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Struggling to be holy

30 November, 1999

Local ministry development officer Judy Hirst shows us the the heart of being holy is also the heart of being truly human. A new edition of the 2006 book, with discussion questions on each chapter. A beautiful book.

132 pp. To purchase this book online go to www.dltbooks.com


Foreword by Ruth Etchells

  1. Hiding from God
  2. Dealing with our desires
  3. The gifts of forgiveness
  4. Paying attention
  5. Friendship
  6. Success and failure

Discussion Questions


It was a mystery to me and an uncomfortable one at that. How had I got into the situation where I had offered to write a book on holiness? Struggling to Be Holy was the exact title that I had given to the council of the theological college in Durham where I teach pastoral ministry, accompanied as I recall with a quip about knowing rather more about struggling than about being holy! Now the chips were down, for today I was to meet with a potential editor and I still had no idea what I was going to say to her. I had set aside the morning to think but the door bell had rung and a very distressed young woman was there to see me. She had been abused as a child and, whilst usually coping well, occasionally found herself in a very painful place. There is never much that can be said at such times. All that really helps is to be with her and to hold her as she cries. So that was how the morning passed and no thinking was done. Lunchtime found me dashing to the meeting with a sinking feeling in my heart. How had I got myself into this embarrassing position? In exasperation, I said out loud to myself, `I don’t know anything about holiness!’ and it was as if a voice asked, ‘So what have you just been doing?’ I was blank for a moment until I remembered the morning of sitting with someone in pain. ‘Isn’t that something about holiness then?’ the voice replied.

This stopped me in my tracks because it had never really occurred to me that caring for someone in need was about holiness. I suppose over the years, I had gathered the impression that someone like me was not holy. Holiness was about being contained and controlled, about keeping silent for weeks, about taking yourself away from people to be on your own. It was about being serene, peaceful, wise and devout and being endowed with extreme purity. Holiness had often seemed to be a quality which was acquired by strict discipline and effort and the ones most likely to be successful in the Christian life those who were rigidly self-controlled and ordered and who could seamlessly be quiet, retreat, keep the commandments, attend church frequently and so on! However, writing this book has made it very clear to me that holiness is much less about developing self-discipline than it is about learning to entrust yourself to the God who loves you. It is about taking the risk of allowing God to interact with the truth of ourselves, no strings attached. So those who think they have success in the Christian life may actually be at the most risk.

Every year, an enthusiastic new group of students arrive in Durham to train for the ordained ministry. They have jumped through many hoops to get there and have been thoroughly assessed in every aspect of their lives. Many come with established patterns of prayer and devotion and very soon discover that for a whole range of reasons training for ordained ministry damages their devotional health! People, understandably, get annoyed and upset that their disciplined and ordered approaches to God have gone awry. I have become increasingly certain over the years that God is nowhere near as anxious about this as they are, for it is all too easy to avoid real encounter with God through religious practice. As the success and often illusion of these structures are removed the ordinands are left to work out their relationship with God in this new context. The key thing is about sticking at this relationship when all the external props of established practice are removed. It is about being brought again to that place of utter dependency. As Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh put it so well:

First of all, it is very important to remember that prayer is an encounter and a relationship, a relationship which is deep, and this relationship cannot be forced either on us or on God. If we could mechanically draw him into an encounter, force him to meet us, simply because we have chosen this moment to meet him, there would be no relationship and no encounter. We can do that with an image, with the imagination, or with the various idols we can put in front of us instead of God; we can do nothing of that sort with the living God, any more than we can do it with a living person (1).

In Luke’s gospel we are told that Jesus is aiming the Parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee exactly at people who were complacently pleased about how they were doing in the religious life (2). As they come to pray the Pharisee lists his achievements: his moral behaviour, his fasting and his tithing, but the tax collector slumps down in utter despair and defeat and says only, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ It is him rather than the Pharisee with whom God can do business. If you come to God simply as you are, hiding nothing (Reflection 1), then God will help you to become more fully yourself. The Pharisee, however, is so taken up with himself that there is no care for the tax collector and definitely no spare capacity for an encounter with the God whom he is addressing!

Holiness is about God being present and our being present to God. The more we can be in honest relationship with God, the holier we will become. Some Christians behave as if the task is to persuade God to be with them, but the delightful truth is that he is already present in the relationship. The problem is to be present ourselves. God is there but where are we? I have an older friend whom I love to bits and to whom I am indebted for many things. She has inspired me and encouraged me in the Christian life by both her wisdom and her delightful sense of humour and has been a great source of practical help in my ministry. However, this was not always the case. Our first meeting was at a college lunch. Beth, my daughter, was a tiny baby who was being uncharacteristically grumpy and I was feeling exhausted and inadequate. A mutual friend introduced me to Marian who is an experienced psychiatrist and was, at that time, doing some work on the interface between depression and theology. ‘You’re a counsellor, so I’m sure you’ll have a lot in common,’ was the cheery introduction. All that I actually had in common was that I already felt depressed and the thought of making intelligent conversation with this rather bright and scary woman was only serving to make me more depressed. I felt inadequate and I shied away. Fortunately, I got a second chance, as Marian was to be on the management group for my job as the Bishop’s Advisor in Pastoral Care and Counselling. Initially, I was still suspicious and insecure but gradually trust grew. It was my defensiveness and fear that blocked the relationship as is so often the case between God and us. It was a question of trust and as I have grown to trust her she has been able to make a significant impact on my life and faith.

So God is in us already and it is we who have to learn to live creatively with him. This takes some considerable practice! We cannot make ourselves holy whatever effort we expend. What we need to be is as open as we can to the holiness which is within each of us. We need to allow God to give himself to us, even though we are not worthy, and through the experience of unconditional love and forgiveness (Reflection 3) we will be changed. The success of the venture is that we will become our real, best selves and this involves a different journey for each of us. There is a good illustration of this in Rowan Williams’ book Silence and Honey Cakes about one of the desert fathers:

There was a monk who complained that Abba Arsenius was not renowned for physical asceticism; the old man dealing with this asks the complainant what he had done before becoming a monk. He had worked as a shepherd sleeping on the ground, eating sparse meals of gruel; Arsenius had been tutor to the imperial family and slept between sheets of silk. In other words, the simplicity of the desert life represented no very great change for the censorious observer but a different world for Arsenius (3).

It is so important to keep this particularity in mind as we struggle to be holy. Since I was a child I have always been attracted to the idea of the ‘Caucus-race’ in Alice in Wonderland. It is a crazy race which both starts and finishes unpredictably with the consequence that no one has any idea who has won. I think it appealed to my sense of the anarchic! When they all crowd round asking the Dodo who has won he finally, after much thought, pronounces that, ‘Everybody has won, and all must have prizes’ (4). I am privileged to have a number of close friends, but the relationship with each one is unique, giving me different gifts, confronting me with different challenges. So it is that each walk with God is unique, what is a challenge for one of us will not be an issue for another. The challenge and opportunity for all of us, however, is to enter into a relationship with the living God which will help us to become more fully the person whom we hold the potential to be:

On his deathbed Rabbi Zuscha was asked what he thought life beyond the grave would be like. The old man thought for a long time: then he replied: `I don’t really know. But one thing I do know: when I get there I am not going to be asked “Why weren’t you Moses?” Or “Why weren’t you David?” I am going to be asked “Why weren’t you Zuscha?”‘ (5).

When we choose to be ourselves in free relationship to God, not to conform to the expectations of others, we choose life with all its joys and disappointments. We choose to be all that we are, with all that is delightful and all that is damaged. After many years of struggle within myself, I eventually delivered myself to a counsellor. I wanted fixing! I wanted certain aspects of myself sorting out. However, as the counselling proceeded it became clear that if I could jettison the parts of me I found troublesome I would also lose parts of myself which I valued. We are complex realities and we need to learn to love what we are, both delightful and damaged, and put it all into the hands of the master potter to form into something unique and beautiful. Being a priest, as I am, can make things harder and should definitely have a health warning. People have such high expectations of us and we are so vulnerable, not least if we start to believe the sometimes totally unrealistic and absurd expectations of perfection which people put upon us. We should not be seduced to living up to these but rather put our effort into living down to the heart of ourselves, a heart trusting in God’s love and mercy and not in our own efforts. Paul clearly knew about this way of being when he wrote, ‘For when I am weak, then I am strong (6)’. Richard Rohr echoes the same theme, ‘God takes me very seriously. But this frees me from the burden of having to do this chore myself?’ (7).

“The road to holiness is a long one. It takes more than a lifetime and struggling is inevitable as we live through loss, pain, thwarted desires (Reflection 2), accidents, joys, successes and failures (Reflection 6), but struggling put into the hands of God is constructive not destructive. (Reflection 1). Of course, we need God’s grace and that is assured, but we also need the help and support of wise and compassionate friends (Reflection 5). So growing in holiness is not achieved by our effort or self-control; it is achieved through a gift of God to us and our humble and stumbling acceptance of it. This poem powerfully depicts the way to holiness:

I have waged this war against myself for many years.
It was terrible,
but now I am disarmed.
I am no longer frightened of anything
because love banishes fear.
I am disarmed of the need to be right
and to justify myself by disqualifying others.
I am no longer on the defensive,
holding onto my riches.
I just want to welcome and to share.
I don’t hold onto my ideas and projects.
If someone shows me something better
no, I shouldn’t say better but good –
I accept them without regrets.
I no longer seek to compare.
What is good, true and real is always for me the best.
That is why I have no fear.
When we are disarmed and dispossessed of self,
when we open our hearts to the God-Man
who makes all things new
then he takes away past hurts
and reveals a new time
where everything is possible (8).

This place ‘where everything is possible’ is indeed the place of holiness. It is the peace of discovering that we can be at home in ourselves and that God is and always has been at home there with us (Reflection 4). It is a coming home to what we have always dimly known was there, what we have glimpsed in holy others and what we have yearned for and struggled to achieve ourselves.

Discussion Questions

  1. Think of someone you know you would say is holy. What are their characteristics?
  2. How do you respond to the extract from Metropolitan Anthony’s book Beginning to Pray on page 15?
  3. Compare the prayers of the tax collector and the pharisee in Luke 18:9-14.
  4. What do the stories about Arsenius and Zuscha tell us about the task of growing in holiness?
  5. Do you agree that the place ‘where everything is possible’ is indeed the place of holiness?






I was dozing off, in the centre of Oxford, sitting in the scorching heat, amongst the frenetic throng of shoppers, waiting for a friend to return before attending an ordination. Suddenly, I was brought back to consciousness by a voice saying, ‘Do you know the Lord Jesus Christ?’ My immediate thought was that it clearly wasn’t aimed at me, but then with sinking heart I realised I was wearing a dog collar. I didn’t open my eyes, hoping that the voice would move on, but it came again with even more insistence. `Do you know the Lord Jesus Christ?’ My immediately conceived answer, in the light of me clearly being ordained, was the facetious, ‘Of course not, I’m an Anglican!’ Before delivering this unhelpful quip, however, by the grace of God, I opened my eyes and saw sitting next to me an old, toothless, and very poor man. We fell into conversation and he told me that he had once ‘known the Lord Jesus Christ’ but had done ‘bad things’. ‘Well, that makes you and me both.’ I replied. And I still do bad things. It seems to me that’s how human beings are and that all we can really do is to ask for God’s mercy and forgiveness.’ My awaited friend returned, the ordination beckoned and we moved off.

That man, however, stayed in my prayers and I remembered him later when I was preparing a sermon on the healing of the ten lepers in Luke’s gospel (1). It seemed to me that his plea and mine, and indeed that of us all, needed to be the same as the lepers’, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ (2). When Jesus saw the lepers and heard their cry, his response was immediate and clear: ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests’ (3). This must have seemed a most confusing and hurtful directive since lepers were only required to show themselves to the priest when they were healed. Was he mocking them, this travelling preacher man? Nevertheless, helpless and hopeless as they were, with nothing to lose, they obeyed and were ‘made clean’. When we cry for mercy, as the lepers did, a similar trust and obedience is asked of us, ‘Go and show yourself,’ not to the priest but to God. We are asked to go and bring ourselves into God’s presence as we really are.

We are not many of us very willing to do this. We are not keen to show to God, others or ourselves the complex reality of what we are. Most of us, if we’re lucky, have a few strong hands to play in life, to show others and to offer. We all basically enjoy playing these ‘strong hands’ because they show us off in the best possible light. Indeed, many of us will busily manipulate situations to give us the showcase that we need to use our best skills. I well remember arriving in my first parish as an arrogant new curate, rather proud of all the giftedness I thought I had to offer: able worker with young people; good preacher and teacher; a person of wide pastoral experience etc. Because of my determination to ‘play one of my strong hands’ it took me ages to see that God wanted me to work with the older people. I had no idea how to do this, and was, therefore, fearful that I might not be shown to good advantage. Actually, of course, once I started to work with them, listened to them and with them to God, I was able to find a much better way forward than if I had been relying on my giftedness alone. The need to play our ‘strong hands’ can be almost endemic amongst us and this is a great pity because it is not always from the places where we feel most confident, where we think we understand, that the deepest growth can occur. As Yehuda Amichai reflects:

From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
But doubt and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood (4).

Of course, none of this is to deny that we must learn to recognise our God-given gifts and to feel confident to use them. God, however, in my experience and in that of many of the people I have worked with, seems to be nowhere near as interested in our playing ‘our strong cards’ as we are! Indeed, if we concentrate too much on doing what we think we are good at it can make us arrogant, self-dependent and even intolerant of others who are less gifted. As Dag Hammarskjöld challenges us in his journal, Markings:

`Better than other people.’ Sometimes he says: ‘That, at least, you are.’ But more often ‘Why should you be? Either you are what you can be, or not – like other people’ (5).

Our capabilities are often an abstraction, at best a pattern rather than a fact, and the key thing to grasp is that we are capable of doing whatever God enables us to do. The enterprise is God’s and how our capabilities play into that is in his hands, even to the extent that what might be asked of us is our willingness to be done to as much as to do, our willingness to be used or not used. I am always deeply moved by the Methodist Covenant Prayer although I find it almost impossible to pray:

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will; put me to doing,
    put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you
    or laid aside for you
exalted for you
    or brought low for you;
let me be full,
    let me be empty,
let me have all things,
    let me have nothing;
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal (6).

God wants us to offer him our strong and our weak `hands’ which can, of course, both in their different ways, make us struggle with holiness. What in fact we are invited to show God, to bring consciously into God’s presence, is the totality of our being. Not just our giftedness but that which fills us with despair, shame, fear, panic, frustration and even disgust. Recently, through a Succession of unlikely events, I found myself sitting, thinking and praying in my old undergraduate room at college. Sitting there made me very thoughtful. What exactly was the relationship between the young woman of then and the middle-aged woman of now? How were they connected? I could see growth but I also despaired that some essential key elements still troubled me and made me vulnerable. If we fail to offer these aspects of our reality to God he cannot work with them and our lives and ministries are impaired. In an article on prayer Jack Nicholls quotes Mother Mary Clare of the Sisters of the Love of God:

When you go before God in prayer you cannot leave anything behind. You carry in your heart every person, every incident, every thought, every feeling you have ever had and as you lay yourself before God so you bring all the mess as well. ‘My prayer’, she said, ‘is really one sentence: “Here I am, what a mess”‘ (7).

`Here I am, what a mess’ is powerful indeed. In the early days of being a priest, I was always very tense when I celebrated the Eucharist. I was a curate in a church with a very formal liturgy and initially I struggled to do everything in the way to which the people there were accustomed. One day, my nervousness led me to spill the wine all over the altar cloth. I was horrified by the mess. The whole altar was covered in red. I was so upset but knew I must carry on and as I said the words of consecration it was borne in on me that God’s intervention in the world through the death of Christ was much nearer to this mess I was witnessing than the very well-ordered celebration which we normally have; that the spilling of Christ’s blood involved a handing over to the forces of chaos and destruction which was what we were celebrating in this act. That picture has been etched on my mind and as I celebrate communion now it powerfully reminds me of the risk and cost of God’s action in Christ.

I used this quotation, ‘Here I am, what a mess’ in a Quiet Day for the ordinands at college along with what I considered to be a great richness of other thoughts and ideas! It was this thought, however, and this thought alone, which people mentioned to me again and again that term. Somehow it really resonated in their hearts. If we hide from the unacceptable parts of our lives and refuse to take them with us in prayer then God cannot work with us and gradually change us into his likeness. Mother Mary Clare’s comment suggests that inevitably we cannot leave bits of ourselves behind when we pray but what we often do, of course, is fail to acknowledge the reality of this to ourselves.

I have lived much of my Christian life saying that God loves me but behaving as if I’m convinced he is out to get me: that if I really let him in on my world, he will do things to me which will hurt and harm me. Can I really believe what I both say and preach, that I am ‘beloved of God’, if I am determined to hide myself from God and unwilling to entrust my whole self to him? People think I am very open. ‘What you see is what you get’ is something I often hear said of me. Ha! It’s true up to a point but there are deeply hidden depths which I am terrified to give up to anyone. Recently, I was sitting talking to a close friend late into the night with the comforting help of a bottle of red wine. She suddenly said, ‘You know, you often come up to things I think you want to tell me and you don’t. I just want to say that I notice and that I think It would be all right if you told me! But I want to stress there’s absolutely no pressure to do so because I love you anyway.’ I was shocked and taken aback! Was I so very transparent? If so, I didn’t like the vulnerability that made me feel. I was not hiding things well enough. Yes I knew she loved me and I loved her but would she still love me if she really knew me? That was the agony. I was unsure and scuttled quickly off to bed. It troubled me though and I couldn’t sleep. Obviously, I didn’t really believe in her love if I couldn’t trust her with myself. It was just a fair weather thing and no real use. So, the next morning I went for it and shared the issue which she had sensed I was withholding. I was terrified and felt sick. It felt very out of control to have it in the open. However, she was wonderful, gentle and accepting and now I feel so much better that she knows and hasn’t turned away. I also realised what a block it had been to the deepening of our relationship and understanding. I explain this at length because I think it can inform our relationship with God. Our failure to believe enough in his love, to entrust the mess of our real selves to him, is a serious barrier to the joy of knowing him better.

This is a real challenge for us! We all struggle with learning to see who we are and to stop hiding from ourselves. One of the givens of living in community as we do in a theological college is that all of us, students and staff included, have a mirror lifted up to ourselves. I tell the ordinands that we will all do well to look in it! What is interesting is that people always suppose that what they will be shown in the ‘mirror’ of our community is their inadequacies and faults. This will sometimes be the case, but what is more often shown to us is that which others find delightful or helpful, the gifts in which they rejoice. These are often much harder for us to take on board than the negative things. I contrast this with an incident with my daughter Beth when she was tiny. I looked at her one day and told her what beautiful eyes she had. I have always remembered her response, ‘Yes, Mummy, I know. Thank you.’ This gave me real pause for thought as I realised how entirely beyond adults this straightforward response would be. How we have lost the ability to receive good things from each other.

One of the oddities I have found, again and again, in people as I have listened to them in a counselling capacity is their unwillingness to pray about the problems which they bring to me. One of my clients said very proudly to me recently, looking for my affirmation, ‘Oh, I’ve prayed about it all now that I’ve got it sorted out!’ Of Course, I said I was pleased that after all the weeks we had been talking she had finally felt able to pray but I was still sad that it was the finished product rather than the ‘mess’ which she offered to God in prayer. So very often people in a mess (and that’s most of us most of the time) feel they can’t pray because they can’t say the words that they think God wants to hear. We fear that we can only pray by giving God the right answers. In fact, the biggest danger is simply not to pray, to fail to be in conversation with the God who loves us. Far better to say to God, if it is your truth, that, for example, you want to stop desiring this person because you know it will hurt others and that you, at the same time, will die if you have to give the person up! Tell God that you really want to forgive this person for what they have done, but you also want to hate them forever! Trust God with the mess and inconsistency! The response God wants is the response we can make even if the stuff of our response is sometimes contradiction, confusion and irrationality. Invite him to be part of the resolution, to help you to begin to grow into the person whom he yearns for you to become. I am always helped in this by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prayed as he felt. He longed that God would take the cup from him (8). He asked God for what he wanted, inviting him into the mess, but none the less was able to say ‘Yet not my will but yours be done’ (9). He was able, in these hugely terrifying circumstances, to trust himself absolutely to the God whom he knew loved him.

God doesn’t want us to pretend. We don’t need to protect him from the truth. As George Appleton’s telling prayer says:

O God, you desire truth in the innermost heart; forgive me my sins against truth; the untruth within me, the half-lies, the evasions, the exaggerations, the lying silences, the self-deceits, the masks I wear before the world. Let me stand naked before you, and see myself as I really am. Then, grant me truth in my inward parts and keep me in truth always (10).

God can live with the reality that we are still sinners even if we find it hard to do so! The evangelical tradition in which I have my roots has a practice of asking people to offer testimonies about what God has done in their lives. I have always found this most disconcerting, not least because it makes me feel inadequate on every front! Firstly, people seem to have lived such terrible and rather exciting lives before they meet Jesus and secondly, all now seems to be fine and they are sailing on into the sunset. am left thinking that my testimony would have to be something like this: ‘I was a sinner before I met Jesus (and probably not a very exciting one), then I met Jesus and sadly I’m still a sinner.’ You see all the people of real faith that I know are sinners still, but now sinners on the way. What we all need to do is to learn to be more up front about it. I am reminded of a Peanuts cartoon which Mike Yaconelli cites in his book, Messy Spirituality:

Charlie Brown comes to visit Lucy at her 5 cent psychiatrist booth. Lucy says to Charlie Brown that life is like a cruise liner. Some people put their deckchairs up at the back of the liner and like to look back to where they have come from. Others like to pitch their deckchair at the front and look ahead to where they are going. What about you, Charlie Brown? Where do you put your deckchair on the cruise liner of life? There is a long, sad, bemused pause. ‘Heck,’ Charlie Brown says, ‘I don’t even know how to put my deckchair up!’ (11).

Believe you me, having listened in depth to the lives of many people, it seems to me this is the reality for most of us!

The challenge is to learn to pray as we are and this is closely linked to our ability to accept ourselves as we are and not as the idealised people we might imagine ourselves to be. We must come to accept that it is when our lives are in the biggest mess and when our desires are strongest and our minds most distracted that we can really begin to grow in our knowledge of ourselves as real people. This is exactly the point at which we must urgently and with most benefit offer ourselves to God in prayer.

The lepers showed themselves to the priest, and this act of considerable faith was honoured by their healing. We too need to take ourselves, every, part of the complexity which is us, into God’s presence, leaving nothing behind. Then our healing and growth is also possible. For one and one only of the lepers, the Samaritan, the foreigner, the outcast, did it lead to his offering thanks to God. They were certainly all cured but perhaps only this one was made whole as he alone understood that what he had received was a gift and gave thanks to God.

There is a beautiful church lying in a tiny hamlet, near an ancient ford by the River Trent. It was built by a fifthteenth-century wool merchant as a penance to save his soul. I have no idea what he did! This church makes me offer a wry smile. The builder, the very human and fallible John Barton, confusing the material and the spiritual, built the church one-sided. If you stand near the manor house the church looks ornate and decorated, if you stand and look from the farm labourers’ cottages on the other side it looks plain as plain can be. This makes me think of me, and it makes me think of all of us. How often we behave just like John Barton. We show our good and respectable face to God, to others and even to ourselves. However, if we only allowed ourselves to peer round the corner, certainly not hidden from God and often not hidden from others or ourselves is the other side. Nobody is fooling anybody so why do we so often behave like this?

I believe that the reasons lie deep in our childhoods. When we are young we look into the faces of those around us to see who we are and how we are doing. Ideally, for our wellbeing, we need those eyes to reflect back to us unconditional love and acceptance. Unfortunately, this does not happen as none of us are surrounded by perfect people and it is all too easy to get things wrong. All those who care for us, however well, are only human and this inevitably means that they have needs themselves which have only been half met. So these guides are problematic for us. Firstly, they cannot love us unconditionally conditionally and secondly, as we interact with them we, in turn, can start to take upon ourselves their deficits, the things which they failed to be given. So basically the problem is that we are adrift in a world where nobody really has the faintest idea what it might feel like to be unconditionally loved. This is beyond our experience. Love, even the best we can offer, always comes with provisos and limitations.

Just how difficult it is to get this right as a parent was borne in on me early in my son James’ life. At infant school, his closest friends were a delightful couple of identical twins. When they moved to a new school James was utterly bereft. At lunchtime he just stood by himself oil the edge of the playground and watched the other lads playing football. He loved football and I was sure that if he could join in he would make some new friends, so I started to started to encourage him to play. One day on the way to school talking about playtime he said to me, ‘Mummy, it’s the rough boys who play football. I am not a rough boy.’ Then he horrified me by adding with his seven-yearold’s frankness, ‘Is that a problem to you?’ It made me realise how easy it is for misunderstanding to grow about what is hoped for and acceptable. Whether I wanted a boy who could play football or was rough was not the issue, but it was so easy for James to think that it was.

Because we tend to think about God in the way we think about each other, these difficulties we have about knowing ourselves unconditionally loved, are reflected in that relationship too. We find it very hard to believe that God loves us as we are, that he loves us unconditionally and accepts us unreservedly. We are always tempted to make God in our own image, indeed it is a great struggle not to. Gerard Hughes illustrates this in his excellent book God of Surprises:

If our experience has taught us to think of God as a policeman type figure, whose predominant interest is in our faults, and if our encounters with him have been mostly in cold churches where we were bored out of our minds with barely audible services and sermons presenting God as he who disapproves of most of the things we like, then we are not likely to want to turn to him, no matter how many people may tell us that prayer is necessary (12).

The task then is both intellectual and emotional. We may know intellectually that God is not like the policeman cited above but this does not help much if we still feel that he is. So our prayers for ourselves and others must as much for a change in the way we feel about God as they are for the way we think about him. The more we come to believe in God as unconditionally loving, accepting and affirming the more we will be able sharing to take the risk of showing him who we really are and sharing with him the lives that we really live. As we begin to believe new things of God it will enable us to believe new things about ourselves. ‘In love there is no room for fear; indeed perfect love banishes fear’ (13).

This journey of transformation and acceptance is beautifully explored by Trevor Dennis in his short story:

The child was young enough to know that speaking to God was the most natural thing in all the world, to know that God laughed and cried, to know that God’s house was not a grand place, but small and intimate, warm, comfortable and very safe, and that God had carpet slippers on her feet. She had not yet been taught to be afraid of God, or that she was not good enough for her, or that she always had to be on best behaviour with her and keep as many secrets from her as she could. She liked God and liked her company. It was as simple for her as that.

But the child grew up, and learned she had to be more sophisticated. Adults told her it was much more complicated. Adults spoke of guilt, confession and praise. Adults taught her to be polite with God, to doff her cap, bend the knee, touch her forelock and watch her step. Adults filled her silences with words to say and songs to sing, and those put God on such a high pedestal that she could not see her anymore, let alone reach to kiss her. In fact, God was no longer for kissing. Adults taught her that, too. They turned her God into a ‘He’ with a large capital ‘H’, removed His carpet slippers, and clothed Him with High Dignity.

For a long time the growing child, moved inexorably towards adulthood and then arriving there, believed what she was told. She learned that it was not proper to like God. She was to love God instead, so long as underneath she was secretly afraid.

Yet the memories of childhood, by the mercy of God, did not leave her entirely. Deep in her mind and soul they still talked softly, producing in her an unease, a holy doubt, a sense of something precious that was lost, and a longing to find it again.

One day she packed her spiritual bags and left. She left behind the people who were content to remain where they were. She left those who were sure they had arrived, and spoke as if they owned the Promised Land. She abandoned their terrifying certainties, and went out into what they told her was no-man’s land, no-woman’s land, no-god’s land. She tried also, as far as she could, to leave behind those people’s fear of God, the fear that lurked beneath their talk of love and praise. A new fear came upon her, the fear of the unknown, the fear of loneliness. She packed that in her bag, along with her unease, her yearning, her holy doubt, and a new sense of adventure and a large exhilaration.

She passed many on the road going in the opposite direction, to the patches of ground she had left behind, to the familiar pieces of territory where all was known and no surprises were to be had.
Yet soon she was not alone. Others came and joined her.

‘Don’t look so serious!’ someone said. ‘Can you play anything?’
A musical instrument, do you mean?’
`I don’t think so.’
`That’s a funny answer. Try this.’ He put a hand inside his coat and produced a tuba.
‘But I can’t. I mean I’ve never … How do you blow? I can’t read music.’
`But this is ridiculous!’
`Yes, it is. Try.’
She picked up the tuba, cradled it awkwardly in her arms, put it to her lips and blew. She produced a singularly rude noise, and her companions fell about laughing.
Wonderful!’ they cried. ‘That’ll do. Come on!’ `But I can’t do it properly at all!’
`You will. Come on!

Lugging along the tuba as best she could, she started off again with her companions. They were still laughing. She noticed most of them had musical instruments of one kind or another. One poor man was pushing a piano.
The tuba was very big, and very heavy.
`Some of you aren’t carrying anything,’ she complained.
`Yes we are,’ they replied. ‘Our voices.’
`You mean you’re the choir?’
`Exactly. You’re beginning to understand. We travel light. The adults taught you too well, back there. That’s why you’re having to drag that great thing along. But we haven’t far to go now.’
At the top of the next hill, the ones in the front of the group suddenly stopped.
`Listen to that!’ they said.

Beneath them stretched a wide plain, and in the middle of it was the God the woman had set out to find, the God of her childhood. She, her God, out there, in the middle of the plain, was playing a saxophone. Its sound made bright the air, soft, lilting, inviting, sensuous, ethereal, a single instrument weaving together the sounds of heaven and earth and in-between. The woman had never heard anything so wonderful in all her life, nor so beautiful.
She put her lips to the mouthpiece of the tuba. Without hesitation or restraint she began to play a love-song, soft, lilting, inviting, sensuous, ethereal. It filled the plain and wove itself together with the sound of the saxophone.

Her companions took up their own instruments. Slowly they played or sang their way down the long slope onto the plain and out to its centre. By the time they reached God their music had become a romp, enough to wake the angels in their beds. Eventually it subsided again, fell back to a gentle pianissimo, rocked heaven back to sleep, and miraculously, became a single thread. All the notes became as one, sound merged with sound and made a single beauty.

In the midst of them God put down her saxophone, listened for a spell, and began to dance (14).

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you hide from god? If so, why?
  2. How do you respond to Mother Mary Clare’s prayer ‘Her I am, what a mess’?
  3. Do you think that we make God in our own image? How do you respond to Gerard Hughes’s extract?
  4. Does the Trevor Dennis story at the end of the reflection ring any bells for you?





  1. Anthony Bloom (Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh), Beginning to Pray, Paulist Press, 1970, p.2.
  2. Luke 18:9-14.
  3. Aresnius 36 as quoted in Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes, Lion Publishing, 2003, p. 44.
  4. Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Blackie & Son, (1895), p. 25.
  5. Francis Dewar, Invitations, SPCK, 1996, p. 15.
  6. 2 Corinthians 12:10.
  7. Richard Rohr, Simplicity, Crossroad Publishing, 1990, p. 117.
  8. Athenagoras (Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople) as quoted in Jean Vanier, Finding Peace, Continuum, 2003, p. 59.

Reflection 1: Hiding from God

  1. Luke 17:11-19.
  2. Luke 17:13.
  3. Luke 17:14.
  4. Yehuda Amichai, The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, University of California Press, 1996, p. 34.
  5. Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings, Faber and Faber Ltd, 1964, p. 2.
  6. Methodist Worship Book, Methodist Publishing House, 1999, p. 290.
  7. Stephen Conway, Living the Eucharist, DLT, 2001, p. 74.
  8. Luke 22:42.
  9. ibid.
  10. George Appleton, Daily Prayer and Praise, The Lutterworth Press, 1962.
  11. Mike Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality, Hodder and Stoughton, 2001, p. 16.
  12. Gerard W. Hughes, God of Surprises, DLT, 1985, p. 36.
  13. 1 John 4:18, New English Bible, OUP/CUP, Triangle SPCK, 1999, pp. 81-84.




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