What is your image of God? This question has been with me for many years. For a long time I couldn’t access my personal image of God because the Old Testament God stood in the way. A picture of God in the sky with his bolt of lightning had rooted itself in my belief system.
I finally challenged that God image when I was in my forties, and the experience was more terrifying than I had anticipated. I spoke about the experience in The Tower Princess: A fairy tale lived.
… one day, I closed my eyes and allowed myself to see God, just the way I had pictured him as a little girl. I looked into his intimidating face, his bearded chin jutting out of ominous black clouds, lightning flashing around his head, and I said, “I don’t believe in you, God. You are not my god. I don’t know who my god is, but you’re not it.” Then I marched back into the world.
Well. The terror! The guilt! I felt sure that God would strike me down for my heresy. I was amazed at the fear that had lodged in my cells, and the crushing weight of guilt.
Two days later, the phone rang. My dad was on the other end. He and my mother were headed to Vancouver for my youngest brother’s wedding. I couldn’t go because I was in too much pain to travel, which was a whole other department of grief. In any case, my father was mad. It had nothing to do with me—it had to do with the government of Canada and his fury with liberal policies. But every time he vented his anger, I would go into a state of shock. I would become Dorothy trembling before the Great Oz, and no amount of self-admonishment could change my response. He was my father, and not only that, but God’s stand-in. This time, however, I interrupted him. I told him I couldn’t listen to his anger, and I hung up.
The guilt was so crushing that a few days later, all the muscles in my back went out. For days I lay in bed, unable to move.
My old mind said, See? God struck you down! But my spirit said, I’m not defeated. I’m here. Love is in charge, now. I’m not going to let others control me with fear, not even God.
A little while later, another image of God formed in my mind. It came to me through a story called “The Flammable Angel” (in A. Seeker’s Storybook.) I had been living with pain for some time, and I was asking God a question: “Why did you put me in this world when I’m useless to everyone?”
In “The Flammable Angel,” a young angel named Patsy arrived in heaven but found that she couldn’t do the work. Every morning, the great angels flew down to earth where the fires of suffering were intense, and they played their harps to bring comfort and inspiration. On Patsy’s first day of work, she caught fire and had to be rescued by one of the more experienced, non-flammable angels. She came back to heaven with her hair and her wing tips burnt to cinders, and to make it worse, she had lost her harp. She sat on the heavenly steps with her tiny, owlish friend Cora. “Why did God put me in heaven if I can’t do the work?” she asked.
Cora looked at Patsy with round eyes and said, “Maybe you should find out.” They gazed up at the cloud where God lived at the top of a mountain with a road that spiraled upwards. Patsy became determined to bring her question to God, and she spent weeks getting strong enough to fly through the fierce winds that separated her cloud island from God’s. One day she set off, summoning all her strength and resolve to get to the other side. When she finally touched down, and started up the mountain, she woke a fire-breathing dragon. He leapt to do his duty, and burnt her all over again. In pain, she carried on, making her way up the spiral road that led to the heavenly temple. When she arrived, she mounted the steps and walked into the temple fully expecting to be incinerated by Almighty God On High.
Instead, she came into a dark circular room with nothing but a single Flame in the center. As she approached the Flame, she felt the presence of Someone infinitely tender, who knew her and loved her entirely. As the story says, “…she felt as if a huge Ear were pressed to her heart, and the closer she got, the more deeply the Ear heard.” She said:
“I’ve come to find out what I’m supposed to be doing in heaven, God. I don’t belong. I’m not like the others. I’m flammable.”
“I know,” said God. “So am I.” Then there was just silence, and listening, and a great deal of comfort passed between. Finally God whispered, “Angels are meant to be flammable.”
Patsy wanted to tell God that most angels considered themselves to be non-flammable, and maybe if the dragon hadn’t been sleeping on the job, there would be more flammable ones, but she decided to hold her tongue. She felt that she should perhaps not take up anymore of God’s time, but she did have one more … well, burning question to ask.
“How do I keep from going up in flames?”
God thought for a while and then said, “Imagine I am a collector of angels, and I have two angels that are very dear to me. One of them is very delicate, old, and hand-made. The other one is store-bought, made in a factory and indestructible. Which angel do you think I am going to be most careful with?
“Well, the delicate one, of course.”
“And so it is with you, Patsy. Stay flammable, just the way you are, and while you’re looking after others, I’ll look after you.”
Through “The Flammable Angel”, I contacted an image of God that felt more true to me than the image I had acquired as a child. It was deeply personal and unapologetically subjective. This is the beauty of the creative Imagination. Everyone who asks a question receives their own image; one facet of a great crystal. Imagination is not autocratic. There are infinite ways to see a story or a symbol, and what is important is the meaning that the image has for each of us. Yet we’ve been cut off from our ‘subjective’ imaginations. We’ve been taught that the authority is out there, not in here. But what if it isn’t? What if we put our faith in the internal authority of our souls? What if we asked honest questions, waited for answers, and courageously received the images that bore a truth we recognized?
In his book, All the World an Icon, Tom Cheetham says that when we begin to exercise the creative Imagination, “we are changed utterly,” because Imagination “allows us to see things that we cannot otherwise see.” Quoting Henry Corbin, he goes on to say, “Our great task is ‘to make ourselves capable of God’.”
This is not arrogance. It is the cornerstone of our wisdom, our humanity. We need to know what we know, and that what we know matters. The American imagist poet Hilda Doolittle put it succinctly: “What can be seen is at stake,” she said. (p. 19, Cheetham)
Featured image by W.W. Denslow, original illustrations from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)
Illustration by Richard Leach, from A. Seeker’s Storybook, by Michelle Tocher.
To read the full version of “The Flammable Angel”, click here.