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Take care with words when imaging the Holy


My earliest soul memories were just steeped in Christianity,” explains Jenny, telling me how her grandfather, a Methodist minister, used to play Samuel and Eli with her. Metaphors came easily, she adds, because “I was in the story. I was walking around the house with a towel on my head. I’d come running in and tell my grandmother, ‘I think I saw Him in the garden,’ and she’d say, ‘I think you probably did too. Let’s go see.’ And of course, if you are in the story, then it is not a fixed thing, it’s a living thing, and there is new content in there. We go to the garden and wonder what He is going to say.”

“It wasn’t fundamentalist, but sort of literalist and concrete,” Jenny reflects. “I would recite the Possum’s Creed. And I always liked the prayer of humble access, because it was about gathering the crumbs.” I’m smiling, completely charmed by the whimsy and the fervor.

And then she tells me, quite abruptly, that her father came home from war and began brutally abusing her. “That’s had a significant effect on my faith development,” she says formally, “because it means I have special problems in faith other people don’t have, and I also have gifts.”

“One of the problems is, in church I do a lot of translating, because imaging God is difficult for me. ‘Our Father who art in Heaven.’ Even the parables: Would a father asked for bread give a stone? My answer is yes! But if God is like that, who is God? I can’t make the feminine shift to God as a mother, either. So I do things like, God is a honeysuckle vine, God is a castle, God is a rock, God is a ship. And they change all the time.”

The next Sunday, I hear the language of the liturgy through Jenny’s ears and resent it. I never wanted to hear pain in these words or feel cynical about them. I wanted them as rosy and comforting as my own loved childhood. And that is now an impossible luxury.

With my imagination unhinging like Pandora’s box, I hear a hundred different subtexts. How does an unwed mother feel lauding the Virgin of Virgins? A Vietnam vet, hearing words of might and glory and the triumph of righteousness? A Nicaraguan refugee, comparing the absolute power of almighty kings and military despots?

We resist such comparisons instinctively, maintaining that the liturgy floats above everyday life and literal analogies. Our petty kings and abusive fathers bear no relation to God. Yet at the same time, we scold each other whenever Mass is not “relevant to our daily lives”; whenever it exists in its Sunday slot, disconnected from the rest of our experience.

God is not physical. But we try to make God physical with language, following a good English teacher’s advice by emphasizing concrete particularities, working from what is familiar, making vivid word pictures that appeal to our senses. These painfully finite expressions that result remind me of a passage in Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy). “A screaming shattered the voices” that were trying to utter God in unison, the poet writes, “and what they have stammered ever since/are fragments/of your ancient name.”

I once went through an entire Mass mentally substituting Love for God at every occurrence. I was reassured to find it worked beautifully, replacing old associations but preserving deeper meanings. My substitution game had started years earlier, when my grandmother complained that the women always went to church and their husbands came in their Buicks to pick them up, but wouldn’t go in. Suddenly it dawned on me -- if men are taught to be competitive with each other, I reasoned, and if God’s a guy, of course they don’t want to kneel down and do His bidding. It’s easier for us, it’s what we’re supposed to do.

And so, long before sexist language became an issue, I started playing around with pronouns, wondering if things would hit differently said a different way.

They do.

Our Mother, who art within us, hallowed be thy presence. Thy loving enfold us, thy peace restore us, in spirit and earth forever. Give us this day the milk of your kindness; hear our smallest struggles, and ease them with your gentleness, that we may walk arm in arm, fearless in your love.

Conservatives hate such fiddlings. So, for that matter, do many liberals: Susie Bright, a writer and performance artist famous for her freewheeling commentaries on sex, writes in The Sexual State of the Union, “I’ll never get used to cute progressives referring to God as ‘she’ or ‘it,’ because I know from every aspect of Catholic training I received that God is an angry, vengeful M-A-N.” (She also calls Christianity “an ancient form of sex education” that got everything wrong, characterizing the Christian God as “Butterfly McQueen, running down the street screaming, ‘I don’t know nothing ’bout birthing no babies!’ ”)

Normally, I’d avoid euphemisms too; I’m not big on rewriting traditional beauty every six months to suit the current agenda and make purely cosmetic corrections. But surely there are words that cause no one pain? I think, for example, of New Zealand’s version of the Anglican prayer book, which refers to an “Eternal Spirit, living God/in whom we live and move and have our being.” There, the analogies spring from the Maori love of nature: “living flame, burn into us/cleansing wind, blow through us/fountain of water, well up within us/that we may love and praise in deed and in truth.”

Naively, I can see nothing objectionable. But when I read that passage to a more fundamentalist friend, he winced. He can’t stand “all that Sophia stuff,” and he certainly can’t tolerate a rephrasing of the Trinity as Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Let alone “Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,/Source of all that is and that shall be,/Father and Mother of us all.” Shouldn’t be necessary, he harrumphs. Perfectly good as it is, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that’s who they are in the tradition, there’s nothing wrong with maleness.

Unless, of course, your human father beat and raped you and your mother did nothing to stop him.

My friend would probably argue that the daughter should learn to make distinctions, that it would be healthy to think of fatherhood and the Father in a different way. He’s right. But memories don’t do our bidding so readily.

Another woman once told me how much trouble she has with the commandment about honoring thy father and mother; such honoring had kept her in pain most of her life. On retreat, a priest compared the parental bond to our relationship with God, presenting the former as a step toward the latter. She left the room.

Ah, but these are dysfunctional examples, you’re thinking: Why ruin a common language of great truth and beauty with a few sour stories told at random?

Because those stories belong to all of us. And if the language we use to reach toward God causes some of us to contort our minds, design elaborate labyrinths just to tolerate the imagery, we have perhaps made the abstract a little too concrete. Better to follow the Muslim injunction and make no representation of Allah whatsoever.

“The biggest spiritual problem is to remember that God is just crazy about me,” Jenny says. She’s used her instincts and her imagination and anything else that would work to get past the literal associations. “God is not a scholarly thing to me,” she explains. “This is not about homework. It’s too important, and you can’t compartmentalize it. This is about life and death, this is about breath and being.”

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was made flesh.

When we re-create that mystery, we should choose our words carefully.

Jeannette Batz is a senior editor at The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, April 3, 1998