Many of my childhood mornings began with a breakfast of oatmeal. Warm and buttery, it was a comfort on cold days. And often, sitting on the bar where we had our breakfast, was the oatmeal carton. The Quaker Oats man was an old friend, with his rosy cheeks and wide smile. I’d sit and eat my oatmeal and look at his face. Because, in my child’s mind, this was the face of God.
I knew what Jesus looked like already. My grandmother had given me a framed picture of Him like the one in the front of my Bible. He had long brown hair and blue eyes because this was the 1960’s and that’s what Jesus looked like back then. And I kind of thought that the Holy Spirit looked like a dove (of all things) or maybe a flame (even stranger). But God the Father must surely look like the Quaker Oats man. This kindly, welcoming face was who I thought of whenever God’s name was mention in prayer. He was “Father.”
My relationship with my own father was a complicated one. He was a caring man, but was often emotionally distant and difficult for me to connect with. Daddy was a hard worker who was proud of his years of military service. He seemed most animated when he shared stories of those years overseas. I never doubted his love for me, although I rarely heard him tell me that in words. My mother was the one who lavished us with “I love you’s.”. As I grew older, I learned that my dad’s father had committed suicide many years before I was born. Daddy would never talk to me about that, but I knew it was his life’s deep and abiding wound.
As my child’s mind was trying to imagine how God was my father, I couldn’t reconcile my own distant and somehow sad earthly father with my loving Father in heaven. I know that, for several years, my prayers generally went out to a happy-looking Quaker gentleman. I’m telling you my story because I think many of us create God in an image that’s acceptable and understandable to us. And when we do that, things can get murky.
For starters, our limited human minds can never truly grasp the splendor and majesty of God. As St. Augustine wrote, “…if you think you understand, then it isn’t God.” And this from one of the Lord’s closest friends. Our words (like “father”) limit our capacity to imagine the depth and grandeur of our Creator’s nature. We have a terrible time even trying to understand the Trinity as one God in three Persons. Remember how St. Patrick used the shamrock for this? We’re like little children, crawling around on the floor of a great library—trying to understand what’s in all the books around us without even being able to read.
And that’s fine with God. He gave us Holy Scripture which is His love story for us. He sent us His only Son to reveal His face and His love. He gives us His Holy Spirit to strengthen our faith and guide us in holiness. We don’t have to be theologians to love and serve the Lord, however. Remember that He calls us to become like little children (Matthew 18:3-4) in our relationships with Him. We trust and obey and know that He will always be there with us through everything. Our understanding of a father’s love may be limited and colored by our earthly relationships. Lent is a season of invitation—a time to deepen our Scriptural reading, our time in prayer, and our service to others. Each Lent is an opportunity to repent and renew our relationship with the Father’s love for us.
“When you say to God, ‘Our Father,’ He has His ear right next to your lips.”
—-St. Andre Besette