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For the most part I try to stay out of politics. The wheelings and dealings on any capitol hill tend to make the muscle along my right eye spasm uncontrollably. Needless to say, the politics in the Church make me just as uncomfortable, but at least in that realm I know it’s possible to stand up for myself. In national government, however, I tend to feel powerless when lawmakers get to decide on how I’m allowed to live without ever having to hear my voice. They are allowed to rule from on high on the quality of my life and allow my no protection to their personal agendas, prejudices or bigotry. Thus I’m a monk and try to keep to the well being of my Church where at least I feel I can make an iota of difference.
That being said, every now and then there’s such an act of absurdity on capitol hill that I can’t help but comment. The latest is from the Republican Congresswoman of North Carolina. The seemingly grandmotherly Virginia Foxx was speaking before the House on the expansion of the hate crime bill. Now, whether you agree on hate crime legislation or not is not the issue here. What floored me it what this Republican representative had to say about the murder of Matthew Shepard.
That’s right. According to Mrs. Foxx, Matthew Shepard’s murder had nothing at all to do with his sexuality. To her, it was just a robbery gone wrong. The idea that is was in anyway related to Matthew Shepard being gay is just a “hoax.”
Madame, the intentional brutality with which Matthew Shepard was killed does not come from a robbery gone wrong. Never mind that fact that one of the girlfriends testified that the defendants had been planning to rob a specifically gay man. Never mind the fact that the defendants tried to use the “gay panic defense.” How can a woman who is so obviously biased and subversive of fact be on a committee who’s sole purpose to write legislation to help protect minorities?
But for many who still hate others and expect laws to allow them to do so…for many Christians who choose to twist the Bible and use it as a weapon and means of justification for abusing and killing others, it takes this degree of mental gymnastics and outright avoidance of reality to continue in their fragile world. In my line of work I have dealt with and continue to deal with many conservative and fundamentalist Christians. They are fine spouting hate. But what they refuse to take responsibility for is natural consequence of their preaching. If you preach hate towards one group long enough…if you continue to use one group as a scapegoat for your anger and own issues…if you continue to target one group of people as worthy of God’s punishment…then when one of your flock finally follows through with what you’ve taught them and they beat, butcher and slaughter those people, then your hands are just as red with an innocent’s blood.
As a contemplative I strive to experience and live my life out of the compassionate Love of God. But even as a monk, people like Virginia Foxx make that extremely difficult.
Lord, I pray that someday we may all look upon one another out of compassion instead of derision, out of acceptance instead of violently defended prejudice, out of hope instead of deeply seated fears. Amen.
For our lesson this week, continuing the Faces of God, let us discuss and pray over the image of God the Mother. For most Christians, this tends to be one of the more difficult images right from the start. The Church has spent some 2000 years trying to remove any femininity from the concept of God. Many branches of Christianity still do not allow for women to serve in positions of authority, for they believe a woman is inferior and thus could never hold authority over a man. With that mentality, then there is no way God could have any aspect of the feminine. If God is the Superior, and women the inferior, then “naye shall the twain e’re meet,” as it were. If you grew up with a solely masculine image of God, you must first acknowledge that God is not human and as such has no gender in the first place. All the images we attribute to God are for our benefit to help us relate to One beyond complete understanding. So, to help break from that traditional image into which we have forced God, we must try the complete opposite to see what stirs within us.
As we did last week, first identify who was a mother figure for you growing up. Next, begin to list or discuss the roles that such a mother figure played for you. As a mother, was she nurturing? Was she one that supported and encouraged you? Was she the one that listened just so you could unload rather than listen so she could fix it all for you? Was she the figure of healing? When you skinned your knee, was it mom that applied the band-aid, and kissed it to make it all better? Did she unconditionally love you?
Or was your mother the domineering type of your family? Was she the one in control? Was she manipulative and a master at using guilt? Did she ever betray you when she didn’t love you unconditionally as you thought she should because of some part of who you are? Continuing along these lines, write out the positive and negative roles you attribute to the mother figure(s) in your life.
Now, look through this list and ask yourself when have you attributed these qualities to God? When have you not? Should you? For the sake of discussion, let’s take listening. The typical image of a father listening to a child’s problem is with the assumption that the father is going to offer advise on how to fix it or fix it himself for the child. On the other hand, when a mother listens, it’s typically just to be a listening ear, so the child knows that someone cares. A mom doesn’t have to fix the problem, but by just listening they make dealing with the problem a little easier for the child. A child unburdens their soul and gets love in return, not a quick fix. But love is just what the child needs.
How often do we pray to God, laying out our woes and expect God to answer by fixing the problem? “You shall receive anything when asked in my name…” And when we don’t get the answer, the solution, we want, we get frustrated with God, angry with God, and think God is no longer there. It’s as though our prayer and the solution to it were a mathematical proof that God just failed.
But what if praying to God, opening and unburdening our hearts is like crying in a mother’s arms? Are we so focused on an expected solution, that we’re missing the love that is being poured over us? This is but one difference when we try to experience God as Mother instead of the typical “father.”
Keep in mind that we may see negative traits that match as well. A good southern mother, for instance, is a master of guilt. In relationship to God, how often has the Church used guilt from God to our sins to coerce it’s people? Is this really an appropriate role we should attribute to God?
Journal now and spend time in silence with the image of God the Mother. Prayer the Lord’s Prayer through with that as the opening line and observe what experience of the Divine stirs within you. For instance, when we pray “forgive us our trespasses,” how does forgiveness from a mother feel different from that of a father? God’s Peace.
Silentio Coram Deo,
When I start to identify the father images I had growing up, I first have to go back two generations to a grandfather I never knew in person, who drank himself to death three years before I was born, but was nonetheless still a very present figure in my life. My grandfather on my father’s side was a navy man. He served in WWII and Korea. While still at sea during WWII out in the Pacific theatre, his first wife fell ill with TB and died in the hospital. He didn’t find out till a month later that she had even been ill. When he returned home, he evaded the pain and brokeness that he brought home with him. He became a playboy, one navy nurse after another… He eventually met my grandmother and they married. From that union came my father.
My dad does not talk about his childhood that often. For the most part, the bits and pieces my brother and I have cobbled together have come from our mother, relaying what she knew of the man before he passed. What I do know is that he was a harsh man. Emotionally distant yet quick to temper. And he carried wounds that never healed and that would only surface after he’d been drinking. This was the man that raised my father. In more ways that one, this was the man my own father became. My grandfather never talked about what he saw in the war, but dad remembers the nights he would sit in front of the TV, glass of gin in hand, watching a war documentary in black and white, silently crying. My grandmother, an equally cold and spiteful woman, never tried to understand and would write off the behavior with “Oh, he’s just an alcoholic.”
Despite his harsh exterior, there were cracks that showed in the brittle veneer. When my mother was in the hospital with a severe fever back in the 70’s, she recalls my grandfather calling her, drunk, and saying “You need to hang in there, because we don’t need to loose another one.” Even after all those years, the loss of his own wife to illness was still an open wound and he couldn’t handle seeing his own son having to deal with the same loss.
Growing up, my father was encouraging, but demanding. He was supportive but distant. He was generous but exacting. He was the disciplinarian with a heavy hand and harsher words. When his temper would rage, my mother would say, “Isn’t that something you’re father would do?” With that simple reminder, he would leave the room. After a time he’d come back, rarely with an appology, but subdued and more aware of his actions. The image I had of a father was of one who had to be tough, emotionally in control and always working to be the best at what he did. When he was my scout leader and even volunteering in the church, the example he set for me was to always give more to others than to your own son. Others were more deserving, or perhaps more in need than I.
That was the clear image I had of “father.” And when I was raised thinking of God as Father, I have to consider how much of that I expected God to be. When I was in school, I was the kid with glasses that liked to read. Needless to say, I was the butt of many jokes, the target for the popular kids. When I would come home emotionally or even physically beaten, my father’s response was “punch ’em in the nose.” Fight back. Stand up for yourself. Take it like a man. Of course the God I heard about growing up here in Bible belt was the same kind of Father. “The devil is after you, so you have to watch out! It’s up to you to fight him off.” “God has no mercy for those that give in to sin; you have to deserve God’s grace.” When I was left wrestling with faith in middle school and high school, I railed against God for leaving me on my own.
The entire time, God was there in loving presence, but because I expected him not to be, I never realised that Love was there. Because of the Father I thought God was, my image of the world was a place where God left us to be tried. Life was a testing ground to see who would be worthy of God’s love, not a place to experience Love in every moment. I was trapped in my spirituality because of what I thought God had to be and how I fit into that divine plan. Only after crisis hit and my internal world was eventually shattered did I finally discover that Love was there. Then I discovered that God wasn’t the “father” I was expecting him to be. It was a long and painful process in which I never thought to question this image I had of God. It had to be torn away for me to finally see through it.
The image of the exacting Father didn’t go away in one fell swoop. Later in college when I was going through discernment within the Epsicopal Church, I fell into old habits again. Forced to trust the priests leading the process, I was unable to see the terrible flaws in the system or recognize the abuse coming from two priests who were trying to act as psychologists and doing more harm than good. Instead, I felt God was testing me. Putting me through the ringer to see if I’d come out stronger in the end. Or maybe the emotional hell of that process was punishment I deserved. How often growing up did I think that whenever something went wrong in my life it was because I deserved it for some unseen “sin”? And there in discernment, being disected by two armchair psychiatrists without training, I was too ready to fall back on an unhealthy image of God instead of seeing the situation for what it really was.
Growing up, if something went wrong in my life, dad taught me it was probably my fault. How many denominations of Christianity teach this exact image of God? How is that at all a healthy relationhip of Love?
As I’ve grown older and matured and my dad as mellowed in his years, we’ve become friends. As I’ve learned to shed the harsh images I had of God, I’ve found a Loving creator that is with me in pain and that does not blame me for the hurt I feel but rather supports me through it instead. May I continue to discover the Loving Father who has always been there to comfort and support His child. Amen.
Welcome to one of our most introspective, crucial and formative practice. This is one that should be repeated throughout our lives and growth as contemplatives. It is one that offers insight and fulfillment no matter how many times we have gone through the exercise. It is a crucial practice as growing contemplatives, because the aim of the contemplative is to experience the Divine in every moment. If we have created a single image of God, or are not aware of what we project onto God because of our image of God, then we have limited our experience of the limitless. To break this, we offer the practice of the Faces of God:
“You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (Exodus 20:4-5)
No matter how we are raised, we will inevitably form in our minds a distinct vision of God, whether as an old man with a long white beard sitting upon a golden throne, or a humbled figure playing in the dirt, with grubby fingernails and a wide contented grin spread across his face. Whatever vision it is that we have, we must realize that it cannot be the only vision we see of Him, or Her for that matter.
To truly experience God, we must be comfortable finding Him in the most unlikely places. We must be willing to accept that God will be in places we do not expect. If we have a strict view of God, and cling fiercely to that view, and are afraid to see anything else, then we are no longer loving and worshiping God as God really is but instead we are worshipping an idol that we have made of Him. How many Christians, regardless of denomination, have a very singular view of the god that they hold above all others? Is the god you see only a male god? Is the god you see only a female god? Is the god you see a jealous god? Is your god an angry god that seeks only to punish those you deem as sinner around you? Is your god an apathetic god that lets you do as you will and will never take part in you life? Is your god a manipulative god that meddles in your life? Is your god a wealthy god that has no time for the poor and believes that we are successful only by our own efforts? Is your god an obedient god that should come when called and answer every prayer you put before him?
What image comes to mind when you think of God?
God, the Divine, the Spirit, is above us and beyond us yet apart of us and known to us. To help us break from idolatrous views we have created, let us wrestle for the moment with the paradox of God. Take time to meditate with each of these and observe what comes to mind.
“God is really every thing we see. God could never really be anything that we see.”
“God has all faces. God has no face.”
‘We are all God. None of us can be God.”
When God calls us to task and commands that we worship no idol before God, then in this regard he is calling us to be brave enough to worship God in ALL that He is, not just the idol that we think He should be for us. Ask yourself: If you are afraid to see God in any other light other than what you are comfortable with, where in your life have you missed seeing God?
As an exercise in expanding our view of God and seeing God in different lights, let us try on different faces for God, preferable face that would make us uncomfortable. Imagine, as it were, that you have arrived at the pearly gates (yes, cliche, I know), and that God is there waiting to let you in. What does God look like in that vision? Now, try to see God as someone else.
If you see God as an old white man beckoning you with a wrinkled hand to come inside, imagine seeing God standing there as a black woman, hand on hip and about to slap your ass as you walk by to hurry you up through the door. No? Why not?
Remember, cognitive dissonance is where God happens. Every time God or Jesus taught a lesson it was by making those around them uncomfortable. So here, do not run from the discomfort. Face it, and see where God is in it.
What vision of God rubs you the wrong way the most? A woman? A man? A white God? A black God? A Mexican God? A straight God or a gay God? Whatever it is, put that image in your head and just sit with it. And when you’re done, remember that no matter what image we have, whether it’s one we like or don’t like, it can never really accurately portray God. That image you see, whether one you dislike or like, cannot really be God.
But let us at least practice broadening our views and expectations of God so that we can eventually become comfortable in finding God in the people and places we would be most unlikely to expect it.
To really begin this process, we must first tackle the most common image of God that we have: God the Father.
What images come to mind when you think of “father.” What typical roles do we assign to fathers in our American culture? Are they the providers? The disciplinarians? The strong and quiet types? Are they distant or are they the ones in the midst of family life? We all have father figures we can point to in our childhoods. It may not even be your biological father. A male teacher, a priest, even an older brother can sometimes be the father figure for us when we are young. Some of the aspects of these father figures are positive, others negative. Once you have a father figure in mind, ask yourself what expectations you have of that role they played in your life as a father. Now, ask yourself what of those roles have you projected onto God as Father. Which are deserved? Which are not? At what points have you gotten frustrated with God because you were expecting Him to act as the “father” you thought he should be but wasn’t working to your projected expectations? For the sake of example, let’s take the father as disciplinarian. In the home, especially coming out of America’s 1950s, it was assumed the father laid down the law and doled out punishment. “Just wait till your father gets home!” was the common threat. Now, where have we expected God to be the disciplinarian? When have we expected punishment for our “sins?” Moreover, when have we expected God to punish others? If we know we are “right” and they are “wrong”, then obviously God will punish them. It is not a far step from there to say, because we know we are “right” and they are “wrong”, we will punish them because we are God’s chosen instrument of retribution. If we believe God is judgemental, then we become judgemental on behalf of God.
This is hardly a healthy form of spiritual growth. Jesus spent a great deal of his time teaching trying to get across the idea of not judging, after all. But when we call God the “Father,” are we aware of what we may be projecting onto God without even knowing?
For this and all other exercises of these lesson series, I want you to journal as your means of prayer. You may spend time in silence after, contemplating each different face we cover, but I want you to journal each time for two reasons. One, you can look back later and see connections or contrasts as we go through this series. Second, writing enables a more structured flow of thought. Remember, that when we journal, we do so as prayer. That is to say, no matter how you journal, whether as a letter or just flow of consciousness, you do so intentionally with God present in the conversation. For a synopsis of spiritual journalling, read here: http://www.ordersaintanthony.org/resources/Spiritual+Journal.jpg
As you journal for this lesson, first identify who was a father figure in your life as a child. Then discuss or list what characters or roles that father figure filled. Then, ask yourself where you have expected God to be like that. Sometimes God does fill the role of Father for us, other times He does not; at least not as we think a father should be. Where have assumptions of God the “Father” gotten in our way?
I leave you to your journals/blogs. Be with God and Christ in prayer, and see where He is asking you to grow. God’s Peace.
Silentio Coram Deo,
A quick comment while in the midst of Holy Week. Many of you who were following the Prop 8 malestrom that was going on in CA not too long ago may rememebr a certain pastor issuing this statement:
Well, recently the illustrious Rick Warren, whom you may remember from such public events as the presidential inauguration, was on Larry King and had this to say:
Well, whether or not he can actually come out and say, “I made a mistake and now that I’m in the public eye I should probably stop preaching hate in the name of Christ”, I’m glad he’s at least come around (though I would have difficulty listening to anything coming from a man that is more politician than pastor). I read recently and article about an elderly gentleman that was a former member of the KKK who was trying to reconcile himself before he died, and trying to appologize and make up for the hate crimes he committed in his younger years in a social climate that saw beating a black man as acceptible. Times change and so do people. So now at the end of his life, he’s ashamed of the crosses he’s burned, the hateful words he’s spewed to insight others to violence, and the people he’s physically beaten. I have no doubt that in 20 to 50 years, there will be people looking back who can finally see that the intolerance they were preaching, the violence they were endorsing if not committing (Peace be with Matthew Shepard and the thousands of other victims of homophobic violence) was wrong. Just as racists in the early 20th cent. used to the Bible to justify social salvery, prejudice and segregation see now how grossly wrong that was, there will come a time when those who said gays and lesbians were less than human and did not deserve equal rights because their interpretation of the Bible says so will look back and be ashamed of their behavior.
We are in Holy Week. Friday we will recall the vivid crucifiction of Christ. Let us then ask ourselves, how many times have beaten one loved by God? How many times have we condemned an innocent? How many times have we hammered the nails into the Christ whose only message was Love? Easter is coming. The celebration of renewal and resurection from a dark past. Let us pray that comes for us sooner rather than later. Amen.
Icon of St. Brigid of Kildare. (c.451-525) One of the three patron saints of Ireland. Tradition claims that St. Brigid was born the daughter of a chieftan in Eastern Irleand. She was given the name Brigid in honor of one of the most powerful goddesses of the celtic land.
Being inspired by the preaching of St. Patrick, she felt called to religous life from an early age, despite her father’s protests. After receiving the veil, she was credited with the foundation of several monastic houses, but the most famous and influential would be Kildare Abbey, founded around 470. This was a double monastery, open to men and women. Her version of monasticism was rooted in Celtic Christianity, long before Rome banished it from Irleland in the 12th century. As a Celtic abbess, she was higher in authority than the bishops in her area, as the bishops were actually under her rule as members of her community. Kildare Abbey eventually became one of the greatest centers of monastic and religious educaiton in all of Ireland.
In close relation to her namesake, an “inextinguishable” fire was kept burning at the Abbey since the time of Brigid. The fire was finally extinguished for good during the reign of Elizabeth I following her crackdown of all monastic houses under British rule.
In this icon, I have given her distinctly fair skin with a freckled face, in response to the numerous traditional orthodox icons of her that make her appear olive skinned like all other middle eastern saints. Her hair is red, again in acknowledgement of her actual heritage. The crosier she carries in her right hand is pointed inward in recognition of her episcopal authority within her monasteries. It is decorated with celtic knotwork, symbolising her distinctly Celtic Christian context. In her left hand is the eternal flame of St. Brigid serving as a reminder of her celtic pagan past, it’s transformation into Christianity and also to symbolize her quest for learning and education of others. Lastly, her robes are green for the Emerlad Isle of which she is a patron.
St. Brigid, pray for us. Amen.