Last Friday (January 12th 2018) at Mt St Bernard’s Abbey, I again drew the four overlapping circles which I first thought about on my week of solitude in the campervan in October 2016.
It all started back then when I was thinking about the Commandments – to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’” (Mark 12:30-31). I was wondering how to love God with all the different aspects of my being and how they relate to each other. I saw a connection between strength and body, and that I am made up of these four aspects which can’t be entirely separate entities, so are somehow all overlapping and interlocking, making me the person I am. As I drew four overlapping circles, I noticed that there was a central core where all four came together and were inseparable. I feel this central core is somehow God, who has created me in his “image and likeness” and has always been an integral part of him, whether I have recognised him or not.I have been thinking again about this image and finding it a very helpful model, which I think is also theologically sound, for looking at many aspects of God and who I am, how I relate to him and how he has created every human being.
The Bible tells us that we are children of God, amazingly in the same way that Jesus (Christ) is the Son of God; and Christ is an inextricable part of the Trinity, whom he draws us into. So I have come to appreciate in a fresh way how God is at the central core of every human being, not just some reality or entity “out there”. He is waiting to be discovered and acknowledged by and in each person. No wonder we are told to ALSO love ourselves AND everyone else. We can only really love God when we love him as the core of every person, including ourselves. It is not possible to love just God alone without also loving myself and everyone else. I find it hard to put all this into words or even understand it, which is why this image is helpful for me.
It makes sense of Jesus’ command to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us. Of course, since they are also made in the image of God and have the same core, which is God himself, at their centre, however hidden and small it may be.
But all this talk about love begs the question: what is love? What does it really mean to love God, love yourself, and love others, even your enemies?
This picture is also helping me appreciate what wholeness, peace and healing might be about. I think it is about integration and union – within myself, with God and the world (including other people). The more integrated and united the four aspects of my personhood become, so the overlap, my central core which is somehow God, grows and fills my being until, after death, the image of God is finally and fully restored as each one of us becomes fully integrated and whole – if that’s what we choose. Or put the other way round, as I allow God to grow within me, so I become more integrated and whole. And this is only possible if I don’t deny or try to ignore or push out one aspect, one of the circles, of my humanity. I am sure God’s grace (a very difficult concept to understand) is somehow key in all this. I cannot expand the central core, God within me, by my own doing. Only God can do it – but only if I choose to allow him to.
Perhaps sin is about pushing one of the circles out of kilter and so squeezing out the central core, God’s presence within me. Likewise, anger and causing hurt to another person not only diminishes God’s central core within me, but also damages it within the other. “When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ” (1 Cor. 8.12). Choosing to repent and say sorry restores the balance, integration and overlapping of the circles, as does forgiveness.
The overlapping circles help me to understand where God is when I am suffering in any way, in body, mind, heart or soul. He is there with me, part of me, at the centre of my suffering. He is suffering with me and will prevent it from totally overwhelming me or destroying me, until that day when I pass through physical death into wholeness and new life. Does it also help to make sense of what Paul wrote in Colossians 1:24? “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church”?
The analogy also helps me understand better the command to “Be holy because the Lord our God is holy” – an impossible expectation to meet, unless I allow God to grow larger within me. I cannot make myself holy: I’ve tried – and failed! Conversely, perhaps evil is about choosing alienation and total disintegration of what makes us human, to the point of completely excluding God at the core, of ourselves and others?
As a Christian, I believe in Incarnation – God being real, physical and tangible in the world, in flesh, particularly in human flesh, since human beings are made in the image of God. So yes, God is at the core of my being. But human beings have always struggled with this integration, often choosing separation and independence. God demonstrated the reality of his Incarnation once and for all when Christ,
“being in the form of God,
did not count equality with God
as something to be grasped.
But he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
becoming as human beings are;
and being in every way like a human being,
he was humbler yet,
even to accepting death, death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8)
So Jesus was born an ordinary human being, just as we are, and had to discover for himself and learn throughout his life how to become fully integrated in his body, mind, heart and soul, resisting the temptations of disintegration and evil, so that God, as his Father (and ours) and the Spirit, grew within and filled him. He showed us that it is not only possible, but is actually the purpose of life. Jesus is our pattern and our companion on the journey of life. This is what salvation is about – and it is a life-long, on-going process. There is no one point in our earthly lives when we can say we are “saved”, as many Christians would have us believe, although it helps when we recognise, in this earthly life, who and what Jesus was and did – and that he continues to be active in the world and in human beings as the risen Christ because, after his physical death on the cross,
“God raised him high,
and gave him the name
which is above all names;
so that all beings
in the heavens, on earth and in the underworld,
should bend the knee at the name of Jesus
and that every tongue should acknowledge
Jesus Christ as Lord,
To the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11)
The danger in using this picture of overlapping circles is that it can encourage or be experienced as being static. This will not lead to new life and growth of God within. Wherever God is, throughout his creation, as the Trinity, there is movement and flow, change and growth, renewal and LIFE itself – even in what appears to be static, such as rocks and mountains. To paraphrase Richard Rohr, we are invited to allow this positive flow of Life to mark and bless our bodies, consciously and slowly, with what is already happening within us – ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’
Another danger is that it could also lead me to focus only inwards. God is not only within and part of each of us – he is also outside and beyond each of us.
I recently read a quotation by Ilia Delio which made me excited, for the first time ever, about life after death and eternity which fits in with these reflections about God and love: “Heaven is not a place of eternal rest or a long sleep-in, but a life of creativity and newness in love; one with God in the transformation of all things…… Heaven is earth transformed by love when earthly life is lived in love; the suffering of earth is transformed into a foretaste of heaven when one sees and hears from the inner centre of love. Even in heaven the wounds of suffering will not be removed but will be transformed by divine love into new and eternal life.” Having already enjoyed various ways of being creative and involved in transformation, but also feeling so helpless and pained by all the suffering in the world, the idea of being totally integrated with God and involved in his ongoing work of transforming love in the world is awesome!