The Open Heart of Love
Like all of us the apostles would have seen people praying, but they had never seen anyone praying like Jesus. From his prayer life answers were the norm and miracles were a daily occurrence. He prayed for healing and it happened; he even prayed for the dead to be raised and his prayer was answered. Naturally they wanted to know what was the secret of his prayer life and so they asked him, ‘Lord Teach us to pray’. Unfortunately the words he taught we tend to rattle off, usually without thinking, and so miss out entirely on the secrets of knowing how prayer really works.
If we were to take just take one single word from what we call the Lord’s Prayer namely ‘Father’, we would find it has such amazing significance.
The kind of God we believe in is the God we pray to, and the kind of God a society believes in will be reflected in how it operates and treats its members. Our image of God until recent decades was one of fear, one that was quick to judge and mete out punishment for the slightest wrongdoing. This was a God who punished the children for their parents sins and who, while he forgave, he never quite forgot, and so your sin would always be held against you. This was the way society operated. If God punished then it meant that we too could punish. So punishment became the norm and was totally accepted both in the home and in school. Our education system was so based on fear and shame that many were unable to learn. During the week I spoke to a man who was one of the Artane boys who were paraded out to play every big match In Croke Park. Yet behind the scenes there were being subjected to cruelty, brutality and the more vulnerable ones to horrific abuse. After eight years he came out not able to read or write, not even his own name. So many institutions of the time were like that. They began each day with the Our Father and behaved in a manner that showed they were definitely praying to a very different God.
In most of our lifetimes we still had the Magdalene laundries. What image of God was in operation there where a girl who got pregnant outside of wedlock, or padlock, as the late Brendan Grace used to say, was banished to such an institution, not just for her pregnancy, but often for the remainder of her life. There, so called religious saw fit to punish her, to cruelly separate her from her baby and even to sell that child to profit themselves. It wasn’t just the religious who were at fault but even more the parents who were prepared to sacrifice their own flesh and blood and also their grandchild, all for the sake of stinking pride and respectability. They would have still prayed Our Father but what God were they really praying to?
Then we had mental institutions where it is now recognized that at least half of the inmates should never have been admitted in the first place. They even had a strange test to see who was eligible. This I will share it with you, just to see how you would fare. Imagine this: A bath is filled with water and as a potential inmate you are given a large spoon and a bucket and asked to empty it. Which would you use was the test? Hands up if any would use the spoon? (None) Next how many would use the bucket? Sorry folks but come right in, we have a bed, you would still be admitted. The answer is neither because if you were really sane you would simply pull the plug! On a more serious note for so many unfortunates who were admitted there was no way out and the more they protested their sanity the more insane they were classed. I saw a plate recently that came from one such place and on the back was written, Portrane Lunatic Asylum. Imagine eating your dinner off that that for fifty years. What an affront to the dignity of the human person. And still those responsible would have prayed Our Father, but to what kind of god were they really praying?
The image of a punishing god was particularly evident in the criminal justice system. All we ever had was punitive justice where the person responsible was made suffer. It has been a long road to even consider restorative justice where someone who does wrong has a chance to make up for it. We’re still far from being there yet.
A young woman was trying to come to terms with the fact that she was very judgmental and quick to find fault. Her tongue was too sharp for her own good and she was inclined to bite people noses off. I asked her what was her image of god? She said, ‘God is someone whose expectations of me are so high and whose opinion of me is so low that I never feel good enough, and always live under his frown.’ Was it any wonder that her behavior towards others was exactly the same? Her expectations were sky high and nobody was ever good enough.
Lastly, one time while giving a retreat I came across a lovely sister who just seemed to radiate love and kindness. It was as if she had a heart full of love and a beautiful relationship with God. Where did you get such a capacity to radiate love I enquired? ‘Back to my father’, she said, without hesitation. ‘I remember one time a mission was starting in our church and the Redemptorists, renowned for making people feel guilty with their hell fire and brimstone preaching, had rolled into town. My sister and myself were going and went to say goodbye to our dad.’ He said, ‘Well girls, off you go and listen well to what those fellows are saying because they have to be saying something. But, you don’t have to take it all to heart. Just remember this, I am your father and there is nothing you have ever done and absolutely nothing you ever will do for which I have not already forgiven you. That’s because I am your father and I love you. Now go to your mission and remember to call God Your Father as well.’
Such a beautiful image of God as all loving and ever merciful had enabled her to be one of those who all her life had truly prayed ‘Our Father’, not just in words, but by the manner in which she was so accepting and non-judgmental that her entire life was a like a radiant beam of love.