There is a delightful story of a child busily drawing a picture while sitting at the kitchen table. The mother inquired what the child was drawing, to which the child enthusiastically replied, “I’m drawing a picture of God.” When the mother said that we do not know what God looks like, the child emphatically declared, “they will when I am finished.” Most of us have some image of God. Beginning in childhood I can remember imaging God as a stern father who knew everything I did and would judge and punish me when I died. I believed God created the world in seven days and Jesus was born on December 25th. The catechism, my teachers and my parents helped form my image of God. Fear of punishment was the prime motivator for me to obey my parents and God.
As I matured my image of God evolved through experience and education. God’s love for me and for all of creation gradually replaced fear of punishment. I am fascinated by how science is now able to map the brain and actually see where my thoughts are located. Dr. Andrew Newberg, the Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, has written extensively on brain function. Through brain imaging scientists are able to accurately predict how a person images God without the person saying anything. Different parts of the brain light up (become active) when a person images God. Scientists are beginning to map what they call a spirituality center of the brain. Two of Dr. Newberg’s books, entitled Why God Won't Go Away, and How God Changes Your Brain, have given me new ways of understanding how I and some of my spiritual directees vision God. Newberg demonstrates how people's longing for happiness leads them to pursue experiences that reinforce past positive experiences. Religion, music, art, and nature play a major role in assisting people develop the spiritual side of their brain.
Through one experiment, Dr. Newberg scanned the brains of a group of Franciscan Nuns during their contemplative prayer practice of Centering Prayer. He found that the pre-frontal area of the brain became very active while the other parts of the brain were quiet, demonstrating how our spiritual urges and prayer forms are intricately linked to our brains. Through multiple experiments he began to look for the “Spirituality Center” of the brain.
Baylor University’s Institute for the Studies of Religion published results from an extensive study of 1,700 people who answered over 400 questions about religion and spirituality. They described four primary types of God: an authoritarian God, a critical God, a distant God, and a benevolent God. It appears that different cognitive and emotional processes of the brain dramatically affect our beliefs and descriptions of God. We make of God what our brains allow us to make of God. Both physiological and social factors influence our image of God.
As a spiritual director I have been privileged to listen to other people’s spiritual journeys. In listening to others, I have been better able to understand my own spiritual journey. We now know that meditation, contemplation, and Centering Prayer actually do affect the brain by activating parts of the brain associated with compassion, tolerance, forgiveness and inclusivity. In my own experience of Centering Prayer, I have sensed a oneness with others and with creation, God’s presence being all around me and within me. My sense of compassion has deepened along with my sense of pain for the suffering of others. My image of God is in many ways not describable today. God just IS, just as I am. I prefer to pray silently, going to a state of just being rather than saying or doing anything. Having experienced God beyond feelings and thoughts, I have been drawn more deeply into a desire of silence in prayer. The scripture “Be still and know that I am God” speaks to me.
Carol Weber is a commissioned presenter of Centering Prayer and a member of the Minnesota Contemplative Outreach planning group.