How Do You Imagine God?

When you pray, who are you praying to?

For pagans, that can get sticky—don’t want to make Odin jealous by sacrificing too many goats to Heimdallr!—but for Catholics, the answer seems pretty simple: We pray to Mary or another saint to intercede for us, or we pray to God. There is one God, and he always hears our prayers.

But what is God like? Now is when I wish I could just throw out pictures I grabbed from around the internet, because I’d love to illustrate this point. When you say your evening prayers, it’s just you and God in the room. But is it you and the Good Shepherd? You and the almighty judge? You and the suffering lamb? You and Yeshua the ironic rabbi? You and the Ancient of Days? Is there a tongue of flame resting on your head, or are you leaning on the everlasting arm? Are you kneeling abashed before the throne, or being nourished like a helpless infant?

Of course these answers are all right. God is (whoa) all of these. The reason I bring it up is because someone made an interesting comment on my recent post about the fear of hell. My main point was that fear of hell is not an effective motivator for good behavior. (It may motivate me to go to confession, but it rarely keeps me from sinning!) To illustrate the point of what does motivate good behavior, I portrayed my relationship with Christ as that of an ungrateful protégé sharing a meal with a patient and generous benefactor.

One reader responded that he was fairly tired of the “Jesus as mentor” mentality—that modern Catholics have lost the sense of urgency and horror of sin that the martyrs felt. He said, “It might make us feel good to think about God as nice and warm and madly in love with us, but in the absence of the counterweight of an older teaching that an infinitely just God is infinitely offended even with venial sin Christianity makes no sense.”

Now, I agree with this. It’s a little silly to attack an 800-word blog post for not carrying the entire freight of Christian thought within itself, but the commenter’s idea is spot on: We need a counterweight. It’s not spiritually healthy to think of God only and always as a loving father, because that can too easily bleed into God as spineless pushover who requires nothing more than a generally friendly attitude and the occasional tip in the collection basket. On the other hand, it’s just as dangerous to focus entirely on God as judge, because that rapidly transforms our Savior into some sort of inexorable divine Terminator, who growled, “I’ll be back,” before a cloud took him from their sight.

Someone once did a Google search for “Jesus is your pal” and ended up on my personal blog, so maybe I do focus too much on the warm and the merciful! On the other hand, it wasn’t too many years ago that I was arguing heatedly with a fellow student about whether God wants us to be happy. At that time, I knew with all my heart that the LAST thing that God wanted was for there to be anything good or beautiful in my life. All that mattered was what was true, and the main truth I could grasp was that every breath I took, every firing of every neuron in my brain, and every prayer to God was an occasion of deep spiritual and emotional pain.

I got better! But today, most often, I pray to a God who loves and welcomes me. That is where I start—and this approach often leads to the contrition or awe, just as it would if I went first to God as Judge. Just as there are many people who would do well to focus more on sin and justice, there are those who cannot hear enough about tenderness and love.

As for the physical imagery of God, I have found that icons are invaluable, because they carry in them—well, everything. Mercy, sorrow, sternness, patience, simplicity and immensity, the personal and the eternal. Those eyes tell you what you need to know.

How about you? When you pray, which face of God is before you? Has it changed over the years? Or do you pray without having any clear picture of who is listening?

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.