Posted by: mmreflections | February 10, 2008

Perceptions of God: February, 2008

Describing experiences that caused me to reconsider my perceptions or my understanding of God has proven to be more difficult than I anticipated.  How can one talk about that which is incomprehensible?  Looking back over my spiritual journey, I recall significant moments when old perceptions of God were challenged.  My earliest understanding of God was of someone watching me all the time, ready to punish the smallest infraction of the rules.

My earliest perceptions can best be described by the little boy who disliked stewed prunes which his mother frequently forced him to eat.  Each time he refused to eat them his mother would remind him that God would be angry with him if he didn’t eat his prunes.  One evening she served prunes for dessert and the little boy decided he was not going to eat those prunes no matter what his mother said or did.  He sat at the table, stubbornly refusing to eat the prunes.  “God will be angry with you,” she announced.  Still, he refused.  She finally told him to leave the table and go to his room.  Without hesitation the little boy left the table and went to his room.  Not very long afterwards, a severe thunderstorm with bright lightning flashes rolled into the area.  The little boy stood by the window observing the awesome display of power.  His mother who had become concerned her little boy might be frightened by the storm went to his room to check on him.  When she asked if he was alright, he turned to her and said, “God is sure making a big fuss over a little dish of prunes!”

When I was a child, I acted like a child, thought like a child and believed like a child.  As my life journey continued I found myself no longer thinking, acting or believing as a child.  When I started going to school an incident occurred which had a profound influence on my relationship with God.  My father had died at the age of 39, shortly after my second birthday, leaving me to grow up with little recollection of him.  One day at school I was confronted by some of my friends who insensitively questioned my about my not having a dad.  They told me about how nice it was to have a daddy who did all kinds of things with them and asked me many questions which I could not answer.  I could only respond with the answers I received when I, myself, had questioned my mom about my dad.  She would usually tell me God had taken him to heaven. I came home from school that day in tears.  There was no one at home.  I went into the living room where there was an icon representing God the Father on the wall.  I was filled with anger at this God who took my father away, leaving me without a daddy like the other children had.  With no one at home I felt free enough to scream at God who was so cruel.  All the anger and grief carried over from the early years of my life poured out until I was exhausted.  Then I cried!  Strangely enough, I was not struck by lightning nor punished.  Rather, I experienced a deep peace and a sense of being comforted.  From that point on I found myself filled with great peace whenever thoughts of my dad arose.  Nothing had changed in my life; all the same difficulties remained.  However, there seemed to be a loving presence in my life which I had not known before.  Until this time I had been taught to “say” my prayers every morning and every night.  I now began to “pray” in my own words, talking to this abiding invisible presence, relating all that was on my heart.  God, as I understood God at that time, was no longer someone to be feared.  I now felt loved and cared for.  I discovered the “Lord is close to the brokenhearted, saves those whose spirit is crushed.”  (Psalm 35:19)  God became for me the One who is “Father of the fatherless, defender of widows.”  (Psalm 68:6)

Over the years God, who is nameless yet having a thousand names, became the Holy One who was always with me.  “God is with us,” as we sing on the Eve of the Nativity of Christ.  When afraid, God had become my “Abba” – Father; when hurt, Mother – Comforter; when I had fallen or sinned, Divine Mercy; when I was lonely, Divine Lover; when I needed guidance or direction, Divine Wisdom; God had become all things for me.  I learned that God would be available at all time and in all situations for me.

Perhaps the greatest revelation of God’s love came to me on September 1, 1971 as I was beginning a new parish assignment.  Having returned from Italy after three years of graduate school, I was weary and struggling with doubts about my priestly vocation.  Under consideration was the idea of leaving active priestly ministry and returning to my original profession of teaching school.  This was an outgrowth of a perceived sense of failure as a priest, arising from not seeing much fruit from my priestly service, not being able to accept all that was occurring in the Church at the time, and a deep sense of God’s absence in my life.  For some this might be called, “the dark night of the soul.”  I spoke to my bishop about these issues and told him I felt the need to leave the active priesthood.  He asked me to take on a new assignment and reconsider my decision for a few months.  Upon my arrival there were many daunting challenges awaiting me.  Not feeling very confident about how I would meet these challenges, I went into the church and knelt before the icon of Christ, pouring out my heart once again as I did when a child.  I expressed my belief in a God, along with my doubts and questions.  For some reason, unknown to me at the time, I surrendered to this incomprehensible God.  I prayed, “God, if you want me to continue as a priest in your service you must take over my life.  I cannot do it alone.  If you want me to leave the priesthood, please give me the courage to leave before I hurt any of your people.”  Alone in the church, I had much the same experience I had as a child, alone at home.  I cried!  When my grief was spent, I sat in silence, experiencing once again a peace, comfort and a deep awareness of a loving presence.  I realized I was trying to do everything on my own prior to this moment.  The next eleven and a half years were among the happiest of my priestly life which was now under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  The remaining years of my active priestly life were filled with many more opportunities to deepen my surrender to the Holy One who has guided my steps, lifting me up when I had fallen, encouraging me when challenged, giving me hope in the midst of doubts and filing we with trust in darker moments of life.

My perceptions of God have changed over the years but what remains with me is that the Holy One can be trusted to be with me at all times and in all situations.  There was a plan for my life unfolding with each new day and with each decision I needed to make.  God was no longer a Santa Claus who gave me everything I requested. Nor was God offering a paradise here on earth.  There would be many more lessons to learn, hurdles to over come, along with more doubts, suffering and pain.  In the midst of it all, my part was to manifest God’s beauty, love, kindness, goodness, compassion, joy, serenity and peace in whatever way I was able.  There would be many more mistakes and failures. I would need to get up, acknowledge my failures and begin all over again and again.

What is our perception of God at this moment?  I believe we will become the kind of persons we perceive God to be.  If we believe God to be demanding, harsh and judgmental, that is the kind of people we will become.  If we perceive God to be loving, kind, forgiving, and compassionate, we will become the same.

I give you a new commandment:  love one another.  As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.  This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

(John 13:34-35)

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