‘Thou God seest me’ was embossed in bold, black, capital letters on one of a pair of 19th-century Staffordshire plates given to my mother. Liking neither their appearance nor their message, she banished them to a spare bedroom.
That plate haunted me all my life. During childhood, I was convinced that there was an all-knowing invigilator observing my every misdemeanour (but for some reason never the good in me). As an adult, for quite some time, I had the disagreeable sensation that there was a superior and disapproving being looking over my shoulder. This is the sort of deluded gloom that takes place if either bad theology, or no theology at all, is allowed the upper hand.
As a Carmelite novice, I was introduced to a theology that appealed to both mind and heart, welcoming personal enquiries and presenting the God whose essence is unconditional love.
Contrary to misinformed opinion, he often appears as such in the Old Testament. See Zephaniah 3:17-19: ‘The Lord God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing… I will undo all that afflict thee: and I will save her that halteth, and gather her that was driven out; and I will get them praise and fame in every land where they have been put to shame.’
Advent this year began on Sunday, 2nd December. It is a time of year when Christians should be asking themselves where they stand in relation to God. One of our certainties is that he is always with us. But are we always with him, or do we only look to him when we occasionally feel devout or have been overtaken by tragedy? We cannot see him this side of eternity but we are under an obligation to listen. The 13th-century scholar Saint Thomas Aquinas confirms this in his Eucharistic hymn Adoro Te Devote: ‘Sight, touch and taste in thee are each deceived. The ear alone most safely is believed.’
Advent means the arrival of Jesus (as pictured by Bronzino, above). As well as being a time of anticipation, it is also about celebration and joy.
I never managed to remember what was written on the other plate. When I went home for the first time in 30 years for my mother’s funeral, I discovered that it was ‘O Praise Ye the Lord!’