Heart Talks with Mother God

Mother’s Day is approaching–and this makes me think about how dedicated mothers mirror something profound about the Creator. Everything good thing about us comes from God above, including anything positive about our sexuality. Because of this, I believe mothers–and all women and men–have the potential to reflect something of the “maternal” side of God.

Heart Talks with Mother God--book coverWe often think of God as Father–hopefully, a loving, strong, yet merciful Father–but for many people it’s still new to think of God as Mother. Truly, God’s inner essence is beyond gender (as the old Baltimore Catechism taught). However, we can use many different comparisons to explain something about the nature of the indescribable Mystery we call God.

Many are afraid to talk about God using “new” images. They forget that when Jesus called God “Abba,“he was actually doing something new, something incredibly innovative and unusual for his own culture. (Abba is a word we translate as “Father” in English, but the word actually means something closer to the word “Daddy.”) Names were even more significant in Jesus’ culture, and to call God Abba, was to imply that Jesus, the Son, would one day be equal to the Father. It must have amazed some people he would dare to do that. Others may have thought him outright blasphemous.  

During his earthly life, Jesus did not view the Scripture (the “Old Testament”) as a limiting force, something that would prevent him from calling God “Abba.” Jesus called God “Abba” because that is how he viewed God. No place does Jesus put limitations on the ways people talk about God. (Does He? Seriously, let me know if you find words of Jesus silencing new ways of describing God!)

If you are curious about images of God that relate to a motherly side of God, you might like the book Heart Talks with Mother God by Bridget Mary Meehan and Regina Madonna Oliver (Liturgical Press). This book is intended for parents and teachers to use with children, but I find it also expands my understanding as an adult. Why not view God, who is beyond all human imagination, as having motherly qualities?

(By the way, at the time of writing this post, Heart Talks with Mother God is on sale on the publisher’s website.) 

[If you would like to know more about Christians who spoke of God using motherly images, check this post I wrote a while back:  God as Mother? Famous Christians Who Compared the Two  . ]

Will you pray with me?

Mother God, you give us life and nurture our souls. You fight for what is right like a mother bear defending her cubs. You work hard, like a woman on fire with spring housecleaning or running for public office. You open your hands to give to the poor and your arms to comfort the suffering. Help us to remember your great love for us–and help us to be instruments of your love to all others we meet. We ask this in the name of Jesus and in the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Until next time, Amen!

Living Stones, Spiritual Milk, and Soul Growth

Come to him [Christ], a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourself be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  — 1 Peter 2:4-5.

This week I have been pondering this verse, taken from the First Letter of Peter, which will be proclaimed this Sunday at many Christian churches throughout the world.

Peter—whose name means “rock”– calls Christ a living stone, and later in the passage, a cornerstone, the important foundation for the beginning of a building. He also calls us living stones that God is building into a spiritual house or temple. Although each one of us is uniquely gifted, each one of us has our identity and space in the building, our relationship to each other. Individually, we are loved by God, but together we form something even better and bigger than ourselves, the “spiritual house” God is building.

Having been raised Catholic, I can’t help but notice that Peter, the Rock, whom many call the first pope, doesn’t say anything about popes, cardinals, bishops, or other hierarchy in this reading. All are “rocks,” built together upon the Cornerstone, Christ. Peter calls all of us together a holy priesthood, whose purpose is to offer spiritual sacrifices to God.

But what is meant by living stones?

Unlike inanimate matter, Peter doesn’t want us to just “sit there,” motionless. We are to be strong, like rocks, in our faith in God, no matter what the weather brings, but we are also to be alive, growing, moving, and changing more and more each day into the image of Christ.

Churches who use the Revised Common Lectionary this Sunday, will hear the words of Peter just prior to these verses, and I think it’s worth looking at how these verses illuminate what the writer meant by “living” stones. Just before he writes about the living stones, Peter writes:

 Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.  (1 Peter 2:2-3)

At first I didn’t think there was any connection between this verse on drinking spiritual milk and the living stones. However, the original text would not have had paragraph indentations and periods at the end of sentences. The writer was flowing from one thought to the next.

Peter exhorts us to long for spiritual milk from God (food like Eucharist?), so that we can keep growing in the Lord. We forget to consider that in biblical times there was no packaged infant formula. The only way an infant was fed was directly from the mother’s body (or a “wet nurse”). The original hearers would have imaged a mother feeding her baby when they heard this verse and perhaps thought of God as feeding them directly from himself in the Eucharistic feast. (I am not the first person to think of this. See May 5th post.)

Although we must be strong in faith, like rocks, we are also to be fluid, moving, and growing, like a newborn baby. God is both the builder who is creating a strong church community and the mother who is feeding us directly with God’s self. (I think of Eucharist here, but I suppose additionally, in a mystical sense, the Spirit feeds us in the depths of our hearts as well.)

If you stop to think about it, these are amazing ideas: a God who is constantly supporting us, feeding us, building us up, not only individually, but together, in interdependent relationships.

O God, Sacred Builder and Divine Nurturer, help us to be strong as rocks in our faith in You, and as innocent and reliant upon You as a newborn baby is upon his or her mother.

Until next time, Amen!

God as Mother? Famous Christians who compared the two

About five years ago, I wrote a 3-part series about the names of God that appeared in several Catholic diocesan newspapers. Part one explored the many names we have for  God and part three pondered how God is also “beyond all names” because no words adequately describe the fullness of the Divine.

Because Mother’s Day is approaching, I’m revisiting  part two of the series, “Is it permissible to call God ‘Mother’?” The response to this article was the most intense reaction I ever received from a single article, ranging from enthusiastically grateful to the anonymous person who wrote to tell me I should give up writing and “go back to the kitchen.”

Many Christians across the internet have written both for and against the idea of comparing God to a loving mother. Some say that because Jesus called “Father” that we must not ever call God “Mother.” I think this is a weak argument for at least two reasons. Jesus himself was going outside the norm by calling God “Abba,” a name that really is more like the English “Daddy” or “Papa” than the more formal English word “Father.” Why is it we don’t call God “Daddy” if we are so set on following what Jesus said to do? Secondly, if we only do things that Jesus gave us permission to do, then we had better not use altar servers, pipe organs, or English versions of the bible, or even Latin ones for that matter, because after all, he didn’t tell us we could do that.

Some theological types will tell you it’s okay to compare God’s attributes to some motherly qualities, but that it’s not permissible to call God “Mother” by name. I understand the distinction (barely), but I don’t really see what difference this theological hairsplitting makes for one’s personal prayer life.

We all know that comparisons aren’t perfect matches. Mothers aren’t perfect people–but neither are fathers, but we still call God “Father.”  But we can observe the ways that God is like a good, loving earthly father and like a good, loving earthly mother.

In honor of Mother’s Day, I thought it might be good to pull out the resources I used for that original article about comparing God to a loving mother. Here are what some famous Christians and biblical authors saw. It’s funny how many of these writers were men comparing God to a mother.

Some bible imagery comparing God to a mother 

Although the bible usually speaks of God using masculine imagery, there are indeed some maternal images used as well, as Virginia Ramey Mollenkott details in her book, The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female (Crossroad). In Isaiah, God says (about God’s self), “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you” (Isaiah 49:15). In a prayer of desperation, Moses uses similar womb imagery, speaking of God as one who gives birth, asking God, “Was it I who conceived all this people? or was it I who gave them birth…?” (Numbers 11:12). Hosea describes God as a mother bear, attacking those who steal her cubs (13:8) Jesus compares himself to a mother hen who longs to gather her chicks together under her wings (Matt. 23:37).

From church history

Christian saints, theologians, and spiritual writers have sometimes described God in maternal terms. St. Augustine observes that just as a mother’s body transforms ordinary table food–too complex for a baby’s delicate digestive system–into milk that is tailored to the baby’s needs, so does the Lord convert Wisdom into “milk” appropriate for our limited understanding. Another early church father, Clement of Alexandria, devotes an entire chapter to this mysterious process of mother’s blood becoming milk, musing over the various ways this connects to the spiriutal world. In one example, he views Christ as the nourishment that flows from the “Father’s breast,” feeding us with the milk of love. St. John Chrysostom writes of Christ as a mother who does not farm her babies out to a wet nurse but rather feeds them personally and tenderly.

“As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother,” wrote 14th-century mystic Julian of Norwich. “To the property of motherhood belong nature, love, wisdom, and knowledge, and this is God. . . The mother can give her child a suck of milk but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with himself and does. . .” (I think she was speaking of the Eucharist here?)

St. Catherine of Siena, whom the Roman Church calls “Doctor of the Church” for her wisdom, compared Christ’s sacrifice on the cross to a mother who takes a bitter medicine so her nursing baby can get well again. Another “Doctor of the Church,” St. Teresa of Avila, compares quiet, contemplative prayer to breast feeding because God nourishes the soul without the need for words.

In recent decades

One can find many people writing about God as Mother on the web, but at the moment, I’d like to look at a couple of famous Catholic leaders. In 1978, during his brief pontificate, Pope John Paul I noted that “we are the objects of undying love on the part of God. . . God is our father; even more God is our mother.” His successor, Pope John Paul II (now Blessed John Paul II), wrote that the loving hands of God are “like those of a mother who accepts, nurtures and takes care of her child” (in Evangelium Vitae, no. 39). In Dives in Misericordia, he compares God’s love to a mother who cares for her children, even if they become “lost sheep” (no. 15). Even the Catholic Catechism of our own time reminds us that “God’s parental tenderness can also be expressed by the image of motherhood, which emphasizes God’s immanence, the intimacy between Creator and creature” (no. 239).

Motherhood, of course, includes a good deal more than just the birthing and feeding imagery in many of the examples above. Even so, it’s a start–and a good thing to ponder this Mother’s Day. Thank you, Mother God, for giving us life!

Until next time, Amen!

Spiritual Aerobics: 1. Make a list of the good qualities of your parents. Which ones are also found in God?

2. Have you ever imagined God as having positive qualities often associated with women? Why or Why not?

Praying with “Migrant Mother” using Visio Divina

On the website Patheos, Presbyterian minister Tim Mooney writes about a prayer form called Visio Divina, a way of praying with sacred art or other images. Visio divina (“divine seeing”) models itself after lectio divina (“divine reading”), that time-honored Christian way of thoughtfully meditating on Scripture. (Read more about visio divina here.)

 Artwork and religious symbols often draw me into a quiet, reflective zone, so I decided to give visio divina a try and share my experience here at the Spiritual Drawing Board. Just so I wouldn’t have too many preconceived ideas, I looked for an image not usually found in churches, and decided upon Dorothea Lange’s 1936 photograph called “Migrant Mother.”

 Experiencing Visio Divina

As the article on visio divina recommended, I set aside 20-30 minutes for the process. After asking the Holy Spirit to guide my prayer, I spent a little time just observing the various parts of the picture:

  • The woman’s sleeve is tattered. She has no make-up and there are wrinkles near her eyes.
  • Why do the children hide their faces? Are they ashamed to be seen?
  • The baby on her lap is wrapped in an oversize garment and has dirt on his or her face.

 The woman looks to be 40-something, but I know from my reading that her name is Florence Owens Thompson, 32, married mother of seven children. In this photo, taken during the Great Depression, she is sitting in a three-sided lean-to canvas tent. (View other pictures taken that day here. )

These facts make me think about the economy of today and people who suffer around the world, especially the homeless, many of whom are children. I imagine the faces of other migrant women of various races and ethnicities. Would I feel the same empathy for each of them as I feel for the woman in the picture?

 After praying for the grace to love all people with equal intensity, I focus my attention back on the picture once again. The woman’s expression haunts me. She may be worried, but she is determined. I think she is going to do whatever it takes to feed her children. With her hand placed under her chin, she reminds me of Rodin’s bronze sculpture The Thinker. Yes, I decide, she is indeed a strong woman, a brave woman, dead set on caring for her hungry children.

 I wonder, did Mary, the mother of Jesus, ever look so strong and determined? She, too, was a “migrant mother,” on the move with Joseph, first traveling as a pregnant woman to Bethlehem, then fleeing to Egypt to save her child from death, and some years later to Nazareth. Did the Holy Family ever experience hunger pangs? Surely Mary must have felt this same fierce love and deep resolve to do whatever was necessary to care for her Child.  

 Why have I never seen this look of strength and determination on the face of Mary in statues or paintings? Wouldn’t Mary have been radically committed to do all in her power to fulfill God’s will? Wouldn’t her love of God have been strong? Are these characteristics of Mary portrayed in sacred art but I just didn’t notice?

 Come to think of it, wouldn’t God have the same type of parental concern for us? Could we imagine the Divine Face looking something like this woman, in terms of her strength and determination? Doesn’t God love us as much—no even more—than the very best of mothers?

Observing the Results

Sometimes we think of Scripture as comforting, but the Word of God also challenges us to become more like Christ. I think the prayer form visio divina has the same potential. After the above prayer time, I observed myself feeling less whiney about my own inconveniences and more grateful. I found myself intentionally smiling at people who look “different” from me. And, when writing this post, I recalled that the Hosea 13:8 compares God to a mother bear, who expresses fierceness if her cubs are threatened or taken away. 

Spiritual Aerobics –Try visio divina yourself, using whatever image or artwork you like. Many musuems have artwork available online. For visio divina directions, click here.