How Do I Love Thee?
These famous words were written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning as she asked and answered the question for the love of her life, her husband Robert.
These same words came to me recently as I tried to imagine how God loves me.
I grew up with the stereotypical Old Testament image of God, a thunderous presence, who recounted our every transgression and meted out punishments accordingly. I have understood for a long time now, that these were words, images and metaphors that were meaningful to the people and culture at that time, but not necessarily today.
But what about my image of God today? What words, images and metaphors would I use today? I have been trying to answer these questions in relation to the Spiritual Exercises, especially reflections on sin, heaven, hell and God’s merciful love.
Ironically, my answer started to take shape with the Old Testament itself, Hosea 11:1-4, 8-9.In this beautiful passage, God says, “When Israel was a child, I loved him and out of Egypt, I called my son.” God goes on to say that he taught Ephraim to walk, took him up in his arms, led his son with “with cords of kindness, with bands of love.”
This is what any loving parent does with their babies and toddlers. “I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” This was not the image of God that I grew up with.
But we falter, we sin, we turn away from God. What does Hosea say about that? God asks.“How can I give you up … for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”
When I reflected on these words, I recalled Julian of Norwich who said, “I saw no wrath in God.” I also remembered the words of the Psalm which said, “When you fall, you will not stay down because the Lord will help you up.”
Hosea’s words came to life for me, the next Sunday at our 11:00 am Mass. Spreading across the back of our church is a wide space where parents often walk their restless babies. A mom wasthere with her 12-month- old baby Johnny and her ten-year-old son, David.
Mom put baby Johnny on the floor where he energetically crawled, sometimes towards her and sometimes away from her, as she lovingly enjoyed her baby’s every move. Whenever the baby crawled too far away from Mom, his older brother, David would patiently and with a big smile, pick the baby up and point him in the right direction, towards Mom.
Baby Johnny would then stand himself up, by holding onto his mother’s leg. No matter how many times, the baby crawled away from his mother, his older brother picked him up and pointed him in the right direction, never losing patience and always with a smile. Isn’t this what Jesus does for us?
Then it hit me! This was a living example or parable of God’s love for us, a retelling of Hosea’s words. I saw before me, God the Mother, God the Brother, and God the Spirit, surrounding and infusing them with love. A living Trinity.
Have you ever imagined yourself as an infant in God’s arms, God lovingly embracing you, amazed at every gesture you make? The next time you hold a baby, or see someone else holding a baby, why not imagine this as you and God?
When I was teaching primary grades, the chorus of one of the children’s favorite hymns was, “Surprise, surprise, God is a surprise! Open up your eyes and see!”
If God were to answer the question “How do I love thee?” I were to ask God, “How Try to picture your image of God. You just might find the answer right in front of you!