. But more openly is that thing known and shewed unto Him, the which is hid in deepness of spirit, sith it so is that He is a Spirit, than is anything that is mingled with any manner of bodilyness. For all bodily thing is farther from God by the course of nature than any ghostly thing. By this reason it seemeth, that the whiles our desire is mingled with any matter of bodilyness, as it is when we stress and strain us in spirit and in body together, so long it is farther from God than it should be, an it were done more devoutly and more listily in soberness and in purity and in deepness of spirit.
  • The Cloud of Unknowing (Chap 47, Butcher): You’re well aware that God is spirit, so the person who wants to be united with him must have a profound sincerity of spirit, without pretense. It’s true that God is omniscient, and nothing physical or spiritual can be hidden from his mind, but, because God is spirit, the most obvious, open petition is whatever lies hidden in the depths of your spirit, rather than anything emotional or otherwise tainted by the senses. He has an affinity with our souls, so when we panic and get stressed, straining our emotions and our bodies, we are not close to God. We’re much better off when we devote ourselves to finding joy in the work of contemplative prayer and practicing it serenely, with purity and deep wisdom.

Be confident that God is delighted with us as we pray, especially when we pray in a childlike way, playfully, joyfully, honestly, simply.

  • Cloud Devotion (August 19): God takes delight in you as you pray, playing such games as hide and seek or make-believe. When you hide the longings you have for God deep within your life, God finds them delightful, rejoicing over you. So hide your love for Jesus deep within your spirit, far from any carnal or worldly desires which only corrupt your love and further separate you from God. Know with confidence that the more you aim your life heavenward, the less you will be corrupted by the empty pursuit of worldly appetites, and the nearer you will draw to God.
  • The Cloud of Unknowing (Chap 47, Underhill): And here mayest thou see somewhat and in part the reason why that I bid thee so childishly cover and hide the stirring of thy desire from God. And yet I bid thee not plainly hide it; for that were the bidding of a fool, for to bid thee plainly do that which on nowise may be done. But I bid thee do that in thee is to hide it. And why bid I thus? Surely because I would that thou cast it into deepness of spirit, far from any rude mingling of any bodilyness, the which would make it less ghostly and farther from God inasmuch: and because I wot well that ever the more that thy spirit hath of ghostliness, the less it hath of bodilyness and the nearer it is to God, and the better it pleaseth Him and the more clearly it may be seen of Him.
  • The Cloud of Unknowing (Chap 47, Butcher):  I hope my explanation helps you understand why I’m asking you to cover and hide the longing of your heart from God, like a child playing a game. I’m not, however, asking you to hide it completely. Only an idiot would ask you to do that, because it’s impossible. But I’m still saying try your best—do all you can to hide it from God. Why do I ask you this? I want you to cast your longing deep in your spirit, far from anything corrupt, which would make it less spiritual and further from God. I know that as your soul grows in purity of spirit, your desires become less emotional and your soul draws nearer to God.

Draw near to God like a little child climbing up into her Father’s lap, and take delight in the One who takes delight in you!

  • Cloud Devotion (August 20): The nearer you come to God, the more he delights to come near to you. The nearer you are to Christ, the more clearly you see and know God. Seeing and knowing God is a gift of grace given to you and every good gift comes from God, who does not change. You live in a constantly changing world of shadows and light, summer and winter, night and day. The more you live with the Lord, the more you’ll discover what does not change, and the more you will become more like Jesus, pure in your spiritual life, for God is Spirit.
  • The Cloud of Unknowing (Chap 47, Underhill): Not that His sight may be any time or in anything more clear than in another, for it is evermore unchangeable: but because it is more like unto Him, when it is in purity of spirit, for He is a Spirit.
  • The Cloud of Unknowing (Chap 47, Butcher): And as your soul pleases him more, he can see it more clearly. I’m not saying that God sees better sometimes than others, for his vision is the same yesterday, today, and forever; but your soul resembles God more when it is pure in spirit because God is spirit.

Jesus warns us in Matthew 6 of trying to impress others with our prayer life, calling us to go hide ourselves in a secret place, closing the door, and praying to our Father in secret, and God will surely reward us when we pray in this way. The author of The Cloud turns this way of prayer into a childlike game of hide-and-seek with God, to keep us from showing off in prayer, and learning to pray as a child.

  • Cloud Devotion (August 21): Another reason to pray secretly, as though playing hide-and-seek, is that humans too often value outward appearances more than the matters of the heart. When you place a higher value on the physical realm than on the spiritual realm, you confuse spirit and flesh, and thus end up trying to show off or look good rather than allowing the innermost stirrings of your heart be known. Prayer is much more than mere physical motions, bodily postures, or spoken words. When you show off in prayer, you end up wasting your words, like trying to explain heavenly mysteries to a drunkard. Most of what you say is made cheap by the attempt. Rather than attempting to impress someone by your spirituality with many words, it is far better to pray simple, honest, and heartfelt prayers in your prayer room where nobody is watching you but God.
  • The Cloud of Unknowing (Chap 47, Underhill): Another reason there is, why that I bid thee do that in thee is to let Him not wit: for thou and I and many such as we be, we be so able to conceive a thing bodily the which is said ghostly, that peradventure an I had bidden thee shew unto God the stirring of thine heart, thou shouldest have made a bodily shewing unto Him, either in gesture or in voice, or in word, or in some other rude bodily straining, as it is when thou shalt shew a thing that is hid in thine heart to a bodily man: and insomuch thy work should have been impure. For on one manner shall a thing be shewed to man, and on another manner unto God.
  • The Cloud of Unknowing (Chap 47, Butcher): I have one more reason for asking you to do all that you can to conceal your desire from God. You and I, plus many others like us, are prone to literal interpretations of spiritual realities. I was afraid that if I asked you to show your heart’s desire to God, you might understand this physically and try articulating it with a look, an intonation, a word, a gesture, or some other human way, as you do when sharing your most intimate thoughts with a friend here on earth. But that approach would only make your contemplative work worldly. For we reveal confidences to our human friends one way, but when we show them to God, we must take a totally different approach.

Though prayer is not a game, when we enter into prayer with a playful spirit, we perhaps will find more joy and delight in the practice of our prayer life before God who welcomes us as a close friend welcomes a beloved friend.

  • Cloud Devotion (December 1): As a spiritual friend of God, may you see glimpses of the mystery of life with God. Those who do not know the creative power within their own soul and the spiritual patterns for soul-making easily get confused or deceived in trying to understand such spiritual instructions as have been written in these pages. Therefore, play those childlike games such as hide-and-seek. The more we seek God by dying to our selfish ways, hiding our life with Christ in God, the more God’s life will appear in our lives, and so we will appear with Christ in eternal glory.
  • The Cloud of Unknowing (Chap 67, Underhill): Lo, ghostly friend! hereby mayest thou see somewhat in part, that whoso knoweth not the powers of their own soul, and the manner of their working, may full lightly be deceived in understanding of words that be written to ghostly intent. And therefore mayest thou see somewhat the cause why that I durst not plainly bid thee shew thy desire unto God, but I bade thee childishly do that in thee is to hide it and cover it. And this I do for fear lest thou shouldest conceive bodily that that is meant ghostly.
  • The Cloud of Unknowing (Chap 67, Butcher): My dear friend, you’ve learned, in part, how those ignorant of their souls’ powers and activities can easily misinterpret words carrying a spiritual meaning. You also see why I did not dare recommend that you show your desire to God—I asked instead that you do everything possible to hide it from him and cover it up, like a child playing a game. I still recommend that because I worry you might physically construe what is meant spiritually.