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The Leveson Centre for the study of Ageing, Spirituality and Social Policy

Who is God for you? And other questions …

Chris Fletcher, a former practice nurse who has just completed an MA degree at Heythrop University of London and currently works as a volunteer member of the chaplaincy team at Solihull hospital, writes:

As part of recent study for an MA in Psychology of Religion I decided to conduct a small research project into older people's images of God. This involved personal interviews with 50 people over the age of 60 years, all in this instance practising members of their local Catholic or Anglican churches. In any study such as this, one has of course to be aware that there may be a gap between what people say and what they do, but my very strong impression was that the respondents were struggling to give honest answers even if the answers were incomplete and may not have fully reflected their spirituality. Most of the subjects pondered each question for a while before answering, sometimes repeating it to themselves and taking time to consider their response.

The questions I asked were: 1 Who is God for you? 2 How would you describe your relationship with God? 3 Complete the sentence, 'For me God is my … ?' 4 Has your relationship with God ever changed? 5 To whom do you pray most often? Analysis of the responses revealed that although some of the people held a transcendental image of God as one who is 'out there' or 'up there watching over us', the 'Creator in the sky' or just 'someone who is there' the majority think of God in a more relational sense. There seemed to be a confidence and even a degree of 'comfortableness' within the relationship which was based on friendship. The distant God of childhood who sat in judgement had been replaced by a more loving and compassionate figure. There was a definite emphasis on God as a person in whom they trusted and with whom they were at ease.

Answers to question four showed that, not surprisingly, life events such as illness and bereavement had affected the relationship with God. 'The death of my own father when I was a child; I needed someone to talk to', 'since my husband died it has rocked everything; I really need to ask him about that', 'there have been times in my life when I could not have got on without him'.

In fact the answers to all the questions seemed to suggest a great depth of faith which has been deepened by suffering in some cases but mostly I suspect by day in day out fidelity to living a Christian life. Thus perfectly ordinary people in the pews were coming out with statements that revealed at times an almost mystical relationship with their Creator.

A lady of 94 said: 'I could not make him a person; I could make him a feeling. He is there.' A 70-year-old man: 'God is a person who loves me more than I can envisage; I can go to him for anything', and 'I am in this God but I cannot call it him. I am in God and God is in me, kind of reciprocal … ' from a 70- year-old lady. 'I feel beloved and special, not a child but someone cared for' from a 60-year-old lady. Another 70-year-old lady described her relationship as 'the deepest friendship I have ever known and we trust each other' and someone else added that for her God is: 'Someone who is there. Cannot define it. No use having images. I try to get rid of specific images, more of a presence.' Several subjects described God as their whole reason for living, my rock, my love, my anchor.

Obviously much more could be written about the findings of this research but in this article I want to focus simply on the value of asking the questions in themselves. Several of the people who took part have since approached me and said how valuable they found the exercise and how glad they were that they had been given the opportunity to reflect on what God actually meant to them. They commented that they had spent their whole lives as Christians but had never actually sat down and considered just who they thought God was and what he meant to them. They had not realised how their relationship had grown and developed over the years nor had they understood just how necessary that relationship was to them.

For me, simply framing, asking and reflecting on the questions and answers has been immensely valuable too. I have found myself driving along after an interview and trying to answer the questions for myself: Who is God for me? Has my relationship changed and if so how? For better? For worse? Do I too think of God as 'out there', a remote judgmental figure, or is he really the God in whom I live and move and have my being? And if so what are the implica-tions for how I try to live my life as a Christian? This soon became much more than a mere academic exercise! And infinitely more valuable … What began as research for my dissertation ended with a feeling of gratitude and humility for having been privileged to glimpse a little of the spirituality of these 50 people who were mostly strangers to me. I now wonder if this would be a valuable exercise for those involved in the pastoral care of elderly people.

Other, better, questions could be prepared and considered. Those given the opportunity to answer the questions might find this a useful experience and those who ask them might learn much from the faith and holiness of those they interview.

It happened that the subjects of this study were all committed Christians. It would be interesting to have the views of other older people who have perhaps abandoned their religion, or never practised one, or who come from different faith traditions. The answers might be surprising.

Chris Fletcher

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