Fr Kevin Hegarty
A young mother told me recently that when her child acts up in church she warns him that the priest will come down from the altar to administer punishment. She added that the warning works well. Is it any wonder that many people associate religion with fear?
I remember in national school we had a biblical story book which depicted God as a forbidding, grey-bearded old man gazing gloomily over land and sea. Believers in modern ‘apparitions’ and ‘wonders’, from Achill to Medugorje, often claim to receive messages that God is very angry with our world and that it is only the gentle persuasion of the Blessed Virgin Mary which is stopping him (so far) wreaking vengeance on us.
Gerard Hughes SJ in his book ‘God of Surprises’, tells a fable which evokes the contradiction that often distorts our image of God: “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’ professed admiration for this jewel in the family. 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 mansion’s basement. It is dark, becomes hotter and hotter as we descend, and we begin to hear unearthly 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 failed 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 most certainly go’, say Uncle George. He then takes us upstairs again to meet Mum and Dad. As we go 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, soul, mind and strength?’ And we, loathing the monster, say, ‘Yes I do,’ because to say anything else would be to join the queue at the furnace.”
Graham Greene, in his novel, ‘The Heart of the Matter’, set in West Africa, dramatises how an image of a fearful and judgemental 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 ruin his marriage and career. Out of a mixture 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 his faithful servant.Overcome with remorse and unable to behave 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’ve carried about like a sack of bricks.”
If we grow up with an image of God as judgemental we may expect him to judge as human beings do. Human judgement is often cruel, arbitrary and can cause humiliation. It conjures, in our mind, frightening images; black police cars screaming through darkened streets, stern and probing voices echoing across courtrooms, people found guilty leaving the dock with anoraks concealing their faces, sometimes shots ringing out in a prison yard as dawn breaks.
The God of fear and retributions is alive for many people. He stalks through 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 harsh, unyielding and unforgiving task master is a gross distortion of the overall biblical portrait. Take that warm and comforting image offered by the prophet, Isiaih:
“He is like a shepherd, feeding his flock,
gathering lambs in his arms
holding them against his breast
and leading to their rest the mother ewes.”
We have not seen God but we believe that he has revealed the fullness of his being in Jesus Christ. To appreciate the gospel stories is to begin to know the quality of His mercy, the depth of His forgiveness and the immensity of His love.
Jesus showed himself to be a gentle Shepherd, always concerned for the lost, the broken-hearted and the wayward. He saved the women caught in adultery from the self-righteous anger of those who condemned her. He told the thief beside whom he was crucified that he would be with him that day in paradise. His parable of the ‘Prodigal Son’ sums up the nature of God’s mercy: “While he was still a long way off his father saw him and was moved to pity.” In the height of his despair, Scobie watched people pray and felt that they ‘were still inhabitants of the country he had left’. We may feel cut off at times, in similar ways but the parable shows God’s mercy is unconditional and unlimited. As we prepare for services of reconciliation this Advent, in our churches, that is a hopeful thought.