Recently, I had an enlightening conversation with friends about how we envision God. It’s a really interesting question, because how we imagine God determines how we relate to God. For instance, if I see God as an old, bearded man on a cloud, I will find it pretty difficult to relate to him. I’m not really well-versed in talking with old men who live on clouds and, in fact, I don’t know anyone who lives on a cloud. If I see God as a harsh judge who keeps a tally of everything I do wrong, I will be afraid all the time and will not want to approach God at all.
When St. Ignatius first started pondering God, he knew God loved him, but he still considered himself a terrible and unworthy sinner. As he progressed in the spiritual life, though—especially after his definitive mystical encounter at Manresa—he understood God’s love and individual concern for him as being so deep that it was nearly unfathomable. In his book, What Is Ignatian Spirituality?, Fr. David Fleming, SJ, writes:
Ignatius experienced God as an intensely personal, active, generous God, a God as Love loving. God creates, and by so doing God is actively showering us with gifts. God acts, and all his actions show his wisdom and love. God’s love is unconditional. It is not something we earn, or buy, or bargain for. (8)
Ignatius realized that although he was a sinner, he was a profoundly loved sinner. And he realized that God had created everything for him, so that he could know God. After that, Ignatius felt impelled to share about God’s personal love for each individual person. He thought long about how to express his experience of God’s love to others.
One of St. Ignatius’s solutions was to invite individuals to imagine Jesus sitting next to them. He advised that one ought to talk with Jesus as one would talk with a dear friend. This is a remarkably effective method, because it makes God more relatable. If I imagine Jesus as a trusted friend instead of an old man in the sky or a harsh judge, I find that I am able to converse freely with him. I am not afraid to speak truthfully with him; my words are unguarded. I know that there is no need to come up with rosy images or words that impress. Through this prayer experience, I am also more able to understand at least a fraction of how much God loves me, because I have experienced the generous love of a friend before. And I experience a newfound gratitude for the gift of this life-sustaining friendship. Through this powerful method of prayer, St. Ignatius leads one into a personal relationship with God.
What is your image of God? Pray for the grace to relate to God personally and understand God’s immense love for you.
God, help me to know you as you are,
To experience that fathomless love that St. Ignatius experienced.
Allow me to see myself as you see me,
To feel the warmth of your loving gaze upon me—
Loved, treasured, worth dying for—
And give me the grace to respond to you
In generosity of heart.
How can I respond to your love?
What can I do for you?