Picturing God: A Spring Reflection
By Sheila O'Handley,
Upon entering any home we often encounter an arrangement of family photos. The photos bring the loved ones to our consciousness. They enter us, as it were, to be present with us in the here and now. In a way the pictures make the individuals real and alive to us.
Among the number of challenging questions facing the Christian community today is the question of right speech about God. How to speak rightly of God is of central importance. The language, images, concepts, pictures, symbols and metaphors used for God become the reference point for understanding life, the world, the human, the Mystery we call God, and they become the foundation of our spiritual life.
So it might be helpful to reflect: what are our pictures, images, symbols of God? What do these pictures, images or symbols say to us about what God is like? About ourselves? What is the meaning of life? How might our images, pictures, symbols of God have changed? What might have caused our God image to be different now and why?
The great religious traditions cannot say what God really is, yet their sacred texts use various names, images and metaphors to define what God is like. In truth, images of God can be derived from various sources, such as personal experience, tradition, culture, nature, and family. However, there comes a time when our images of God must be let go, including the most treasured in one’s tradition, if a more mature relationship to and with God is to emerge. It is our concepts of God that change, never God in God’s self.
Any image of God, however, is incomplete. Even the use of the word God might seem to limit its reference to male images, thereby limiting powerful images of the Divine as feminine. It is critical that we no longer restrict God to any one dominant image, expression or gender. The human spirit has need of a deeper awareness and fuller experience of God. And in the service of truth, God deserves a more inclusive portrayal, for God is far greater than any or all of the images designated to describe the Divine. God is not God’s name. God is the name we give to the Mystery of life that God is.
Within the Christian tradition, what is known of what God is like is know through the pictures, images, and metaphors that Jesus used to describe his understanding and experience of his relationship with God. Let us consider a few images, pictures and metaphors that Jesus referred to in speaking about what God is like.
In prayer Jesus addresses God as ‘Abba’ a word of endearment, revealing an intimate and familiar relationship which existed between himself and his Father. The image here is one of intimacy and is not gender related.
Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son ( Luke 15:11-32) is a powerful image of God as parent. It is an understanding of God that any parent can relate to. A God who welcomes, celebrates, a God who is there for us, waiting our arrival of coming home to ourselves , to our original source in God; not a God waiting to lecture, punish, disown, or to inflict guilt.
Luke (15:8-10): The woman who lost one of her ten coins searched endlessly until she found it and then she called her friends together to celebrate. In this short story God is the one who longs for us, looking for us, and searching for us endlessly until we search for the richness that we are and finding that richness in God.
Matthew (24:37-39): Jesus offers the loving image of God as protector and comforter, like a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wing, offering shelter.
Luke (12:38): A image so appropriate for Holy Week, God with an apron and waiting on table. “Happy those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. I tell you solemnly, he will put on an apron, sit them down at table and wait on them.”
Let us not miss this celebration - what a joy it will be. Holy Thursday is inanticipation of this great future feast prepared for us by a nurturing and celebrating God.
Birthing Stories: A Winter Reflection
By Sheila O'Handley,
There is a child born for us, a son given to us.
When we look closely at the four Gospels we discover that only two of the four tell the story of Jesus’ birth, namely, Matthew and Luke in chapters One and Two. If we look a little closer at both of these birth stories, or Infancy Narratives, as they are called, we will notice that they are quite different. We might ask, why so many differences? The answer is that both Matthew and Luke were not interested in the historical accuracy of Jesus’ birth. What was significant for both Matthew and Luke, and for us, is the spiritual message of the birth of Jesus.
The spiritual message of Jesus’ birth is about:
Who he was, what he was about, and who we are. When we look closely at Matthew’s story of Jesus’ origin and birth he begins with a long genealogy, placing Jesus’ identity at the beginning of the Jewish family tree with Abraham, and then down through many generations to his legal father Joseph, who was a descendent of the House of David. Therein lies Jesus’ human identity, he is Jewish and he is a son of David. And we? We too, are human, belonging to a long evolutionary history, with our personal genealogies, yet rooted in the one common human family of origin.
Parallel to the human genealogy, the birth announcements speak of Mary, Jesus’ mother conceiving him through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus the Son of God and of Divine origin. And we? We also have our origin in the Mystery - God, and in and from that origin we are daughters and sons of God. The Good News is, God, in Jesus has become human like us, is one with us and among us on the human/ divine journey of life. Therein lies our hope.
As we continue to reflect further into the birth stories, we notice that there is an audience, those who encounter the birth of Jesus. In Matthew, the audience is the Gentile magi, seekers from the East, not of Jewish descent, while in Luke the audience is the Jewish shepherds, the ordinary, down to earth seekers. The spiritual significance of these audiences underscores from the very beginning, the cosmic, universal and inclusive revelation that God, the Mystery of life is not confined to any one people or religion, but is embracive of all.
The spiritual meaning of the birth of Jesus is not without its opposition, its suffering, its paschal rhythm. In Matthew, King Herod, in his lust for power, decided to dispose of the newly born child, and has all the male children under two slaughtered. In Luke, the elder prophet Simeon predicts that Jesus will be a sign of contradiction for both political and religious institutions, while a sword of sorrow will penetrate the heart of Mary his mother.
Sometimes it takes a mystic-poet to break open the meaning of the mystery of life with all its rehearsals and be-comings. The Persian poet Hafiz in his poem, ‘Listen To This Music’, poetically expresses the depth of meaning pregnant in the Incarnation - the birth of Jesus, in all its be-comings and rehearsals, inviting us in our moment of time to give birth to God within ourselves and in our world; to become “a hole in a flute that the Christ’s breath moves through. It is this music that we and our world hungers for.
Listen To This Music
I am a hole in a flute that the Christ’s breath
moves through – listen to this music.
I am the concert from the movement of every
creature singing in myriad chords.
and every dancer, their foot I know and lift.
and every brush and hand, well, that is me too,
who caresses any canvas or cheek.
how did I become all these things, and beyond all things?
it was my destiny, as it is yours.
my poems are about our glorious journey.
we are a hole in a flute, a moment in space,
that the Christ’s body can move through and sway
all forms - in an exquisite dance - as the wind in a forest.
Living with Dying: An Autumn Reflection
By Sheila O'Handley,
The Hebrew Scriptures, Ecclessiastes 3:1-8, counsels that “There is a season for everything, a time for every occupation under heaven…….a time to be born and a time to die." Autumn, of all the seasons, holds before us a two-fold lesson: first, the lesson of abundance in the fullness of the harvest, and second, the lesson of completion, of consummation, and of diminishment.
Autumn speaks quite poignantly of the natural rhythm in the cosmos, and in particular, of the natural rhythm in the human life cycle - living and dying. Death is an indispensable condition necessary for life so that new life can emerge. We live in an evolutionary universe which is marked by novelty, creativity, complexity and death, all of which are orientated towards the future. A future yet unknown...... therein lies hope.
The questions become, how comfortable are we in an evolutionary world? How comfortable are we as evolutionary persons? How comfortable are we with ‘living with dying’? And ultimately, do we live within an attitude of hope in the face of dying and death?
Contemporary society’s interest in anti-aging packaged products, such as creams, serums, supplements etc, plus our dependency on the modern benefits in technology, such as cell phones, internet, ipods , neuro - chips, artificial intelligence even artificial humans are indicative of an unconscious spiritual need. The innate spiritual need that inscribes the human is to be in right relationship, right relationship with self, others, God and nature. This spiritual need haunts the human heart with deep human/spiritual questions about individual existence, the meaning of life and of death, and in particular, self - continuity, in other words, will I live forever?
The major religious traditions underscore that the human is distinguished by its pursuit of self- transcendence, and of the Transcendent, the quest of the Other, the Mystery - God. In death we acquire self-transcendence, we are no longer subject to time/space modalities. In Christian terms, death is a time of transition, transition into God. Death returns us to the now presence of God’s inner life, ever open to new possibilities and making all things new, even death. It is to this hope that we give witness.
The 20th century mystic, Jesuit priest and scientist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), revealed in his reflections and writings his passionate love for God and of the cosmos. He saw life’s process of ‘living with dying’, and in particular the dying process, as the ultimate encounter, communion and transformation into God. In his book, The Hymn of the Universe, he speaks quiet poignantly of the dying process, of completion, of consummation and of diminishment. Here is his reflection.
‘ It was a joy to me, Lord, in the midst of my struggles, to feel that in growing to my fulfilment I was increasing your hold on me; it was a joy to me, beneath the inward burgeoning of life and amidst the unfolding of events that favoured me, to surrender myself to your providence. And now that I have discovered the joy of turning every increase into a way of making – or allowing – your presence to grow within me, I beg of you: bring me to a serene acceptance of that final phase of communion with you in which I shall attain to possession of you by diminishing within you.
Now that I have learnt to see you as he who is ‘more me than myself’, grant that when my hour has come I may recognize you under the appearances of every alien or hostile power that seems bent on destroying or dispossessing me. When the erosions of age begin to leave their mark on my body, and still more on my mind; when the ills that must diminish my life or put an end to it strike me down from without or grow up from within me; when I reach that painful moment at which I suddenly realize that I am a sick man or that I am growing old; above all at that final moment when I feel I am losing hold on myself and becoming wholly passive in the hands of those great unknown forces which first formed me: at all these sombre moments grant me. Lord, to understand that it is you (provided my faith is strong enough) who are painfully separating the fibres of my being so as to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance and draw me into yourself.
The more deeply and incurably my ills become engrained in my flesh, the more it may be you yourself that I am harbouring as a loving, active principle of purification and of liberation from possessiveness. The more the future lies ahead of me like a dark tunnel or a dizzy abyss, the more confident I can be – if I go forward boldly, relying on your word – of being lost, of being engulfed, in you, Lord, of being absorbed into your Body.
Lord Christ, you who are divine energy and living, irresistible might: since of the two of us it is you who are infinitely the stronger, it is you who must set me ablaze and transmute me into fire that we may be welded together and made one. Grant me, then, something even more precious than that grace for which all your faithful followers pray: to receive communion as I die is not sufficient: teach me to make a communion of death itself.’
Death is an equalizer, irrespective of a person’s age, status or achievement. It has many faces within the human experience, such as failed relationships, loss of employment, abandonment, death of a loved one, suffocated creativity, big and small life changes, disappointments of various degrees, and finally physical death. Death, then, is a living reality, a reality which for the most part, society works overtime to deny, or to consign to the back burner until it touches home. Maybe we too keep the reality of dying and death hidden within the recesses of our consciousness.
Autumn’s gift offers the opportunity to witness to the hope that is within us, that God is a God of life and of new beginnings. Jesus is witness to God’s fidelity to life, ‘I am the resurrection. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.’ He leaves us with the question,’ Do you believe this?’ John 11:25-26.
Summer Sabbath: A Reflection
There is an internal compass in each of us which gives direction to the true, the good, the beautiful, and the transcendent. We also know when we have found it and when we haven’t. The human story testifies that in response to the quest of these values people have sought ways in ritual, symbol, story-telling, and sacrament, to name and celebrate both the transcendent experience and the Transcendent – God. So they designed days, times, seasons, and places as holy, and in time conceived Sabbath. (Sabbath – the Old English word “sabat” as observed by the Jews, means “day of rest”, or Sabbath.)
Finally, after the long days of winter, and an exceptionally cooler spring , we are anticipating the warmth of summer: resting, relaxing, vacationing, celebrating with family, friends, and good food. We need these moments of shared gathering, shared life and community, as fleeting as they might be, to enrich and nourish the human spirit, and experience the heart as grateful. In essence we long for community, for in the presence of authentic community, our need for individualism slowly begins to disappear.
It is interesting to note that in the Christian Scriptures, Matthew 18:20, we have Jesus supporting shared gatherings – shared life, in the words, “Where two or three meet in my name I shall be there with them”. What is even more interesting is, he doesn’t limit his presence to the Church buildings. One gets a sense that these summer gatherings just might be centers of the holy as Jesus makes his presence felt among us in these moments of summer Sabbath. Let us enjoy and be present to the silent guest among us as we take rest to celebrate and gather with family and friends.