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Konrad Noronha, S.J.

"Finding God in All Things:" Older Jesuits and their God Image

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Older adulthood is shaped by many factors, including one’s spirituality and religious beliefs. Recognizing that it is not a time of spiritual stagnation (Vogel, 1995), this qualitative study examines the God images of eight vowed religious men, over the age of 75, belonging to the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). The following research questions were posed: What are the content and characteristics of the coresearchers’ God images?; how do the coresearchers describe their God images?; what are the contexts or situations that have typically influenced or determined these images?; and have their images changed throughout their lives? If so, how? 

According to Rizzuto, the psychic structure of a person precedes and conditions an encounter with God (Rizzuto, 1996). This study hypothesized that coresearchers’ God images would include images beyond Rizzuto’s (1979) definition of object. I speculated that the findings would indicate the presence of nonobjectified God images, thus furthering object relations theory. In addition, this study utilized continuity theory (Atchley, 1982) as a complement to object relations theory as it offers a theory of continuous adult development.

This study employed interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) (Smith, Flowers, & Larkin, 2010). IPA seeks to uncover the meanings of the coresearchers’ experiences and situates the coresearchers in their contexts. This study used a semistructured interview format. Lifelines that were prepared by the coresearchers prior to the interview, and two religious objects that they brought to the interview, served to triangulate the findings. According to the findings, 100% of the older Jesuits interviewed reported maintaining nonobjectified God images; however, coresearchers simultaneously maintained objectified God images (100 %). All coresearchers (100 %) spoke of God’s action in the world, as conducted by objectified God images. All coresearchers (100%) discussed numerous influences that impacted their God images. Although these influences included individuals and primary attachment figures, as Rizzuto (1979) would hypothesize, they also included literature, Scripture, and Jesus Christ. Coresearchers addressed both change and continuity in their God images (87.5 %). Finally, all coresearchers referenced ways in which they “Find God in All Things” (100%). The findings posit that although coresearchers presented with objectified God images, they also reported maintaining nonobjectified God images simultaneously. Furthermore, not all representations of God were present in childhood, and new God images emerged later in life. The findings offer insights into probable experiences of the general population, not only about nonobjectified God images, but also the emergence and maintenance of God images throughout life.

I hypothesize that generalizability would be higher among theologically reflective and religiously educated Christians, who would be more attuned to developing their God images. The study illustrates the complementarity of object relations theory and continuity theory. Recommendations are made regarding object relations theory, older adulthood, clergy, and for further research. The findings offer implications for pastoral counseling clinical practice with older adults, older vowed religious men, and more broadly for pastoral counselors who utilize God images at various phases of clients’ lives.

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