Sunday, March 11, 2012

Shifting Spirituality: God Our Mother

The maternal dimension of my life has been something of a disaster.  Mother, son, breast.  And lest you think I am veering toward the melodramatic, let me remind you:  Instant death in a car crash.  Suicide.  And now the carving up of my body, three times so far.

I haven't focused much on the feminine aspect of spirituality.  For one thing, I've never been surprised or perturbed by references to God as mother.  (All those years in girls' boarding schools, perhaps?) It's God as father that causes me some consternation.  I heard few references to God as father in my church home, but it was a consistent phrase in seminary, and is even moreso in the community in which I minister. Yesterday I was repeatedly distracted for the first hour of a presentation by the speaker's references to the Holy Spirit as "he."  But I try to let it go.  I recall my first spiritual director stating  one day in regard to another topic that he didn't want to say anything that would make it difficult to anyone to pray, and that seems a reasonable stance to me.  Of course, it requires me to overlook the endless invocations to "Father God" that make it difficult for me to pray.

For a second thing, my spiritual directors have all been men.  Jesuit priests.  Yes, I've needed father figures in my life, but they're also all brilliant and well-educated.  YEARS of education that I wish I had.   Give me a keen mind and a wide-ranging knowledge of literature, history, philosophy, psychology, and spirituality, and my religious little self is hooked.  I used to be a little bit circumspect in what I said because they are, after all, guys, but breast cancer has demolished what reserve I had.  Probably to their dismay. 

Interestingly, as Catholic guys, they may have more to offer in terms of feminine spirituality than even most women in my own branch of the church.  Catholics, after all, have Mary.  And all those saints.  And, I might add, it was a Jesuit who wrote to me when I was approved for ordination to say that he was praying  that the Holy Spirit would guide me to exactly the call she had in mind for me.

At any rate, these days I find myself experiencing what may be a major shift in my spiritual orientation.  The last couple of weeks have been hell, with my experience of aesthetic devastation now followed by the most unwelcome reality of whole-body pain, which I have a sinking suspicion has to do with a third surgical assault in a six-month period.  As a consequence, I find myself wondering much more about the feminine in the divine, or about the divine in feminine contexts.

I guess we'll see where she leads me.

Image: Julian of Norwich, who wrote about God Our Mother in the 14th century.


  1. The role of mothers (biological and adoptive) in my life has a major impact on my perception of God. When I first heard feminine language for the Divine (in my middle-late 20s) I remember wondering why in the world anyone would say such a thing? Really, my response was visceral. Ugh. If God is a Mother, no wonder things are so difficult for me (and so forth). I spent many years deliberately exploring language for God that included both genders and transcended gender. I thought I had really gotten somewhere higher, more evolved. I realize that sounds pretentious. :-)
    But when life most recently brought a shock that felt like being run over by a train, I found myself praying "Lord, Lord." Not so much with the Big Mama.
    I fully expect this to continue to develop...

  2. It is so true that our own life journey profoundly affects how we see God and how certain things will impact our ability to communicate with God. So often I hear people complain when God is referred to as feminine and yet the Scriptures include references to God's feminine qualities. God is mystery and beyond our ability to capture God's essence in words but God comes to each of us in the way that is best for each person.

    Robin, I pray for relief from the pain. You have experienced so much pain and sorrow but you are a witness to the grace of God for you continue to persevere in a way that is inspiring.

  3. Precisely the kind of reflective work I am doing with the WordsMatter Expansive Language Project....

    But, also, I am holding you in prayer during this time of pain and surgical aftermath. And, just wondering if you have ever considered acupunture? Or does the idea of more needles completely freak you out? If not, I have found acupunture to be very helpful....but if you consider this, be sure to find one who is well trained in oriental medicine and with whom you feel comfortable - like any other body work this is very personal. Anyway...just thinking of you and holding you in prayer.

  4. Wonderful post, Robin! What you say about desperate circumstances removing the last shreds of reserve (gender-based or otherwise) is so very true. In an odd kind of a way, it is very liberating. Or I found it so. That kind of vulnerability allows a kind of truth, and a kind of courageous brokenness, that would be hard come by in the ordinary course of events.

    About the gender language issue: for one reason or another, I grew up without a functional father figure in my life, and I was brought up mainly by a brilliant, gifted, feminist mother. Unsurprisingly, I have never had the slightest issue with working with women, being responsible to women, women as priests, teachers, doctors, and so on. (Nor with men, actually.) I certainly wouldn't automatically assign to a being of power and authority the male pronoun. And yet, as Martha found, when I pray, I pray "Lord!" For me personally to say, "Godde, our Mother, She who made Heaven and earth..." would feel utterly alien and artificial, and sometimes I find references to members of the Trinity as "she" just as distracting as you found it when the speaker continually referred to the Holy Spirit as "he". (I'm not keen on "it" for the Spirit either - sounds like the Holy Spook!)

    I love Sister Julian, though. Her writings have been with me pretty much all through my Christian life, and for her to use Mother God language seems perfectly natural. Maybe it is just an individual thing. Perhaps we are simply wrong to try and come down prescriptively on one side or another.

    That image of Julian, by the way, is one of my own favourites. I have it on a wooden block like an icon, which I bought years ago at the Julian Shrine. It watches over me every morning as I pray...