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?