Featured image is of an illustration by Francisco Miranda from Good Goats by Dennis Linn, Shiela Frabricant Linn, Matthew Linn.
I have been challenged in my prayer recently, with the 40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich, together with the scripture from Pray As You Go this week (Thursday 9 July), to contemplate the image of God as Mother, rather than as Father. I do not have any rational objection to the idea, quite the contrary: any time I have encountered the image I have been in favour of it. I just have some trouble getting into it. It might be argued that my upbringing has conditioned me to view God as male, with Father as the predominant image. Certainly, whenever I appear as a child in my imaginative contemplation, the image of God as Father is around at times, but even more so there is the sense of God being as a big brother, or cousin, or grown up friend, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, certainly as a friends, regardless of what age I am in the particular prayer. I am also very much at home with the imagery from the Song of Songs, where God appears as the lover of the soul and given my heterosexuality, it is quite natural for me to experience God as male in that context. There may also be a contributing factor that Mary, the mother of Jesus, is held up as the mother image in the church I belong to, and the patriarchal representation of her womanhood and motherhood, the motherhood of sons rather than daughters, is problematic for me. So while I do not object to Mother imagery of God in a purely rational sense, it is not an image that has penetrated very deeply into my pysche. Until now, when I find myself pondering it in prayer.
Loving, giving, nurturing, protecting – all of these attributes can be given to fathers as well as mothers. I am not well versed in gender studies; I am aware of the nature versus nurture arguments, predominantly from my scientific background, and while I do not want to reduce the argument purely to reproductive biology, I think that there is a key to unlocking my understanding and engagement with the image of God as Mother in the science of human reproduction and my role as a woman within that.
If I were to sum up the essence of the difference between nurturing fatherhood and motherhood, it would be visceral, literally in the blood and guts and gore of motherhood. My purpose in exploring this aspect of the image is not to exclude everything else about motherhood, or to deny everything else as motherhood if it is without the actual childbirth. That would be to imply that step mums and adoptive mums, and those who suffer the desire of the screaming womb and bear the pain of not being able to have children of their own are not real mothers. I do not stand there, and I do not think that, nor would I say it, or even have it construed from my words. I would never dream of distributing hurt from my words in that way, and would be sincerely regretful if I did. My own experience of screaming womb, of not being pregnant when I wanted to be is very brief, and I can and did only imagine living with it all my life. I am sure the sorrow and pain I imagined does not even scratch the surface of the experienced anguish. Scripture contains its own stories of women who understand this pain: Sarah, Rachel, Elizabeth, to name a few. And as for the pregnancy that ends in miscarriage, I know this pain and it is impossible to forget. My own mum still grieves and mentions those little ones she lost, and she is ninety. I get where she is coming from. I explore the images of pregnancy, childbirth and of nursing a child here, as a subset of everything else, to draw out the more from using the image of Mother specifically, as opposed to Father, or Parent. Julian says:
We know that all our mothers bear us for pain and for death….but our true Mother Jesus…alone bears us for joy and for endless life, blessed may He be. So He carries us within Him in love and travail, until the full time when He wanted to suffer the sharpest thorns and cruel pains…40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich, Edited Lisa E. Dahill
and the reading that has been put with that day on the 40 Day Journey says:
…one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.John 19:34
To be carried within, to bear, to suffer cruel pains and a sudden flow of blood and water – these are images associated with childbirth, and while we all have been born, to literally bear a child is the experience of biological mothers, of pregnancy and childbirth. In my own experience of labour, I remember a moment, when I was so exhausted, and the pain of the contractions were so excruciating that I just wanted it to stop, and the only price I was not prepared to pay for that was harm to my yet unborn baby. I would have sold my granny, and risked myself, just to make it stop.
In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius encourages us to bring our prayer experience into the body through The Application of the Senses and he describes the process at the beginning of the contemplations in the Second week, one of which is the nativity itself. To use the memory and the imagination in our prayer grounds our prayer in our reality, it makes God corporeal. Bringing my experience of childbirth into my prayer this week has deepened my understanding of this image of God as Mother, but it is not just childbirth itself. In the reading from Hosea used in Pray As You Go, it says:
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with ties of love….
…and I bent down to feed them.Hosea 11: 1-4, 8-9
The use of the word “cord” as a “tie”, again, is reminiscent of pregnancy and childbirth by way of the umbilical cord, but the bending down to feed extends the image to that of suckling a child. Again, it is not my intention to dismiss or disparage bottle feeding in any way, there are numerous positives and areas of overlap with breast feeding, and anyone can do it, meaning that parents who are not biological mothers are included in nourishing and nurturing children. As with the image of pregnancy and childbirth itself, I am looking for the more in the image of God as mother, and I am drawing and reflecting on my own experience as a biological mother. As one who breast fed and has experience of bottle feeding, I feel qualified to comment on the worst kept secret of breast feeding mothers. It is this: once you get past the stress and the pain of latching on and the cracked and sore nipples, breast feeding your baby is blissful. I remember reading a long time ago something about a biological positive feedback loop and the reality is, it is blissful when it goes right, for both the mother and child. You experience your replete child calm and quieted, as the soul is described in Psalm 131:
But I have calmed and quietened myself,Psalm 131: 2
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.
And the feeling is reciprocated in the mother who has fed her child. The tension of full breasts is soothed and the mother relaxed. There is a warm bond of intimacy and contentment between the mother and her baby. It is a feeling of everything being right with the world. In the first months of the baby’s life, she is completely dependant on this source of nourishment and trusting of the source. The mother who breast feeds is, for a short time, the absolute centre of that child’s world, without reservation. That might seem like a huge responsibility, but there is a ferocious strength that comes with it. I remember feeling that I could tear apart a lion with my bare hands should it so much as look at my child as if she were dinner. We were at the zoo at the time, let me just place that image in its proper context.
What am I left with? When we are as dependent on God as a baby on the mother who feeds her; when our world revolves around Him in absolute, unquestioning trust; when we drink fully of the nourishment and protection He gives freely and generously, we become blissed out in Him. My contemplations on the Motherhood of God has distilled into this one idea. In spite of all the suffering and gore that goes creation:
God is blissed out by our bliss in Him.
At the moment it is a shocking and awesome idea that is located in my rational, thinking brain. It has yet to penetrate more deeply, to meet with the same knowledge in the heart of my soul. And Julian herself has said:
And when He had finished, and had so borne us for bliss, still all this could not satisfy His wonderful love…40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich, Edited Lisa E. Dahill
It is not enough, enough and more than enough, all at the same time. I will contemplate the image of Mother God some more.