William P. Young’s 2007 novel, The Shack, is a book which has caused somewhat of a divide in the Christian community. It has been embraced enthusiastically by some for its depiction of a Holy Trinity who, rather like the God who revealed Himself to Julian of Norwich, is all love, goodness and mercy, and denounced as heretical by those who are more comfortable with the idea of a God of wrath, judgement and condemnation. It follows the story of a very ordinary man called Mack, who, having lost his young daughter in tragic circumstances, finds himself plunged into what the book calls ‘The Great Sadness’. It’s in the midst of all this tragedy and sorrow that God unexpectedly shows up in an encounter which will change Mack’s life forever.
I’m unashamed and quite happy to say that I’m in the former camp – I loved the book, and one of the things I appreciated the most was the insight it gave me into how our background and childhood can negatively tint our perception of God.
It’s a phenomenon which is well-documented in modern psychology. Children who’ve been raised in happy, stable, loving home environments find it far easier to believe in a God who loves them unconditionally, whose approval and attention they don’t have to earn. It’s not that these people believe that they’re perfect or that they don’t make mistakes – it’s just that they understand, intuitively, that when they invariably fall short, this won’t change how God feels about them. His love is not a reward for good behaviour but a part of who He is; therefore, stumbling or making a mess of things will not cause that love to be withdrawn.
The other kind aren’t so lucky. Raised by parents who were emotionally or physically absent, critical, narcissistic or just plain abusive can leave a person feeling like they’re on shaky ground. Constantly feeling that they have to prove themselves worthy of love and approval, they may become workaholics or ‘over-achievers’, collecting degrees and promotions in the hope that doing so will quell their persistent feelings of unworthiness. In their spiritual lives, they’re more likely to perceive God as distant and angry, withdrawing His love as soon as they commit the slightest sin, His hand always raised and ready to smite them if they don’t perform correctly.
The Shack was later adapted into a film. One of the scenes which really struck me was that in which Mack, having found himself in the company of the Most High, confesses that he’s not really sure what he’s supposed to be doing. You don’t have to do anything, is the Lord’s reply. That’s not how this works. Later, when taking a walk by the lake with Jesus, Mack talks about the pressure of constantly trying to be “a good Christian”. That sounds like an awful lot of hard work, is Jesus’ reply. I want friends. Family. People to share life with.
I can’t help but wonder if the reason so many people are finding lockdown challenging is that, in our society, we’re so much more comfortable with doing than being. We’ve bought the lie that our worth lies in what we can achieve rather than being intrinsic to who we are. But it’s not just that. Doing allows us to avoid intimacy – with our spouses, families, friends, selves and God. How many people do you know with whom you can simply sit and do nothing, and be quite happy? My guess is that they are probably pretty few and far between.
I suspect that might be part of the reason many people say they prefer animals to humans. Animals are experts at just being. They can’t talk, so there’s no pressure to try and make interesting conversation or sound intelligent. They don’t care how rich, good-looking or well-educated we are. Nor do they hold our faults against us or judge us as being less-than because of some arbitrary human standard. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that all creatures bear some resemblance to their creator, and I think that this may be one of them. God is also an expert in just being. His divine name – I AM THAT AM – should tell us as much.
But we don’t have time for that. There’s work to be done. Even our relationship with Him can become a check list. Read the Bible for fifteen minutes. Check. Say the Rosary. Check. Attend Mass. Check. Intercede, sing, say that novena. Check, check, check.
Why are we so reticent to stop doing and just be in His presence? What are we so afraid of?
Being is scary because it involves a loss of control. If I’m not doing things to influence how You feel about me, I have to accept that it’s not something that was ever within my control to start with. Worse, I might have to accept that everything I’ve been taught about You, and myself, is wrong. You’re good. You’re not angry. I’m worthy and lovely in Your eyes. Change is frightening. Yet to take steps in this direction and tentatively take our hands off the wheel is so necessary if we are to allow ourselves to be fully loved by God.
Just being involves bringing yourself, fully, as you are, into the present moment and letting God lavish His infinite love on you. It means not merely tasting but drinking deeply of His sweetness. That’s too much, you protest. Good! It’s meant to be.
Just being involves taking the time to fully notice and appreciate the love-tokens present in every second of your existence. The morning sun on your face. The wind in your hair. A perfect cup of coffee. Bare floorboards under your feet. The spring flowers. The ticking clock. A cosy blanket. Do you believe at last?
Just being means allowing ourselves to be reparented by the One who has called us to be His children. It means unlearning the bad theology which has wounded the Church and caused her to wound so many others in return. Just being might cause us to start seeing God, ourselves and the whole world in a radically different and more loving light.
It’s a terrifying thought.
And a wonderful one.
By Lucy Stothard