Freedom to See Beyond the Many Names of the Divine One

Grandmother Spider – The Weaver Jo Jayson @ 2016

May 19, 2023

One of the most famous paintings, perhaps of all time is in the Sistine Chapel in Rome: Michelangelo’s creation of Adam. In it, God is portrayed as a white, middle-aged, white-haired, bearded, powerful man, reaching out to touch the finger of Adam.

In contrast, many legends of the indigenous peoples of North America’s west coast portray the Creator in their legends as Grandmother Spider, an elderly female weaving a web of connectivity as she gives birth to the Universe. Coincidentally the Holy Spirit who is present at Creation is given a woman’s name in the Wisdom books of Hebrew Scripture, Sophia. (1)

If “God” is ineffable and indescribable, what does it matter that we use masculine pronouns for convenience’s sake?  It matters. Pause and contemplate with me what this could mean for you and for me. (2)

Raw, forceful, muscular power exudes from the God portrayed in the Michelangelo painting. It reminds me of my father’s strong and gentle strength which, as a little girl, made me feel safe and protected. But sometimes I need God to be a Mother, the one I can talk with when I am feeling badly about myself. 

Consider the image used in this week’s hope-note of Grandmother spider who is old and not physically powerful but peaceful. Her power is not forceful but creative. Hers is the power of stars in orbit, of ocean tides, of gravity, of photosynthesis to convert sunlight into life, and our bodies to convert food energy into body energy, the power of life contained in seeds.  She does not despise weakness, but takes even the lowly caterpillar and helps it to become a butterfly.

Everyone regardless of gender, age, ethnicity and status needs to be able to recognize within ourselves the Divine Principle, that Spark of Life born of Infinity. For me this means knowing that we are each worthy of love and we are beloved, each of us is especially beautiful and gifted in our own unique persons. Recognizing the Divine within ourselves gives us dignity. Recognizing the Divine in others and in the rest of natural world enables us to live respectfully, compassionately and humanely with others. Which images of God diminish me? Which images lend themselves to my seeing of Divinity in me?

In our desire to understand ourselves and find meaning in life we have attributed to God characteristics, names and images from our own experience. Islam tries to emphasize the unknowability of God by enumerating many names for God. As well as those names revealed in the Qur’an, they recognize those in the Jewish Torah and Christian Scriptures, the Psalms of David, the prophet books of our shared Abrahamic tradition; and they count those revealed only to the angels. Beyond all that we know of God, it is recognized that there is still more … one name is known to God alone. (3)

The Jewish faith tries to convey the ineffable nature of God. In the first of the ten commandments inscribed by Moses, “God” does not want any created thing to represent Godself. Maturity in all spiritual traditions means letting go of all our images of “God”, as incomplete and inadequate. In our rational minds we know that the Holy One is beyond any image or any concept we use for description but the “unknowing of God” is the work of a lifetime. First, we have to recognize the distorted way we see people and things … so that we can open our minds and our hearts to a Reality that is always much, much bigger than anything we could imagine.

Gratitude Prompt – I give thanks for the Divine Principle in each of us.

1. See for a my reflection on Sofia, the indwelling Holy Spirit.
2. An Article by Joan Chittister: “As Long as Women go unmentioned.”
3. Jamal Rahman, “Out of Darkness into Light: Spiritual Guidance in the Quran with Reflections from Christian and Jewish Sources.” p.36. ©2009