When you pray, to whom do you pray?
I am not talking about the theological description of God here, but the personal one. When I write a letter or an email to someone, I hold in my mind an image of the person to whom I am writing. That image may include things like an image of their face, a memory of the way they laugh, an emotional attitude towards them. This personal image is often far more important in guiding what I write than any purely rational facts or knowledge about the person, such as their age or address.
So in the same way, while our dogmatic knowledge about who God is, His nature and characteristics, is important in so many ways, but when it comes to actually talking to Him, it is often thrust into the background. Rather, it is our personal, individual, idiosyncratic image of Him that most determines the quality of our prayer life (I think something similar may also be said of how we read the Bible, but I won’t go into that now).
So when you pray, what is the image of God you hold in your mind? Who is the One you talk to? What emotional ‘colours’ does He appear to you with, and what is His personality like?
For me, I often like to think of His actual physicality. In my mind, I hold the image of a first century Jewish man, dressed in the garb that was common to those days – a long ‘galabeya’, sandals on His feet, long hair as befits a Nazirite, and the dark brown medium length forked beard that the ancient Jewish historian Josephus described. I can imagine Him thus walking here and there, or standing on a hilltop addressing a crowd, or crouching down to look into the face of a crippled beggar. But most startling is when I imagine Him turning and gazing into my eyes.
Those eyes! Josephus also mentioned they were piercing eyes … eyes that cut deep into the hidden heart … eyes from which no secret can be concealed … eyes that make you feel naked before them, even when fully clothed. That is a little disturbing. But then, it is a necessary disturbance for anyone who chooses to follow the Lord of Truth, for they can no longer cover their nakedness with thin layers of comfortable fantasies and excuses.
But His gaze, I see with my mind’s eye, is also a gaze of love, of indefinable compassion and unlimitable good will. If He cuts deeply into my heart, He does so only in order to heal and to save. Here also is understanding, the understanding for which I have yearned from my youth but never found in any human being: complete, honest, true, and real.
When I see Him in my mind, I want to be with Him. I want to talk to Him, or rather to listen to Him. I want to sit at His feet and not move. I want to keep looking into His face, a face that may not be ‘handsome’ or ‘comely’ as Isaiah suggests, and yet a face full of meaning, expression, nobility, and invincible joy. And sometimes, I find I cannot bear to look into His face. My eyes drop rather to His feet as I remember the shame of my sins and my betrayals. Then I want to bow before Him and let my tears drip softly onto His feet. These tears speak more eloquently of my humiliation and my gratitude at His mercy than any words ever could.
And sometimes it shocks me to realise that this gentle man paying all this unwarranted attention to me is none other than the Creator of the Cosmos. Jesus is not just an image of God, and He is far more than a Godly man: He IS God! The face I look upon and that looks upon me is the face of God Himself. He is what God looks like when God becomes a man. This realisation is startling. Am I prepared to meet my God? Talking to a kind first century Jewish man is one thing, but standing face to face with powerful Lord of the whole universe is something else completely! But then, wasn’t that the whole idea of the Incarnation, to make God accessible to us?
Please understand that I am not at all suggesting that others need to think of God in the way I have just described – as I said from the outset, we each hold our own idiosyncratic images of God in our minds. Nor should my image or yours, or any other be confused for the reality of God, or even of Christ. I know that my mental image of His face is merely reconstructed by my imagination. When I finally do come to meet Him, physically, I fully expect that He will look totally different. Orthodox iconography looks so cartoon-like rather than realistic like Western paintings because it admits that we don’t know what Jesus looked like physically; not in enough detail to reconstruct an accurate image anyway.
But I am happy to imagine for now. Like someone writing an email to a person I have never met face to face, yet whom I feel I know intimately because of all the corresspondence that has gone on between us over the years, I eagerly anticipate the day when we can finally meet in the flesh. Inaccurate though my image may be in physical terms, the emotions and thoughts and relationship it evokes are very, very real.