He had large hands. His left one rested easily on the boy’s left shoulder. Both looked comfortable with the arrangement. They sat in the first pew at a daily Mass in a Church about 500 feet from the ocean. It was obvious even from the back that they were father and son. The adolescent boy’s head was a mirror image of the man’s. The shape of both heads, the ears exactly the same; the turn of the shoulder and the haircut were clones of each other.
The hand of the father rested on his son throughout most of the Mass. Every once in a while you could see a pat or a gentle squeeze from the father. I prayed that every child would know someone who would cover their shoulder with a hand of care and love. I wondered how many people at that Mass, myself included, had left behind the Cecil B. de Mille idea of God the Father as a white man in the clouds who bellowed out commandments and threats. I wondered how many had been taught the theology of the Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit, well enough so that God was not a taskmaster or disciplinarian but a living movement of love between persons. Father is not God without Son and both exist in the Spirit for time and eternity. The movement is the being; the three are one in unity.
There is no place for an independent father God sending down hailstones in anger or manna in compassion. Everything is compassion even when strong truths must be said. The Trinity is mystery in love. Every Christian needs a felt experience of the hand of God on their shoulder. This is the father God of love and protection, of security and intimacy. We neither deserve nor earn the touch of God. It isn’t about us. It is about God and the nature of God which is to compassionately touch us who have been formed in the Threeness of the Trinity’s love for each other and all others in it.
Most adults have a difficult time accepting the vulnerability of love, the reality of another watching over with care every moment of the days, months and years we live through. We understand a God who watches us and keeps track of all the bad choices we have made and how those decisions have hurt others. This view of God is something like a Santa Claus keeping a list.
Jesus tried to teach us the Father’s love through his stories of the Prodigal Son who was welcomed back with open arms by a father who never failed to look down the road every day in search of his misguided son. He tried to teach us of the Good Shepherd who would search all night for the one lost sheep from a flock of one hundred. On his last night on earth Jesus assured us that as he and the father were one so also are we included in that most intimate relationship through the power of the Spirit’s unrelenting love.
As humans we make plenty of mistakes; some of them very serious with dire consequences. Yet one of our biggest errors is to fail to realize and then accept the extraordinary, over-whelming love God showers over us. It is as if God pours a torrent of love over us and we dam it up so only a trickle is allowed through. We judge, critique, criticize, dismiss, even condemn each other; and so we make God in our image and likeness. We have it backwards. We are made in the image and likeness of God, a God of tolerance and acceptance, of unending forgiveness and welcome. God’s hand rests on our shoulder: guiding, encouraging, forgiving, and strengthening.
Sister Patricia McCarthy is provincial for the Congregation of Notre Dame. For many years she taught troubled children and victims of abuse.