A God for a Broken World
by Dr. Sheila Cassidy
Given on Friday 24th September 1993 in Newman House, St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin
I think I come from a long line of people who have been thrown out of different places. I have been thrown out of prison, thrown out of Chile, thrown out of the convent!
I had to come to Ireland to find a very special prayer
Today I call God’s might to aid me against every
I want to tell you a very short story about when the Lord didn’t protect me very well. Like many people who rush around the world to much and don’t take enough proper exercise I suffer with a bad back. Some years ago I went into work when my back was particularly bad. A lovely little nurse offered a wonderful massage but then she started to get a little intrusive with her questioning and I thought this is enough. I thanked her and went to get up. My back went in a big way and I couldn’t move. I won’t give you all the details of getting stuck getting off the comode with knickers at half mast! I was carried off to hospital and I asked my secretary to get my nightie and my novel and my bear. She brought the wrong one and I knew he had no mystical power to look after me at all! The social worker drove to my house and brought the right bear and i kept it in bed with me – nearly killing myself when it fell out of bed!
A very worthy priest in London said its a transitional object! In the days of Abraham they had two ideas of God – God of the Mountain (El Shadai) and they also had their domestic gods that they could talk to, So I realised then that my bear was a domestic God. Everybody should have a domestic God that they take with them when they move their tent to protect them from all ills.
The idea of a God for a Broken world is really the idea that the God that we believe in has got to be a God who encompassed the reality of our world. It is no earthly good having a sort of kitch statue or an idea of a ‘Santa Claus God’. That kind of God doesn’t work when your child is killed or your husband dies suddenly of a coronary. A lot of people throw up their religion very tragically when something terrible happens. As you well know lots and lots of young people throw up religion; with it they throw up God. It’s rather a good pun isn’t it? Because the image of God they have been given as a child in fact won’t take them through into adult life. It is my thesis that a lot of people cling onto or are given by the good people at Sunday School or wherever a concept of God which is not sufficiently adult to carry them through, a God that will not sustain them when their world crumbles. And when I thought about that I looked through the Scriptures and found that in fact there is no one fixed image of God. There are lots and lots of different ideas of God, different images. I think it is quite important to be able to understand some of these different images because if you do that you will be able to let your own image of God move gently as your own understanding of life and philosophy moves and also you will be able to better communicate with other people.
You know I work with dying people and it is very important to access people’s faith resources when they are dying and it’s no earthly good shoving your own idea of God onto people. You have to see what their own understanding is and try to help them use their own resources of faith. In particular I think it is important that we who are carers find out whether somebody has a concept of God which is actually serving them ill during their last few weeks. If someone has a concept of a horrible, angry, judging God they are going to be scared to die. And dying is scary enough anyway without thinking there is a sort of monster waiting there to judge you. I think it’s tragic that a lot of people have that idea of God and so what I am going to present to you now is a sort of kaleidoscope of images, all of which have a deeply scriptural basis. It’s illustrated because i’m an illustrator – I like drawing and I think the drawings, although they are not good, are somehow quite intuitive and I think they help understand. I hope they do – if you don’t like them you can always shut your eyes and just listen!
Just to tell you where I’ve got my Scripture from. I’m a cradle Roman Catholic so as you can imagine I was brought us on an almost scriptureless childhood and adolescence. When I came back to England I had this bee in my bonnet that I had to enter religious life. I actually spent a glorious eighteen months living on the periphery of a male, monastic community. Never have I been so happy – it was wonderful. There was a delightful monk, Father Boneventure, who taught me the Scriptures and taught me how to follow the different images in the Bible. If you’ve got an Annotated Jerusalem Bible you can move from passage to passage following the different themes. And that’s actually one of the most exciting ways to read the Bible is to sort of move from, say John 8 back to Proverbs and through Wisdom and back again following the theme of light for example. It’s a wonderful way to get to know the Scriptures. So if any of you are actually studying the Bible on your own I would strongly recommend the Annotated JB. So Bon’s lectures to me, well just classes really, and also a year and a half of going to choir with the endless wonderful diet of Psalms and Scripture that you get in a monastery and the sort of Colossal waves of Scripture that come in the different seasons. I had a mad passionate affair with Isaiah. The Isaiah that we get at Christmas – you know the Child is born for us – that sort of thing. And then the different bits of Isaiah, the song of the servant at Easter. So that’s where I got my Scripture from. And then another eighteen months in a women’s convent in England which I can tell you was not nearly so much fun.
This is just a line drawing of a broken city, its as it were a bombed city – it might be Sarajevo or it might be Belfast, or it might be for example Mexico city after the earthquake. But it’s a symbol of our world. We live in a world that is broken. We live in world which is crumbling, stressed in many different ways. If we are going to have a God that makes sense it’s got to be a God who will be there for us when our man walks out and goes off with someone younger and more beautiful. Its got to be a God who is there for us when our child goes under a bus. So what sort of a God will stand, will withstand all the different dramas of being human. It has to be a God who will withstand when our child gets sick the anger; the why me? The picture shows the anger of the nurse when she know this child is probably going to die despite the chemotherapy; the anguish of the parents as they see their child sick. What kind of a God is any use to us in this? Our God has got to be a god who will stand up to a world in which child abuse is a reality. I think one of the hardest things to actually accept is the fact of child abuse. The fact that grown men and women would molest a small child for physical pleasure.
Where the hell is God in this? And lastly, where is God in a world where people are tortured? Where is God in the reality of this world where women are stripped naked and tortured where Moslem women are raped, where children have their heads slashed off? How can there be a God that works in this kind of world?
So, if you are going to be able to recognise God you have to know first of all what God isn’t. Contrary to popular expectation God is not an old man with a long, white beard sitting up on a golden throne and actually asking all the angels and people to bow down and worship him. I do not think that God is like this. Where the hell we got this idea from I don’t quite know. Also, you will be very glad to hear that God is not a lady executive ruling the world with a rod of iron and a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. God is not a puppeteer manipulating people to dance. He is not an old man pulling the wings off flies like little boys. God does not torture people just for kicks. If you have read the book of Job you’ll find that that is where the idea of God as an old man with a long white beard, sitting on a throne comes from. There is this marvellous picture of the court of heaven where God is sitting receiving the guardian angels on their weekly report. They all come in and give their report of their people – I hate to think what my guardian angel must say. Satan’s down at the bottom – you know the story. Anyway the thing to remember about the book of Job that in a sense the whole court scene explodes because in the end the God that Job wrestles with is not than kind of a God that you can call to task. He is a very mysterious God. And the whole thing of the book of Job and the whole thing that come through from the Bible is that God is infinitely mysterious. This next picture which is very simple. At the end of the book of Job – you remember how Job says why the hell have you done this to me? How could you? It’s not fair. He hears this voice that comes from the tempest. And where were you when I laid the foundations of the Universe? Where were you when stars up there all nice and bright? In the end Job has to say I’m terribly sorry Sir, I have been talking out of turn. I do not understand you. The answer to the whole thing of God is that God is infinitely mysterious. And what we try to do is to bring God down to our size. We try to tame God to demysticate Him. We try to encapsulate him as a bear or a statue or whatever. But God ain’t like that. God is infinitely bigger than we are. There is a lovely quote from St. Augustine
“Walk the dark ways of faith and you will see a vision of God”.
in a sense that’s one of the best things to talk about the whole spiritual life. Because the ways of faith are very dark. Dark not because our road is not illuminated but dark in terms of the understanding. And also it brings up the whole thing of the paradox of our relationship with God because Walk the dark ways of faith and you will see God – we don’t see God at all. But the whole language of the mystics the language light and dark, of God here and not here, that is the only language that makes sense for God. because God is not something that you can pop into your rucksack much as we may need to take Him on our journeys. There was man called Philo, who was an Alexandrian Jew and he wrote a lot about the mystical life basing it upon the story of Moses, Moses going up the mountain and meeting God in the dark cloud. Philo had a great sense of the mysteriousness of God. And he said we search for God only to discover that He, She, It, They may not be found. And yet, somehow in that journeying there is joy to be found. This, in a sense, sums up the mystery of the spiritual life. We search and we search for God in the Scriptures, in theology, in prayer and we end up not finding Him. And yet we do find Him. We do and we don’t God is here, God is not here. God is, as I said, mysterious.
Remember the story of Moses, it comes, I think, in the book of Exodus and Moses has by now got rather pally with God and he whispers to Him I’d just like to have a quick look at you. Show me your face. And God says, sorry old chap nobody can see my face and live but because I love you so much I’ll tell you what I’ll hold you in my hand while glory passes by and you can glimpse my back parts (I always think it sounds rather vulgar – the back parts of God). So God protects Moses in His hand and Moses sees a glimpse of the glory of God. I have shown Moses as a little stick man up the mountain catching a glimpse of the dawn. And I think that is a sort of icon of the way we glimpse God and we can glimpse God in all sorts of ways. We see God in people. I think sometimes people are what I would call icon people. People so holy that God somehow shines out of them, often shabby people but because they are so transformed by love God shines right through them – people who become transparent to the glory of God. We see it in the sunrise. I see it in the light on the water on the sea and I see in the extraordinary courage of the people who are dying. incandescent before they die. A lady called Annie Dillard who won the Pulitzer Prize I think in 1978 for a book called Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a wonderful book, and she said “just a glimpse Moses, a cleft in the rock here, a mountain top there and the rest is denial and longing”. And that is what prayer is about. We always expect to get a sort of spin-off from prayer but prayer is about denial and longing. You have to stalk everything. Everything scatters and gathers. Everything comes and goes like fish under a bridge. And again this coming and going is about our relationship with God. You have to stalk the Spirit too. And stalking the Spirit is in a sense about pursuit of God except of course that God pursues us – the hound of heaven style. But if you want to meet God you have to stalk the Spirit and if you are stalking something you sit and you watch and you wait, very still. And that is what praying in the early morning is about. It’s about stalking the Spirit; and if you are too busy you never see Him. Another little bit of Dillard:
“The secret of seeing is the pearl of great price. If I thought he could teach me to find it and keep it forever I would stagger barefoot over a hundred deserts after any lunatic at all. And people have been staggering barefoot over deserts after lunatics almost since time began. If you think of the community at Kumran at the time of Jesus, the very ascetic community. And if you think of the early desert fathers nobody could be more barmy than to go into the deserts and live on locusts, wild honey, dried bread, even dried Irish bread, or whatever. And yet somehow the call of God is so strong for some people that they set off staggering across deserts and I think my own experience of entering religious life was like that. I did not enter a convent because I wanted to be a nun. I did not want to be a nun at any price and I think they didn’t want me! I wanted God and I thought that God lived in convents and monasteries and perhaps I had to go into one to stagger barefoot to discover that God is not only in convents and monasteries, God is not only in church; God is everywhere.
This is wonderful poem by R.S. Thomas; it comes in a book called A Mass for Hard Time, published by Bloodax
He is that great void we must enter, calling to one another on our way in the direction from which he blows. What matter if we should never arrive to breed or winter in the climate of our conception. Enough that we have been given wings and a needle in the mind to respond to his bleak north. There are times even at the pole where he too pauses in His withdrawal so that his lights there all night long.
Its very curious how you get this same language echoing backwards and forward across the centuries. If you think of Philo’s stuff, of this searching for God and never finding Him. If you think of the imagery of R.S. Thomas – the needle in the mind to respond to His bleak north. The needle in the mind is that within us which is God, which is of God, and is drawn, I suppose, like a magnet to that curious nothing, that curious everything, the bleak north of God. Very curious imagery. Not for everyone. Doesn’t work for everyone. It works powerfully for me. I love it. But as I say what works for one person is not understandable to another. Or it doesn’t give you that sort of thrill in the midriff, where you know what someone is talking about.
This is a bit of Gerald Manly Hopkins, a poet well known to this city. It comes from a poem Nature is Heraclian Fire
I am all at once what Christ is since he was what I am and this jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch matchwood, immortal diamond, is immortal diamond”. What Hopkins is doing is trying to struggle with this amazing pauline concept that we and God become one. I live not now I but Christ lives in me and he is absolutely mindboggled, spaced out, overwhelmed by this concept. Here he is poor, neurotic, gay, Jesuit. Poor matchwood man. And yet he is immortal diamond. Within him is the immortal diamond which is God. And that is this incredible mystery that God is within all of us. That God is within the nun, the priest, the housewife, the pervert, the IRA terrorist – everyone. And in a sense if we could only see or go on intellectually remembering the God in everyone perhaps we would hate each other less.
So I want you to think for a moment of the diamond. In England we have these curious New Age shops where you have wonderful crystals and things and sometimes in jewelers shops you have these lovely crystals which are mounted on a black velvet pedestal and turn and the light moves. And if you think of a crystal, think of a diamond with its many, many different facets, different faces and think, in a sense, of this an image of God. God with a thousand faces. Many, many different facets because His creatures are all different and they need, in a sense, different images of God to cope with. Because the God of the bleak north is not always a God that is acceptable. And again the God of gentle Jesus is not acceptable to everyone else. The other thing about the diamond imagery is that if you focus on one image in a sense it become idolatry because God is all of these things. You have to let the crystal turn and realise that God had many faces.
So, back to our bombed city.