…. I was reading last month’s question and answer. It was about talking with people who have little or no faith, and you said, “people will judge God by you and everything you do.” I find that a very scary idea. I wouldn’t want anyone to judge God by me. For me, God is infinite and all powerful. Well, I'm not like that in the least! It wouldn’t be fair to God to judge him by me, and when I think about it, it wouldn’t be fair to me either. I don’t feel up to it. Could you explain what you meant…? Myra M.
St. Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) wrote these frequently quoted words: “Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on the world. Yours are the feet with which he moves to do good. Yours are the hands by which he blesses the world. Yours are his hands, yours are his feet, yours are his eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
In front of a church in San Diego, I read, there is a statue of Christ the King. At some point, vandals broke off and destroyed both its hands. People offered to pay for its restoration, but instead, perhaps remembering St Teresa’s words, the pastor attached a plaque to the base of the statue, with the words “I have no hands but yours.” The same story, it seems, is told of many statues of Christ.
One thought borrows another, and now here’s another statue of Christ the King. The 19th-century Danish sculptor Thorvaldsen made a clay model for a statue of Christ the King, with the arms raised in triumph. But the weight of the wet clay was too much for the inner structure, and in the morning when he entered the studio, he saw that the arms had sagged downwards and set in that position. At first he was hugely disappointed, but then he saw that it was in fact better than what he had in mind: because now the statue expressed welcome instead of triumph.
Making others welcome is within the power of everybody. You don’t need to live in a palace; any little shack will do. In Manila I saw a row of ‘houses’ that were actually Ford boxes, and one of them had a large ‘Welcome!” sign in front. A week later, in another country, an affluent family asked me to pay them a social visit. As I arrived, I saw that most of the family went upstairs and left me with the husband in the kitchen with mugs of tea. The little family in Manila showed me something of God; the other did not. If I had no other ways of knowing God, this would have been crucial. That's what I mean when I say that people judge God by us and by the way we live.
“Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” said Jesus (Mt 5:48). He can’t have been imagining that we could be equal to God in perfection – any more than we could be infinite or all-powerful. The context tells us what he meant. God loves everyone, he says, even those who ignore him or hate him. “Your Father in heaven makes his sun rise on bad people as well as good, and his rain to fall on honest and dishonest people alike” (5:44-45). He is telling us to imitate our Father – not to become his equal! “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father….” That's the kind of perfection we are capable of, by God's grace.
But we have to take it a step further. The next thing I want to say is that it is mysteriously more than imitation. “Where I am, there God is,” said Meister Eckhart, the 14th-century German mystic, “and where God is, there I am.” He wasn’t praising himself or suggesting that he was better than others. Every one of us can truthfully say these words. Certainly, this would sound egocentric today, or plain crazy; but it is normal Christian teaching. In John’s Gospel, Jesus frequently uses the word ‘abide’ - for example, “Abide in me as I abide in you” (15.4); or, in reference to the Holy Spirit, “You know him, because he abides with you” (14:17).
If, as St Augustine and many others put it, “God is closer to us than we are to ourselves,” it would be surprising if this remained forever hidden under our egos. There are flickers of it in everyone’s life, probably, and a steadier view of it in the lives of saints. We make God visible in the world, by glimpses and flashes. Meister Eckhart and the other Rhineland mystics wanted to push us into this realisation by using even more daring language. Their great theme is the birth of God in the soul. To convey it in a simple image: when a child is born, a mother is born. The child, in a way, gives birth to the mother. This is obviously not to deny the mother’s pre-existence. In this sense we can be said to give birth to God. Through us, as we immerse ourselves in the mystery, God becomes God in a new way. Or to use another favourite image of Eckhart’s: the sun shines out of a mirror – or out of a thousand mirrors. Adding another is not adding to the sun, yet it is allowing the sun to shine in a new way.
It is impossible to get our minds around this, because it goes beyond our minds. “If this work [the birth of God in the soul] is to be done,” said Eckhart, “God alone must do it, and you must just allow it to be.” So the ego – always eager to take credit – can take no credit for this.
In Christian practice we don’t try to reach up beyond ourselves to God. To say that God is above us is not to elevate God, who doesn’t need our reassurance. Instead it would be to create a distance between ourselves and God. In any case there’s no need to reach up, because God reaches down to us in Christ. God welcomes us in Christ, whose name is Emmanuel, ‘God-with-us’. So we only have to hold our station.
Like water, we seek the lowest place, the place of truth and no illusions. It was the water in Thorvaldsen’s clay model of Christ the King that made those arms reach down in welcome.
I hope these few words will be of some use to you, Myra.