As I travel to and from work on the subway I am reading a book shared by my candidacy director. God of Surprises by Gerard W. Hughes, SJ has given me so much to think about and pray about over the last couple of weeks.
There are so many passages that I would love to copy and paste into this blog, but I think I would end up reproducing the whole book! Better, perhaps, to focus on smaller portions at a time.
Right now I am struck by what he says about having a false image of God. In Chapter 3 – Inner Chaos and False Images of God – he presents an illustration of the kind of image we can have of God, when we have been introduced to God by our parents and other adults when we were children:
“God was a family relative, much admired by Mum and Dad, who described him as very loving, a great friend of the family, very powerful and interested in us all. Eventually we are taken to visit ‘Good Old Uncle George’. He lives in a formidable mansion, is bearded, gruff and threatening. We cannot share our parents’ professed admiration for this jewel in the family. At the end of the visit, Uncle George turns to address us. ‘Now listen, dear,’ he begins, looking very severe, ‘I want to see you here once a week, and if you fail to come, let me just show you what will happen to you.’ He then leads us down to the mansion’s basement. It is dark, becomes hotter and hotter as we descend, and we begin to hear unearthly screams. In the basement there are steel doors. Uncle George opens one. ‘Now look in there, dear,’ he says. We see a nightmare vision, an array of blazing furnaces with little demons in attendance, who hurl into the blaze those men and women and children who failed to visit Uncle George or to act in a way he approved. ‘And if you don’t visit me, dear, that is where you will most certainly go’, says Uncle George. He then takes us upstairs again to meet Mum and Dad. As we go home, tightly clutching Dad with one hand and Mum with the other, Mum leans over us and says, ‘And now don’t you love Uncle George with all your heart and soul, mind and strength?’ And we, loathing the monster, say ‘Yes I do,’ because to say anything else would be to join the queue at the furnace. At a tender age religious schizophrenia has set in and we keep telling Uncle George how much we love him and how good he is and that we want to do only what pleases him. We observe what we are told are his wishes and dare not admit, even to ourselves, that we loathe him.
Uncle George is a caricature, but a caricature of a truth, the truth that we can construct a God who is an image of our tyrannical selves. Hell-fire sermons are out of fashion, but they were in fashion a few decades ago and they may well come in again. Such sermons have a great appeal to certain unhealthy types of mind, but they cause havoc with the more healthy and sensitive.
Our notion of God is mediated to us through parents, teachers and clergy. We do not come to know God directly…Intellectually, I may know that God is not like Uncle George, but it is my feelings about God which determine how I approach him, and they do not change as easily as my ideas. Uncle George is not easily exorcised from my emotions and, although I may know in my my mind that God is not like that, I may still experience a strong disinclination to approach him, without knowing why, and find a thousand reasons for not praying – I am too busy, I prefer to find him through my work, etc. We have to pray constantly to be rid of false notions of God, and we have to beg him to teach us who he is, for no one else can.”
To me, this is fascinating. I think about my own ideas of God and I see that they are contradictory. I believe that God is loving, is in fact Love itself, and offers unconditional love, and yet I still feel that I need to do things to earn God’s love. There are the right prayers, right actions, right thoughts that will earn me God’s love. So somewhere in there, in the recesses of my mind and heart, there is a battle between my images of God – a God who is all loving but is also a taskmaster I have to please. Maybe it is the result of the condition of our society where we constantly strive to prove ourselves and earn respect and admiration, and even friendship, from others. So somehow I also want to earn the respect and admiration of God (and surely, entering religious life has got to be a surefire way to do that!). It’s going to take me quite a while to wrestle with this.