In my earlier article on the Spiritual Life & Our Images of God I looked at how our inner images of God (as opposed to beliefs about God) can impact on our spiritual journey. These images often lay buried deep within us and, because our distorted images often begin to form early in life, we may not even be aware of them. Healing from these images requires that we look deep inside ourselves to expose them to the light. However, because they are often rooted in painful emotional experiences, identifying them and pursuing healing can be an emotionally challenging experience.
Below, I suggest some ways to tap into these inner dimensions of our imaging of God. However, if you find these exercises challenging, I encourage you to seek out the support of a trusted friend, spiritual leader, spiritual director or counsellor. It is important to remember that healing deeply from these distorted images of God will likely mean slow healing. None of us can change our images of God simply by an act of will or simply our own effort. What we can do is invite God to release and heal us, and seek the support we need in the process. You may also find helpful my articles on working with the emotions in the spiritual life particularly, the healing meditation given that helps us be with our feeling life. Sometimes, at first, being released from that which has bound us can feel strangely 'painful.' But that pain is the same that limbs feel after being constricted and released from that which has held them captive. There can be an initial 'pain' in freedom.
Exploring Our Images of God
I often find in my work in spiritual direction that using art and/or prayerful imaginative exercises can help people tap more directly into the deeper images held in their psyche.
Here are some ways to explore your inner images of God:
(1) Read through 'Praying with Art.'
Now take a blank piece of paper and divide it into 4 sections - early childhood; teenage years; early adulthood; later adulthood. Take yourself back into each period of your life in turn. Allow symbols and images to arise within you as you prayerfully consider each time of your life, asking: 'What was my image of God then? Who was God for me?'
(2) Read through 'Praying with the Imagination.'
Now choose a passage from the gospels in which Jesus is present and imaginatively put yourself into the scene. Enter the scene in your imagination as though it were now happening and you were there as a participant, with all your senses and feelings as well as your mind. It may help to talk yourself into it, saying, for example, 'I am sitting at the table laden with a feast of food. The music is noisy and my neighbour is pressing against me talking incessantly having had too much to drink... Now I can hear someone say the wine has run out...' Use all your senses to imaginatively engage with the scene as the story unfolds. Notice particularly what Jesus is doing in the scene and then deliberately interact with him. Go up to him and ask him a question. Don't worry if you only have a partial image of him or can't see his face. What matters is that you have a sense of his presence close by you. Then see how he responds... Watch and listen carefully to whatever you see him do or say, and respond naturally. How do you feel being close to and talking with him?
Over time, giving yourself plenty of space, you may want to repeat this prayer exercise with a couple of different passages.
At the end of this imaginative prayer time, review what came out of the interaction. How did Jesus behave? Who was he for you? What feelings arose within you when near Jesus? What image of God does this portray to you?
(3) Sitting quietly in a relaxing place, ask your inner self some questions about God:
What are my worst fears about God?
How do I think God sees me?
What do I think God expects of me?
What pictures come to mind when I think about God?
Let the answers come from your deep inner self rather than from readily produced learned phrases and Scriptures in your analytical mind.
Healing our Images of God
We are invited, by the God that is love, to let go of any distorted and broken images that can bind and hold us captive - Jesus said,'I have come to set the captives free'. However, they are sometimes wounds that need time and attention to heal, and the process may happen slowly and deeply. If these difficult images are rooted in some past trauma, then seeing a counsellor or spiritual director may help facilitate the process and give you support in your healing.
The first step in this healing journey is self-knowledge - to realise and understand the images we hold. The next step is to relax and not tense around the discovery, but recognise that we can all carry inferior images. Perhaps that is why we are exalted in Scripture to ultimately not have any images at all, for no image fully captures who God is. Even positive images are only metaphors pointing beyond themselves, and we always have to be careful not to turn even these into idols.
Sharing our private images with trusted others can start to open up the space within us to explore any distorted/ false images and begin to uncover and look at their, perhaps painful, origins in our life story. We need a safe space in which to have compassion on ourselves in our distress, and understand how these images came to be part of our selves.
Ultimately, that which is deepest in us is created 'in the image of God'; consider the picture of Yahweh in Genesis 2:7 breathing his 'ruach' - his Spirit, breath, life-force - into humanity. Getting in touch with this deepest reality through contemplative prayer practices, that centre us in experiencing this God of love, brings healing and release from tyrannical images.
If we are journeying in the spiritual life, then our images are always in a process of change. Prayerfully looking back through key times in our lives eg childhood, young adulthood, middle-age and so on, thinking and drawing out images we held, can show us this transformation over time.
Thomas Merton once said, 'Every person becomes the image of the God he or she adores.' By taking positive images of God that speak to us from scripture or elsewhere, and by prayerfully reading, visualising and meditating on them, letting them slowly drip into our consciousness, we can let more whole images dwell in our psyche. Examples of these images in Scripture include God as Comforter, Compassion, Healer, Light, Mother Eagle, Refuge, Saviour, Rock, Shepherd,
Many mystical writers in the Christian tradition talk about an ultimate place of living with no images; a place where God is allowed to be God, free of our need to capture that in some limited crystallised understanding. This lies behind the cryptic words of the German theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart (c.1260 -c.1328) 'I beg God to rid me of God.' In such a place we recognise the limitations of all images as being just that - only metaphors. They are useful stepping-stones that help us understand and describe our God-experiences, but should never replace that inner connection and ultimate deep heart-to-heart knowing.
'Distorted Images of God: Restoring Our Vision' by Dale & Juanita Ryan
'Good Goats: Healing our Image of God' by Dennis, Sheila & Matthew Linn