When consonants go astray

Patricia O'Neill

Psalm 57 v 11

For your loving-kindness is as high as the heavens

And your faithfulness reaches to the clouds

My religious formation centred on the question ‘what does God want from me?’ In this version God was a tick-box kind of fellow. There was the big stuff, murder, theft, the thrilling sounding fornication: all in the category of fat chance.  Sunday mass attendance, weekly confession, nighttime prayer, tick, tick, tick. Then the trickier stuff, religious vocation, only thinking the best of everyone, no lies, no impure thoughts: God could see right into you and your nastiness so don’t be thinking you had a private life.   Then there was the whole business of obedience, good behaviour and  manners - by this stage God was beginning to take over the territory of social customs. He was a very demanding chap - and make no mistake, in my world God was most definitely a man, with the exception of Sr. Mary Magdalen, who occasionally stood in for him. It was at this point that I got confused as to whether eating in the street was a social solecism or a sin, although eating in the street with your school hat on was most definitely a sin.  All this, for a naturally disputatious child with an anxious temperament, gave rise to a sadly distorted God who was tyrannical, fussy and in need of constant praise and placating in order to stay on his right side. Of course there was the loving bit, but only if you behaved well did what you were told. It’s surely proof of God’s existence that somehow we remained in touch.


It’s taken me most of my adult life to work out that there’s a small but significant spelling error in that question, which should read ‘what does God want for me?’ In this version, God is the mysterious power of love at the heart of the universe, the source of all goodness, truth and beauty, wherein we find our home. Our relationship to God is defined by love, not obligation, obedience, rules, expectations, only love.   If we could only know it, we live our lives in the shelter of this love. We walk our given path clothed in its sacred light. If we could only know it, in times of danger or despair we need no other armour. If we could only know it, in times of greatest happiness it is there rejoicing with us.  If we could truly know it, it provides the only compass we need, the only guiding principle; that there are no conditions, no requirements other than those of love: love of self and love of our neighbour.  This precept for life is the freedom of knowing that God wants only that we be happy and make others happy.   To experience oneself as loved unconditionally is true liberation. All else falls into place and the only direction is toward the source of love, which exists here and beyond physical space, now and out of time, is that which we call God.