This is from a workshop I gave at the Midwest Pilgrims retreat in May, 2017.
I’m working on reading the Old Testament cover-to-cover for the first time. My approach is to read it through rather quickly, not stopping to dig deep, because speed gives me a sense of an arc to the stories, a big picture that I don’t get by reading the scriptures topically. For example, as I was reading through 1 and 2 Samuel I appreciated for the first time how many wars David fought; as king he was constantly at war with the Philistines, the Ammonites, the Amalekites, and the Syrians. As an individual, he was under personal threat from Saul in early life, and from Absalom in late life.
This sense of living in constant danger comes through in David’s Psalms. They say things like this:
-Thou, O Lord, art a shield for me.
-The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer… my buckler, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower.
-Who is this King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.
-I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress.
This probably isn’t a new insight to many of you, but in reading about David I thought, the image of God as a shield and fortress doesn’t really speak to me, but, of course God is a shield and fortress to David! He was fighting wars all the time and that’s what he needed God to be!
Then I began to wonder about other examples of people experiencing God in ways that were personally relevant to them. I remembered how last year BYU-Idaho professor Andrea Radke-Moss gave a paper saying that Eliza R. Snow was gang raped in the Missouri conflicts of 1838, and I wondered as others did, if this experience led her to seek God as a Mother. We’ll never know exactly what inspired her to write “O My Father,” but it’s easy to imagine her wanting to take comfort in a mothering god after such a painful experience.
I think as women, many of us would find our insecurities and longings soothed by a god with motherly or grandmotherly qualities, the kind of God the poet Kaylin Haught writes about in her poem “God Says Yes to Me”
I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes
A common criticism for focusing on the attributes of God that resonate with us is that we are simply making God in our image, and by focusing on attributes that appeal to us, we blind ourselves to fuller truths about God’s nature. I think that can be a valid criticism, but a problem with it is that when it’s made it is necessarily comparing one person’s truth about God against another’s, privileging the orthodox view as the one that transcends the problem of making God in our own image, while the less orthodox view is necessarily seen as the limited one, or even the erroneous one. However I wonder if, rather than limiting our knowledge of God, dwelling on the particular divine attributes that speak to us can be a window into further understanding.
We may also be told that our experience of God should be most meaningfully felt at certain times and places, like in scripture study, in sacrament meeting, or in the temple, and if we aren’t finding God there then we must be doing something wrong, or maybe there’s something wrong with us. We may fear that our own ways of being with God are idiosyncratic or underdeveloped. Recommendations to scripture study and temple attendance are no doubt well-meant and may have worked well for the person giving the advice, but I think when we are feeling a lack of divine presence, trying these well-worn paths may not be what we need. By contrast, I like how Emily Dickinson marches to her own drumbeat with respect to worship:
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church
I keep it, staying at Home
With a Bobolink for a Chorister
And an Orchard, for a Dome
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice
I, just wear my Wings
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last
I’m going, all along.
Emily Dickinson was famously reclusive, and her God was a companion in a place where she could be comfortably alone. She decided for herself what experiencing God should be like, dwelling with God according to her own idiosyncratic ways. What if, rather than being a limitation, dwelling with God according to our own capacities and preferences is actually a path to enlightenment?
Rabbi Sandy Sasso puts this idea of personalized worship beautifully. She writes:
“I have always been struck by the Jewish teaching that God is like a mirror, and everyone who looks into it sees a different face. After all, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob each looked into that mirror and saw different faces, and so called God by different names. For Abraham, who went forth on a divine promise to become a great nation, God was Protector. Abraham’s God was known as Magen Avraham, Shield of Abraham. For Isaac, who was bound to an altar and who only at the last moment was saved from his father’s knife, God was Awesome One. Isaac’s God was known as Pachad Yitzhak, Fear of Isaac. For Jacob, who left his home to travel to Haran, afraid of his brother’s wrath and uncertain of his future, God was Mighty One. Jacob’s God was known as Avir Ya’akov, the Power of Jacob….
[There is also] the one name for God given by a woman in the Bible. This is recorded in Genesis, when Hagar was sent into the wilderness pregnant with her son, Ishmael, and she despaired. Then an angel of God spoke to Hagar and revealed her son’s name would be Ishmael. At that moment, Hagar offered her name for God, El Ro’i, the One Who Sees Me…
Jewish tradition teaches that there are over one hundred names for God. Still, we tend to limit the way we call on God to just a few names such as Father, King, or Lord. Yet if, as the midrash states, God speaks to each and every individual and each person hears as he or she is able, I wonder what would happen if each person would look directly into God’s mirror. What would be his or her name for God?”
In some ways the God I was taught as a child in the Church has failed me. The god who hands out blessings like treats for obedience doesn’t actually exist. The god who withholds the Holy Spirit if I fail to make myself “worthy” doesn’t actually care that much if I’m doing everything right, God lets the Spirit speak to me in spite of my failings. The god who is a man presiding over his silent wife turns out to be a construct of earthly men making god in their image. The god who thinks priesthood only fits with maleness is also an earthly construct. The white man with the big white beard turns out to be the result of holding up the wrong mirror, at least for me.
I would like to ask, like David and Eliza, who do I need God to be? I would like to join Emily Dickinson in asking, what God do I have the capacity to know? What if I took Rabbi Sasso’s question seriously and asked myself, what is my name for God? How is God speaking to me now, in the place in life where I am right now? The God I was taught as a child doesn’t quite work for me anymore, but I still long to know God, so I must find ways to look into God’s mirror and see.
This sounds pretty nice so far, doesn’t it? The mirror is a wonderful metaphor for how experiencing God’s presence is a deeply personal thing. But I have a problem with it. The problem is that sometimes, looking in that metaphorical mirror, I don’t see God at all. It’s just me looking back. Alone. A particularly bleak example of this for me was when I was trying to finish graduate school. I’d like to tell you about it briefly.
Ten years ago I was a graduate student working on biology research that was not going well. I’d been in my program for six years and now I had a new baby, I was commuting 2 hours a day round trip, my marriage was in a bad place, we were short on money, and I was getting very little support from my thesis advisor. I felt a mixture of panic and dread all the time from every quarter of my life, and I needed something to give. The most likely source of relief seemed to be school, and I nearly dropped out, but was talked out of that by a member of my thesis committee and by my husband.
So, I recommitted to finish, but none of my circumstances got any easier. I felt incredibly lonely. As I said, I had a weak relationship with my thesis advisor. I was too exhausted to have a social life, I felt I couldn’t share my difficulties with friends or family, and I lacked the resources to find a therapist. I’d also had a rough time nursing my baby and was still feeling like a failure because of that. During this time I prayed hard that my research would produce the results I absolutely had to have if I was going to publish a paper and graduate. I did my work in the lab and believed that if my efforts weren’t enough, God would make up the difference and get me out of school. I fully expected God to help me with some kind of miracle. But it did not come. After an additional year of work, my project failed. My thesis committee let me graduate based on a backup project I’d been working on that was publishable, if not impressive. At this point I no longer wanted a career in science, but even if I had, my poor publication record and lack of support from my adviser would have made it impossible.
In the end I got the diploma, but it was a pyrrhic victory. My faith in God had not weathered the strain of finishing my doctorate at all well. God had not answered my prayers about my research, had not inspired friends or visiting teachers to come find me when I was down, and had left me feeling like no one in the world could really see me, except maybe my baby. I remember going to work with my husband one Sunday somewhere in the middle of that year of anxiety. He was the music director at a protestant church at the time. I couldn’t bear to be around people that day so I took my 9 month old son to an empty play room in the back of the church. This is a church that offers childcare during the service, so some rooms were set up for entertaining kids. I sat down and let him crawl around, and the tears started flowing down my cheeks in quantity. I tried not to sob so as not to upset my baby, but he Simon noticed my tears, crawled over, pulled himself up, and put his little hand on my cheek, which made me cry even more. After a minute I dried my face and then a family who attended the church came in and mistook me for a child care worker, and left their toddler with me for the duration of the service. They gave me an odd look, and must have seen my face – I get very red and swollen when I cry, there’s no hiding it – but they never asked if I was OK, or even confirmed that I was there to provide childcare. This experience summed up my feelings at that time. Whether or not it was true, I felt that no one, not even God, noticed or cared about my despair.
No doubt I’d had unanswered prayers before, but this was different. The feelings of abandonment and disappointment were intense. I was familiar with the rationalization that God always answers prayers, it’s just that sometimes the answer is no, but this idea was cold comfort to me. It also seemed like a tautology. God can never fail us if silence and miracles are equal answers to prayer. My religious education had been replete with the idea that God meets our needs. So, what had gone wrong? What was wrong with my expectations about prayer? With a little hindsight, I can see that I was indulging in magical thinking regarding my research. I had been operating as if prayer were part of an equation: Prayer + Faith + Fasting = Desired Result, with God acting as the catalyst. I was of course, wrong about that. God’s power is not a reagent I can take off the shelf and use at will.
But what about the spiritual estrangement? Isn’t God supposed to comfort us in our time of need? I wasn’t able to figure that one out while I was going through the worst of it. But a few years later, I came to find the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke helpful in understanding it somewhat. When the Psalmist’s characterization of God as a deliverer feels foreign, Rilke writes about God in the shadows, and this feels familiar. Not as someone who hides in shadow because he is shady and suspect, but as someone who is not lost to us though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Who is not missing for us because he can live in shadows, too, though like everything else in the shadows, he is hard to see. Rilke’s god is often just out of reach, present, but not quite visible. The object of our longing, but for whatever reason, unable to fully meet that longing. I don’t find this image of God terribly attractive or inspiring, but I do find it descriptive, and at times quite accurate. I feel like joining Rilke in his lament:
I read it here in your very word,
in the story of the gestures
with which your hands cupped themselves
around our becoming – limiting, warm.
You said live out loud, and die you said lightly,
and over and over again you said be.
But before the first death came murder.
A fracture broke across the rings you’d ripened.
A scream shattered the voices
that had just come together to speak you,
to make of you a bridge
over the chasm of everything.
And what they have stammered ever since
of your ancient name.
There is a 14th century Jewish story that also imagines God as fragments scattered in darkness. Here it is, as told by author and physician Rachel Naomi Remen:
“In the beginning there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. In the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. The wholeness of the world, the light of the world, was scattered into a thousand thousand fragments of light. And they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.
Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world.”
These images of God in bits and pieces speak to me, I think, because I used to feel pretty sure I knew what God was like, at least enough to be able to worship and pray properly, but I’ve experienced too many contradictions in what I was taught about the nature of God, that I no longer believe he is who I thought he was, and I don’t quite know what God I’m looking for anymore, or where to find her. Fragments scattered in darkness are not easy to find. I miss God as I used to know him, though I can’t go back. And it can be lonely without the God I used to know, which is why I relate to the terrible loneliness and longing with which Rilke writes about God:
You, God, who live next door –
If at times, through the long night, I trouble you
with my urgent knocking –
this is why: I hear you so seldom.
I know you’re all alone in that room.
If you should be thirsty, there’s no one
to get you a glass of water.
I wait listening, always. Just give me a sign!
I’m right here.
As it happens, the wall between us
is very thin. Why couldn’t a cry
from one of us
break it down? It would crumble
it would barely make a sound.
Emily Dickinson was also well-acquainted with God’s too-faint presence.
Victory comes late,
And is held low to freezing lips
Too rapt with frost
To take it.
How sweet it would have tasted,
Just a drop!
Was God so economical?
His table’s spread too high for us
Unless we dine on tip-toe.
Crumbs fit such little mouths,
Cherries suit robins;
The eagle’s golden breakfast
God keeps his oath to sparrows,
Who of little love
Know how to starve!
Not-knowing, uncertainty and hunger, feelings of loneliness and abandonment, they are hard. But I think there is a way through them. I think they may actually be mirrors, if we stare at them long enough. I wonder if doubt and loneliness may actually be required to know God. Because certainty, rather than giving rise to more knowledge, is actually a dead-end. The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai sees sterility in certainty:
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
To know something as big and beyond us as God must mean that we are constantly seeking, but never arriving at, full knowledge. For reasons we will probably never really understand, God’s default approach to us seems to be restraint from letting us know him too easily.
So as painful and despair-inducing as divine silence is, perhaps it can create fertile conditions for knowing God in ways we couldn’t otherwise know her. If so, this is actually terrifying because there is no guarantee we will grow from such dark periods of estrangement. There’s no guarantee we will recover from them, and find God in a new way. We may instead choose to protect ourselves from future pain by shutting down the possibility that God is there at all. Restraint is an extremely risky approach for God to take, if her intent is to bring us into relationship.
There are some people, a few, whose faith is such that they are unfamiliar with divine silence. They are like Shacrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, who, when faced with death in a fiery furnace said that they believed God would save them. But if not, God is still God. Sometimes I believe that, too, but sometimes the silence is too much. Often I don’t know if I’m a fool to keep believing or if God is in fact there quietly listening, speaking with a still small voice and patiently waiting for me to develop my sense of hearing. In any case, I keep returning to the hope that God is real and aware of me. I don’t count faith as one of my spiritual gifts, but maybe hope is one of them. Emily Dickinson seemed to know about that, too. She imagines hope as a sort of Phoenix, a bird incapable of dying:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops – at all.
And sweetest in the Gale is heard
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest Sea.
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
Beautiful. However, I can’t forget that hope is only necessary because of divine restraint. And the idea of divine silence as a catalyst for our development is a hard idea for me to sit with. I’m coming from a religious tradition that puts a premium on knowing. Our scriptural heroes and heroines are people who knew. Also, our cultural and political landscape is overrun by people who are certain. The Polish poet Wisława Szymborska said the following about that, in her 1996 acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature:
“All sorts of torturers, dictators, fanatics, and demagogues struggle for power by way of a few loudly shouted slogans … they “know.” …And whatever they know is enough for them once and for all. They don’t want to find out about anything else, since that might diminish their arguments’ force. But any knowledge that doesn’t lead to new questions quickly dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life. In the most extreme cases, cases well known from ancient and modern history, it even poses a lethal threat to society.
This is why I value that little phrase “I don’t know” so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings.”
What if divine restraint and not knowing are the plow and the mole that loosen the hardened yard in our minds and allow us to encounter God in new ways? How do we move through the loneliness and disappointment that are the immediate result of God’s silence? I don’t know. But I believe we must have patience with ourselves, we must trust ourselves, and at the same time have patience with our uncertainty. Rilke wrote about this in his “Letters to a Young Poet.”
“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for answers, which would not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
I want to end with my very favorite poem from Rilke’s Book of Hours. I think it sums up God’s dance with us perfectly.
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.