Above the storm, the smallest prayer. Andrew Bebb
I remember as a small child, diligently poring over the many questions and answers in the old penny catechism, being mystified by the questions about God. With the approval of the Holy Child nuns responsible for my induction into the nuances of Catholic belief, I was able to recite that ‘God is a Supreme Spirit who alone exists of Himself and is infinite in all His perfections’ and moreover that ‘God is everywhere’. And all that in the first three pages! . The notion that puzzled me most was this idea that God is everywhere. I could cope with the notion that my Guardian Angel was always around, keeping what I hoped was a benevolent eye on me. He (or she) I understood, was always on my side even if they might blush at my unseemly actions on occasion. But the idea of God being everywhere was a bit difficult. The idea of being under constant surveillance was not a very appealing one! There was ‘no hiding place’ it seemed. Whatever the level of my understanding at the time, at least the formulas stuck around in my mind and continued to echo when I enrolled as a student of theology reading the great Summa of St.Thomas Aquinas. Even there it wasn’t easy. Thomas told us that apart from the revelation made by God through the Incarnation of His Word, the only intellectual thing we can say about God is to state what he isn’t! He calls it the ‘via negativa’, the negative way. God is not finite, He is not constrained by the limitations of space or time, and He is not created, and so on. In fact Paul Tillich, the 20th. Century Lutheran theologian went so far as to claim that: ‘it is as atheistic to say that God exists as to say that He doesn’t exist’ on the grounds that to say that God exists is to make God into an object existing alongside other objects. All very difficult!
Tillich however was a Protestant and had none of the Catholic and Orthodox understanding of the ‘real sacramental presence of God’s self revelation in the created world around us’. It is in that real presence that we encounter God’s proximity and inwardness. The Orthodox Churches use the term ‘Mysterion’ or ‘Ikon’ for that which we in the West describe as ‘Sacrament’ It is not simply a question of learning about God. It is in the form of an encounter with Him: whether in the created world around us, in other people or in the self-revelations He makes in the Word incarnated in the scriptures and finally and completely in His Son, Jesus in his Eucharistic presence.
If only the catechism had started the other way round. Can we forget the abstractions and concentrate on the concrete? Where out of our ‘unknowing’ may we encounter God? Let’s get rid of all our preconceptions, whether from philosophy or from the imaginative projections of primitive peoples who needed something outside themselves to worship or to protect them from the unpredictable.
I think that perhaps the catechism was starting at the wrong end. Abstractions are difficult enough for most of us even when we are adults. It reminds me of the story of the good nun trying to prepare her young pupils for the visit of the Diocesan Inspector She primed them to be able to respond to the examination by learning one answer each. The idea was that when the Priest asked a question from the catechism the child whose answer it was would raise a hand and reply. Unfortunately when the Priest asked: ‘Who made you?’ there was silence until a child said: ‘The girl that God made is away today, Father.’
Anyway to move on..
Let’s go back to the roots of our knowledge of God in the Gospel and in the life of the Church’s faith.
When Philip the Apostle, in his bewilderment, asked Jesus, before He left them, ‘Show us the Father’ the almost withering answer he received must have made Philip feel a little humiliated. John in his gospel remembers the incident well. John of course in subsequently composing his gospel recognised the presence of God in every sign and action and saying of Jesus. ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip,’ said Jesus, ‘and you still do not know me? How can you say “show us the Father? Did you not know that if you have seen me, you have seen the Father?” What a staggering statement!
Tillich in once sense was right. There is nothing we are able to know rationally and directly of God’s existence or His nature. To attempt to do that is to project our own images upon that simple word, God.
But for the fact that in His graciousness, God has taken the initiative and revealed Himself sacramentally to us in his creative activity and ultimately in the human life, death and resurrection of His Son Jesus, we can know little about him. He remains a closed book subject to our conjectures.
There is here a kind of analogy of this in our own human relationships. What indeed can we know of one other, except insofar as we take the initiative and open ourselves up to one another? Otherwise we and they remain simply objects in a world of other objects! We simply slot people, and indeed our self, somewhere into our personal data banks. We tend to put them into the correct slot in our list of categories: old, young, middle aged, priest, layperson, immigrant, mentally ill, etc. etc. What do I really know even of the person beside me during Mass except for the (hopefully) fleeting smile during the kiss of peace! (Unless of course it happens to be a personal friend or my wife!!) Other people remain a mystery until they or I take the initiative and open up ourselves to one another in the great risk of self-exposure. And it is a great risk! A friendly loving approach can lead to great pain and anguish when the offer of intimacy and openness is abused, derided or betrayed.
This leads me on to another of those difficult catechism questions.
‘What is faith? - Faith is a supernatural gift of God which enables me to believe without doubting whatever God has revealed.’
Is it simply that? A question of simply wrapping your mind around statements of doctrine without understanding or joy? In moments of doubt just gritting your teeth and carrying on as faithfully as you can?
God took the incredible risk of opening Himself up to us in His enormous act of faith in humanity. It was his eternal act of self-exposure. As Paul said, He loved us whilst we were still in our sins. It is his initiative entirely. We are utterly undeserving of it. This is really what the act of faith is. There can be no guarantee that the gift will not be hurled back into the face of the One who has the temerity to make it. It is open to derision, to abuse, to rejection. We can recognise this in the human history of Jesus the son of Mary.
Just as the act of self-revelatory faith which God continues to make in this world in which we live, can be abused, manipulated and destroyed for gain and profit, so the men and women through whom he comes to us as his real presence in our daily lives can become simply objects for competition, or manipulation or fear or abuse.
All we need is faith. A faith which includes both courage and daring.
Before coming to live here in Liverpool, my family and I spent ten idyllic years living in a converted farmhouse in a little village on the banks of the river Tamar in Cornwall. I was working as Head of Divinity at an Anglican college on the outskirts of Plymouth. Since living here for the past twenty odd years, I have often been asked whether I have any regrets about moving to Liverpool. My reply has often surprised the enquirer. ‘Were I to choose any place to live in this country, I would choose to live here.’
I remember catching a black cab back to Lime Street station after attending an interview at what is now called Liverpool Hope University. The job was Head of Theology. In that cab was my first encounter with a typical ‘scouser’. In the course of the short journey we exchanged an unbelievable amount of friendly details of our personal lives and so developed a mutual act of faith in one another! I am still impressed. Journeys using my free bus pass into town or more recently to Morrison’s, have almost always led to friendly brief conversations with my fellow travellers- especially the ‘golden oldies’ like myself. Often the best experiences of this mutual faith occur in the pub! Particularly the Gardener’s in Woolton near my son’s house! (No advertising fee!)