Images & Shadows

I’m the one who’s been asking you —
it hurts to ask — Who are you?
I am orphaned
each time the sun goes down.
I can feel cast out from everything
and even churches look like prisons

That’s when I want you —
you knower of my emptiness,
you, unspeaking partner to my sorrow —
that’s when I need you, God like food.
(Rainer Maria Rilke, from the Book of Hours, trans. Barrows & Macy)

Images that Draw You

I have always been drawn more to certain images of God than others.

I love the shepherd God, providing for his flock. I love the mother God, nestling her chicks under her wing, or weaning her children into maturity. I love the strong God of justice who frees prisoners and bends the moral arc of the universe.

But I can barely bring myself to speak the words “Alpha and Omega,” not to mention the “Sovereign,” “Propitiation,” or “Potentate.”

Everyone is like this, connecting more deeply with particular names or images of God than others. I love to listen to people talk about their connection to images of God that don’t resonate with me because it feels so expansive for my spiritual life. It re-connects me with the wide mystery of God.

Shadow Images

I think it is important to pay attention to the images that draw you, not only to explore what they reveal about your desires and beliefs, but also to explore what is hidden in them. When you call God by a particular name, or hold God as a particular image, there are necessarily ways that you are not perceiving God at that time. If I’m connected to God as shepherd, for instance, I might be missing God as creator, or God as refining fire, or God as judge.

One of my teachers calls this the “shadow image” — what is missing or hidden by a particular image of God. I often find myself asking: What happens when I encounter those “shadow images” for God in worship or prayer? How do I feel? What does that say about my soul?

Different Landscapes, Shifting Images

I’ve noticed that, although there are some images that stick with me always, as my spiritual journey moves through different landscapes, the images that speak to me most shift. The last few months have been a time of darkness and quiet in my soul and difficult circumstances in my life. Images of God that weren’t especially important before are resonating with me now.

One in particular comes from Rilke’s words in the poem above: God as the knower of my emptiness and the unspeaking partner to my sorrow. How grateful I am to Rilke for naming the tension of a God who is intimately near but painfully silent. Sometimes it can ache to reach toward God.

Another image that is strong for me comes from the Sufi mystic Rumi, who writes: “Dissolver of sugar, dissolve me.” I love this image of God because it speaks to the devastation that grief and pain can bring in our lives. How does it feel to be dissolved, even if that is the path your transformation is supposed to take? Rumi asks to be dissolved “gently… at dawn” or “suddenly, like an execution.” “How else can I get ready for death?” the poet asks.

God to me is these things right now: a knower of my emptiness, an unspeaking partner to my sorrow, a gentle or sudden dissolver. I continue to be curious about what that means for me and how my experience of God will continue to change as my life journey moves forward.

It’s clear that poetry is a central source of spiritual imagery for me, but I know lots of people who connect most with images they find in scripture or hymns. One of the reasons I love diversifying worship sources and methods is because it opens us up to so many different ways of experiencing God.

So, what do you find when you explore your preferred images of God? What do they say about the landscape of your spiritual life? What “shadow images” that may be less familiar to you are you interested in exploring?

**You can read the full Rilke poem here and the full Rumi poem here.


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Filed under My Faith Journey, Spirituality, Theology and Faith

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