Images We Choose
By Miriam Hogan, O.C.D.
Someone once asked me, "What is your operative image of God?" Thinking about the question, I decided that my image of God changes as I experience different aspects of life and death. For example, when a close friend was dying, the image of Jesus on the Cross was prominent in my thoughts and, when a mother asked prayers for a missing child, the image of Jesus lost in the temple was present in my mind.
We often work with computer graphics and images. Further, there is an increasing awareness of the power of an image to influence our subconscious minds. For example, the advertising field makes ample use of images to manipulate sales of certain products. This may be good or harmful depending upon our needs and the actual merit of the product and its effect on our lives. Nonetheless, Christmas is a time when we are bombarded with cleverly designed images.
What Is Our Chosen Image Of God
Yet, the question can be asked again, "What is our chosen image of God in the midst of all of these technological possibilities?" Or perhaps, more to the point "What are the images that God wishes to convey to us?"
One of the images that I find especially helpful to meditate upon during advent is found in a poem written by St. John of the Cross. His gentle words give us both a description and an invitation.
The Virgin, weighed
With the Word of God,
Comes down the road:
If only you'll shelter her. 1
In this short verse, St. John points out the vulnerability of our Blessed Mother. She is a woman pregnant and needing care and protection. After viewing so many triumphant images of Mary, it is especially helpful to remember the fragile life experiences that she encountered and that she seeks to share with us.
A Sister friend made this point especially clear to me. Once, when we were looking at a mural of the trip to Bethlehem depicting Joseph leading a donkey on which was seated Mary very much with child, my friend remarked, "I know just how tired she felt." Before entering Carmel, this Sister had been married and had, with her husband, raised three children. Although a widow and a grandmother, she could still empathize with the human experience of our Blessed Mother. The Mary she prayed to many times a day was the same Mary that knew the unique tiredness of being with child and traveling over bumpy roads.
St. John of the Cross was well-schooled in theology and had plenty of material to draw upon for his poetry. Still he chose to record these simple tender lines. He saw that Mary, like the unborn child she once carried, also needs our love and protection. She does not put aside her humanity to become only the queen of heaven, but invites us to enter into her human story to allow us to know the divinity of her Jesus. Such is the mystery of the Incarnation in our own lives, in that Jesus and Mary make themselves vulnerable to our responses. Mary, who carried the Christ child in her womb “with love beyond all telling,”2 asks our love for the same Christ and for herself.
This Tiny Babe
It was, and in some places still is, a tradition to write a Christmas song expressing some aspect of the Christmas mystery. This custom was one of the few ways that Carmelite nuns had to express and record their theology prior to Vatican II (although I am sure that none of the Sisters thought that they were recording theology). Nevertheless, some of these songs that have been passed down are precious and insightful. There is one especially that I like to remember. This was a song done by a Sister that drew the serious topic of Divine Justice to write about. Although, the melody has been lost, the song began: "Could the Almighty Father choose no better image for His Divine Wrath and Justice than this tiny babe?" This tender theology of Mercy and Love, so powerfully presented, continues to elicit wonder and gratitude. The images that we choose to meditate upon say something not only about the object they represent but also about ourselves.
A Little One
Someone3 observed recently that the relics of St. Therese were drawing such huge crowds in the U.S. because she was a little one and that many people can identify with being little. If someone considers himself/herself big, then Therese is not his/her style. Perhaps, the idea that Christmas is mainly for children and the elderly needs also to be expanded to include those who are little enough that they can recognize the Incarnation represented in the image of a child.
The images of Christmas are simple and direct. Yet, they have the power to evoke from us thoughts and feelings that are also simple and direct. In this time of computer technology we need to carefully choose our images and to allow them to work their effects in us, so that we can recognize and embrace the ongoing Incarnational mystery in our own lives and time.
There does come a time however, when we have to let go of images in order to make progress in the spiritual life. This is the work of the Spirit. For we know that, before God, even the best of images are only shadows of the real. When someone dear to us is present beside us, we do not normally prefer their picture. Yet, when that same person is at a distance, we like a picture to remind us of them. In the tradition of Carmel,the way to God, no matter how high the mystical experience, is referenced or grounded in the sacred humanity of Jesus. Images, whether pictures or a favorite poem, can help remind us of the one who came so that we might know the meaning of love, and they can also help to inspire us to choose to live in this love.
1The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D., and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1973), p. 737
2 From one of the Preface prayers of the Mass during Advent.
3Mary Lou Schuster, who works in prison ministry, has observed a beautiful openness with many prisoners to St. Therese’s Little Way. The everyday spirituality of Therese can be practiced and embraced by people often overlooked by our society. I believe that one reason for this is, that in her own life, Therese chose to pray and sacrifice for Pranzini, a prisoner condemned to death. Further, her writings state that “Love is everything and that it embraced all times and places.”
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