Tag Archives: image of God


During the 20 years I was pastor of a north Jersey church, one of our excellent catechists and her husband, both educated, intelligent Catholics, welcomed into their beautiful home about a dozen of our teenagers twice a month for two years. The purpose of these meetings was to teach the children and discuss openly with them matters of faith as they were making their way toward the sacrament of Confirmation.

Naturally, I would inquire regularly how things were going. After the expected reports on both the funny and the insightful things the kids were saying and doing, their mentors more than once told me of their concern that many of their students did not feel that they are loved by God. Their image of God, I was informed, was of a distant, judgmental, overseer who has no personal relationship with them, no intimate involvement in their lives, but who is constantly scrutinizing their behavior from afar and, as they put it, “taking notes” to hold against them.

Where did those young people ever get such notions? Where does anyone get them? I believe the process starts when we who grew up in religious homes were told by well-meaning parents that God won’t love us – in fact, that God will punish us – if we did not behave as we were told to. The lesson got reinforced a little later when we learned that we can commit a sin called mortal, like murder or missing Mass on Sunday (seems ridiculous now, doesn’t it, to place those two side by side?), a sin for which we would be punished in everlasting fire!

And then we find out that certain Catholics are barred from the sacraments of the church because they married again after a failed marriage ended in divorce.

And so on & on & on…

Add to all of that the possibility of a childhood under stern, unaffirming parents, and it is almost inevitable that one’s image of God will be forever malformed accordingly.

But the church was established to spread throughout the world a revelation called the Gospel, the Good News. The Good News it proclaims is both a person and a primary fact of human life. The person, of course, is Jesus, and the fact of life revealed in and through him is that God is pure, unconditional love! While we may be obsessed by or worried about our human weaknesses, God sees in us what God has made – and loves us.

You remember Sister Helen Prejean, author of the book Dead Man Walking. (Susan Sarandon played her in the movie by the same name.) Sister Helen’s ministry was to prisoners on death row and to the families of their victims. I met her once and asked her advice as I was about to fly to Georgia to meet with a man on death row with whom I had been corresponding for years. Among the gems of wisdom she gave me was this: “Tell him over & over that people are far more and better than the worst thing they’ve ever done; and that’s what God sees.”

Yes, we are far more and better than the worst thing we’ve ever done, and that’s what God sees.

We are loved just as we are – and just because we are! That unconditional love has the power to inspire us to achieve as best we can our human potential and to find ever-increasing peace and joy in the process of daily conversion.

How are we supposed to commune with the Creator of this unfathomably immense universe? What language do we use? What concepts do we think with? Jesus solves the conundrum by telling us emphatically that “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” We converse with the mystery we call God through the one who has penetrated the mystery as no one ever has – and, for the time being, that is more than sufficient.

The Easter we continue to celebrate assures us that the lines are open – and never closed.



It’s too bad that the traditional formula that expresses the Trinity does not include femininity. I guess it was a male, patriarchal society that thought it was enough to imagine God as Father, Son, and Spirit. Who knows what future generations will do to modify that basic statement of faith and make it really inclusive?

In the meantime, we can be grateful for such beautiful images as the one from St. Paul we just heard and others similar to it from Jesus — like the one on which he describes himself as a mother hen eagerly enfolding her young under her wings. “Enfolding” is itself a characteristically feminine concept, expressed most fundamentally by the womb itself. I hope that there are fewer people today who can picture God only as an old man with a long-white beard, because breasts and arms are also useful and truthful elements in the ultimately impossible task of imaging the invisible God.

A Franciscan priest friend of mine, a retreat giver, shared with me an old story that continues to amuse and to teach. He said that a pastor was visiting a second grade religion class and was looking over the children’s shoulders to see and to praise their drawings. He asked one little girl, “Who is that you’ve drawn, dear?. The little one answered, “That’s a picture of God.” The priest said softly and kindly, “It’s a lovely picture, but of course you realize that no one really knows what God looks like.” The child answered, “Well, they will now.”

Maybe she was right — but for the wrong reasons. The truth is that we all reveal God to one another. Everything good and true and beautiful seen in any person has to be a reflection of God. Where else, or whom else, could it have ultimately come from?

That’s the kind of religion that we need more of — sensing and responding to the signs of God’s presence we are daily encountering, so often not noticing, not realizing. No one has the right to limit the infinite God to a single definition, when all the religions and cultures of the world cannot begin to contain God, to put God in a box, as we are fond of saying. The very question, “Is God male or female?” should tell us how off the mark our thinking can be, how narrow our perspective.

We are the scripture that many persons are reading! Pope St. John Paul said that people pay more attention to personal witness than they do to formal teaching. I think that’s true. In their own perverse way, some TV idols are are far more influential in the lives of many people than they are to the teachings of the church. Male or female, young or old, we are creatures of God. Like a speck of diamond dust, we show in our visible being the marks of our invisible creator.


I think it’s true to say that the fasting we do during Lent, the next one only a few days away, is really more like dieting than it is the death-defying penance taken on by those stalwart souls in times past and even today. Cutting down on food and drink at any time is certainly commendable for people like us overfed Americans.

Denying ourselves various pleasures as penance for our sins is a good thing; however, originally, fasting, in our Christian tradition and in other religions as well, had a much deeper purpose, and that was, by cutting off all nutrition, to enter into direct dependence on the power of God to sustain life. It was a way of experiencing more immediately the vital connection between God and oneself. (This explains, by the way, the apparent absurdity of the Gospel line that informs us that Jesus was hungry after his 40-day fast in the desert. We tend to think or say, Well, who wouldn’t be famished after more than a month without food? But if we think of him as the mystic that he was, who enjoyed an uncommonly profound intimacy with God, we can accept the possibility that he was so intensely absorbed in communion with the Creative Spirit that his bodily needs were in a way suspended and adequately satisfied by the direct, unmediated union with God.)

Such encounters with God are still experienced by some few persons of different religions, but they have to be undertaken only as prompted and sustained by the Holy Spirit, who alone can lead one into such a desert place. Wise spiritual direction is absolutely essential in such cases.

Yet, we all need to become more aware of our essential dependence on God. It’s one thing to know that intellectually: to be aware that we have not created ourselves. But it is something entirely different to feel that relationship and to allow it to influence the actions and major decisions of our life. That is what Jesus is talking about in today’s familiar gospel account. He says that we must be so convinced of this lifeline between God and ourselves that we will not worry, beyond reasonable concern, about our jobs, our food, our clothing, our tomorrows. Our life, he says, is to be marked by careful attention to our responsibilities and duties on the one hand, and on the other hand a child’s carefree assumption that its parents will provide all that is necessary — and much, much more.

Our first priority, Jesus teaches us, must be the advancement of God’s kingdom here on earth; that is to say, contributing toward building a condition of love and peace and justice and mercy for all. That is where our energies must be primarily placed, and then all else will follow as needed. The Father loves and cares and gives without fail, ever!

As a neat contrast, and to add to our image of God, today’s brief passage from Isaiah describes God’s love as womanly, maternal, exceeding that of even the tenderest mother. It reassures us that our confidence is well placed and will never be shamed by denial. God does not merely tolerate us, he implies: we do not have to be clever and aggressive to get an open hearing and a favorable judgment. God has loved us into existence and God’s love continues to be our life!

Lent is soon upon us. It can be a time of foolish, wasted effort if our intent is to buy God’s favor with the coin of our prayers and penances. But it can be instead a time in which we become more alive, more free and creative, by saying yes to this God who enfolds us in unconditional, everlasting love!


Getting accustomed to looking beneath and beyond the words of bible readings to find their real meaning, what would you say is the message of the three we just heard – the first from the Hebrew bible, the next from a letter of St. Paul, and the third from the gospel, this particular excerpt from St. Luke’s version?  The word urgency came to my mind from all three: that we resolve now to remain conscious of the presence of the Spirit of God in whatever we are doing, saying or thinking.  That’s a fairly good definition of a spiritual person: not a holier-than-thou fanatic who goes around in a daze of personal devotion that makes everyone uncomfortable, but a person who views life and all its parts through the lens of the Spirit within and around him or her.

I recall in this connection that it was Pope Celestine the First who, in one of the earliest centuries of the church heard that some priests were dressing in distinctive ways to distinguish them from ordinary people.  He wrote to them and said he found this disturbing because priests should be distinguished not by what they wear but by their conversation and their love.

But, we all ask, where is God when a bloody war is raging, as is still happening today all over the globe?  Where is God in the drug-abuse scene?  Where is God when conflict tears a family apart?  Where is God on Death Row?  Where is God in AIDS or cancer?  Countless millions of persons have found reason to say, “I turned to you, Lord, but you did not answer me.”

It’s our concept, our image of God that is the problem.  God is not a person like us, however bigger and better.  God is pure spirit; God is force; God is energy, God is love.  When we deliberately align ourselves with that benign force, with that energy, that love, our own human powers are enhanced, they are magnified.

How God “answers” and when God answers are not for us to say or even to know.  Our part in the pact is to maintain unyielding faith in the goodness and the love of God.

A high school classmate of mine, at the funeral of his young daughter many years ago, said to the overflowing crowd of mourners assembled in the church that day, “My wife and children and I thank you for being here today to celebrate the life and mourn the death of our beautiful daughter.  It must be that God loves her more than we do, because God gave her to us in the first place for these too-short 19 years.  At this time of sorrow, God asks of us only faith and love.  In this tragedy, too, God is only good.”

Who would dare to limit the power of God especially in the troubles of our life?

There may be no time or circumstance in our ordinary lives when we more need that awareness of Jesus’ presence than when things are not going well for us or for those we love.  He says to us, “Come to me, you who are burdened, and I will refresh you.”  The “refreshment,” by that or any other name, may be just the vision of light at the end of the tunnel, and restored confidence because Jesus is leading the way — Jesus, who called himself “the way.”

Faith can falter even in the most convinced and loyal believer.  There’s no shame in that.  We are, after all, only human and very limited.  We live in a kind of darkness, a shadow in which not everything is perfectly clear.  To trust in a Jesus we have never seen is no small challenge at times.  But, if we make the commitment, no matter how feeble it may occasionally be, our faith in him will grow by experience.  We will increasingly sense his real presence in and with us and we will be only the stronger and the more at peace for it.