Fr Kevin Hegarty
Since the start of Lent I have been re-reading Fr Gerard W Hughes’s wonderful book ‘The God of Surprises’, first published in 1985.
In the book Hughes creates an identikit picture of God, called ‘Good Old Uncle George’ that shows how the image of the deity has often been distorted.
“God was a family relative, much admired by Mum and Dad, who described him as very loving, a great friend of the family, very powerful and interested in all of us. Eventually we are taken to visit ‘good old uncle George’. He lives in a formidable mansion, is bearded, gruff and threatening. We cannot share our parents’ admiration for him at the end of the visit. Uncle George turns to address us. ‘Now listen, dear’, he begins, looking very severe, ‘I want to see you here once a week, and if you fail to come, let me just show you what will happen to you’.
“He then leads us down to the mansions basement. It is dark, becomes hotter and hotter as we descend, and we begin to hear unhealthy screams. In the basement there are steel doors. Uncle George opens one. ‘Now look in there, dear’, he says. We see a nightmare vision, an array of blazing furnaces, with little demons in attendance, who hurl into the blaze those men, women and children who fail to visit Uncle George or to act in a way he approved. ‘And if you don’t visit me, dear that is where you will rest certainly go’, says uncle George. He then takes us upstairs again to meet Mum and Dad.
“As we got home, tightly clutching Dad with one hand and Mum with the other, Mum leans over us and says, ‘And now don’t you love Uncle George with all your heart and soul, mind and strength?’, and we say ‘Yes I do’, because to say anything else would be to join the queue at the furnace at a tender age. Deep conflict has set in and we keep telling Uncle George how much we love him, and how good he is and that we want to do only what pleases him. We observe what we are told are his wishes and dare not admit, even to ourselves, that we loath him.”
In his fine novel set in West Africa, ‘The Heart of the Matter’, Graham Greene dramatises how an image of a fearful and judgmental God can darken a life. The plot revolves around how Major Scobie, a just and honourable Catholic, makes a series of compromises that threaten to destroy his marriage and his career as commissioner of the police.
Out of a mixture of of pity and love, he has an affair with a young widow, borrows money on the black market and is indirectly responsible for the death of faithful servant. Overcome with remorse and unable to believe in the reality of God’s forgiveness, he takes his life. Before he dies, he cries out to God in the following words, each of them charged by despair. “No I don’t trust you; if you made me, you made this feeling of responsibility that I have carried about like a sack of bricks.”
When we see God as a kind of tyrant, we are led to expect harsh judgment. Human judgment can be cruel and arbitrary. It can conjure frightening images; black police cars screaming through dark streets, stern and probing voices echoing across courtrooms, sometimes shots ringing out in a prison yard as dawn breaks.
The God of fear is real for many. He infiltrates their minds, leading them to believe in the words of a Paul Durcan poem, that their sins and failures are as ineradicable as arthritis.
A view of God as a tyrant is a gross distortion of the portrait in the New Testament. As Christians, we believe that God has revealed the fulness of his being in Jesus Christ. To read and reflect on the Gospel stories is to begin to know the quality of his mercy, the depth of his forgiveness and the immensity of his love. Lent is a suitable time for such reflection.