Praying with a pen (or keypad) in hand… @johnschaplain #Digidisciple,

Do our images of God matter and what do I mean by the god-image? Can creative writing help us to uncover and explore our images of God? Ana-Maria Rizzuto[1] speaks of the ‘God-concept’ and the ‘God-image’. The God-concept is the God of the theologians and philosophers, which is ‘fabricated at the level of secondary process thinking.’[2] Rizzuto argues that the God-image is formed from the child’s experience of its primary objects. Rizzuto contends, rightly, I think, that: ‘no-one arrives at the “house of God” without his pet God under his arm.’[3]  Our images of God are shaped by early life experiences amongst a host of other things. Given that, we may find these underlying images of God more or less helpful.  How can we make more explicit the images of God we carry about?

Playing and praying with a pen in my hand has helped me to explore my ideas about God – and various images have arisen, from angry headmaster, to court jester, to gardener, and more. The point is not to produce a polished piece of art, though that may be a possible result. The aim is to engage in a formative experience, bringing to the page the writer’s lived experience of God and by grace discovering more of God through the process of working the words on the page or screen. Creative writing can take many forms: poems, stories, parables, blog entries, tweets, letters, psalms, vignettes, descriptive prose, and arguably journal entries which may weave together recollection and interpretation in creative ways.  Such writing has the potential to become a conversation between our God-concepts, framed in the external world of liturgical engagement and theological reflection, and our God-images, formed in the internal world of early experience, question, doubt and desire.

Writing is a process of expressing and developing our thoughts. It is not the case that we think first, then stop, then write.  There is a complex interaction between the words as they appear on screen or page and the thoughts that are generated in the mind. ‘By writing we find out what we know’[4] – but not in the sense that the pen acts as a camera taking a snapshot of a slice of pre-existent, static knowing. Writing is a dynamic process of formulating, shaping and developing ideas to the extent that what is written may well cause surprise.

This is a surprise I first discovered a number of years ago. I went on a day’s retreat with the writer and theologian Trevor Denis. He sent us off with a blank piece of paper to play, and pray, on the page. I took myself off to a corner of a garden and without a great deal of preparation scribbled down this piece:

She wore a wide-brimmed hat.

I wandered through a garden, rounded a corner, and there you were, resplendent in wide brimmed hat and brandishing secateurs. “Just doing a little pruning,” you said. “Come and join me. I was hoping you’d run into me.”

I look at you. There I something about your hips. They are reassuringly wide. Who’d have thought God would be a little on the beamy side.

You smile – the smile of one acquainted with all my thoughts. You smile becomes wider and then you explode with laughter. “I’ve birthed the universe. It may take me a little while to get my figure back. You suck your cheeks in and shimmy along the path. And we laugh together at the wonder and the glory and the delight of it all. And then I catch myself and look at you and realise you love me more than I thought possible and I love you more than I thought I could. But more surprising still I realise I like you and in your company I can truly be myself.

We gaze at each other. You snip your secateurs in mock threat. For a second I am unsure until you hoot with laughter from underneath your wide brimmed hat. “Come here”, you whisper. And I do.

I was deeply surprised to discover that my image of God in this piece (written long before The Shack was printed) was of a black AfroCaribbean woman, ‘a little on the beamy side’, a gardener, deeply funny and vastly loving. It’s a piece that has encouraged me over the years. A key question: does the fiction of my writing point beyond itself to truths about the nature of God? Certainly the idea of God as creator resonates with the biblical texts and the gardener metaphor is nothing new. The maternal metaphor finds echoes in a number of Old Testament and New Testament images. The deep love at the heart of spiritual encounter is attested to by the mystics- look at Julian of Norwich’s visions of Christ.  The idea of God as a black woman shifted me away from an inherited tendency to view God in white, male terms. The piece both surprised and delighted me in its gentleness and humour, and had the effect of drawing me into prayer. Often when I am tired or disillusioned it is the memory of this little piece which is the trigger of a return to prayer. I would contend that prayerful creative writing does have the potential to open us to new ways of seeing, and in conversation with scripture and tradition can help us to uncover and explore our images of God.

If you are interested, here’s an exercise

Be still. Acknowledge the presence of God with you. If there is anything pressing on your mind – hand it over to God. Ask God to meet you in your writing and be open to the possibility of that. When you are ready, imagine you are walking somewhere – perhaps in a garden, but it could be in the city, the country, near a river, by a lake – wherever your imagination takes you.

In your walk you round a corner and bump into God. What does God look like? What happens between you? Write down your encounter. Don’t censor anything – even if it seems a bit theologically off the wall. Just write, and then leave yourself time to reflect and pray over what comes up. Feel free to post up what you write in response to this blog

Possible opening line:

I rounded a corner and there you were…

[1] Ana- Maria Rizzuto, The Birth of the Living God: A Psychoanalytic Study (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1979)

[2] Rizzuto, The Birth of the Living God, 47

[3] Rizzuto, The Birth of the Living God,8

[4] Smith, F.Writing and the Writer (New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates,1994),35

About Kate Bruce

Deputy Warden, Cranmer Hall, teacher, preacher, digital adolescent. Interested in helping people to preach better, find their voice and communicate with energy, integrity and conviction. Think faith should make a difference at the sharp end. Love God. Love Dog.