by Susan McLeod-Harrison
Fourteen years ago, my spiritual director noticed that I wasn’t so good at trusting God. She thought I needed a more complete God image. Did I need to explore the metaphor of “mother” for God? she would ask. Would this reveal something about God I couldn’t tap from the “father” metaphor?
I resisted this, wanting to stay true to what I believed was the example of Jesus and the church. But then I came across Paul R. Smith’s book, Is It Okay to Call God Mother? Considering the Feminine Face of God. His arguments enabled me to reconsider my resistance. And then my husband, an Episcopal priest, started using “Mother” in the liturgy in our home church. The act of saying the word out loud broke an internal barrier for me.
Even though I clearly understood I had Biblical permission to call God “Mother,” I knew I’d have to take some risks if I were to use different language for God. It just wasn’t okay yet (and still isn’t, in most church and para-church settings). In fact, at the time I was first thinking about this, Paul Smith’s was the only community I’d ever heard of using Mother language for God in public worship. So, after a few awkward tries, the Mother metaphor went underground.
Until two years ago.
It was then that I began to mull over my unfinished dissertation, which had focused on the self-esteem impact of praying to God as mother. I knew I was on to something with that theme, but not even I prayed to God as Mother.
My One-Person Experiment
I had withdrawn from my doctoral program several years before to care for my first son. But on that day about two years ago, as I found myself thinking again about my dissertation’s theme, it seemed I couldn’t get it off my mind. One day, my second son, then a toddler, pulled Paul Smith’s book off the shelf and handed it to me. I hadn’t looked at it in years! But seeing it helped spark an idea—a strategy that could help me finally begin to embrace God as Mother when I prayed. I could call this strategy an experiment. This is how I described it on my blog:
“I would put down my masculine Bible for a few months and cling to devotional literature that used only feminine pronouns and metaphors for God. And I would journal about my own experiences as a mother and a woman. I would see what would happen to the God image in my mind: could I make the change from Man Upstairs to Mother God, even sometimes? And what difference would it make?”
The following are some revelations I had in my one-person experiment.
The Invisibility of God and Mothers
The word mother has positive meanings, but also some negative ones that have kept us from seeing God as Mother. What can we learn about God from our worn-out ideas about Mother? The Mother is the one in the background holding the kids’ jackets. Or the invisible one taking the photo. The word Mother, though potentially comforting, is almost boring in its predictability.
Juxtapose her with the invisible, yet powerful, God. A God so faithful that we usually ignore Her, forget to thank Her, but remember Her when we are really needy, really broke, really in pain.
One of the first things I learned in my experiment was that I had more in common with God than I first thought. Mother God was also the invisible one in the background of our lives. She wanted to be remembered more, thanked more, recognized as the Giver that She is. She wanted to be listened to, no matter how quietly She speaks.
God, too, was saying, “I matter.”
The Power of El Shaddai
Just as I realized that God is often taken for granted, other ideas about God opened up to me as I used feminine terms for Her. One was a new definition of power.
Continuing my focus on reading only devotional literature using feminine language for God, I added Swallow’s Nest: a Feminine Reading of the Psalms, by Marchienne Vroon Rienstra. It’s a beautiful prayer book of hymns and psalms, rewritten in feminine terms. The author’s favorite term for God is El Shaddai, which, though controversial, can be translated as Breasted One.
I use my own breasts several times a day to soothe and feed my two year old. My breastfeeding does not make me feel powerful, like God, but it does make me feel I’m in sacred space. It feels private, holy, intimate— a communion between my baby and me, much as worship is a time of communion between God and me. I find it hard to worship in public sometimes the same way I find it hard to breastfeed in public sometimes. It’s not a matter of shame or shyness but rather an intimate, private expression of a close relationship between my child and me that is personal and ours alone.
So what about power? What does “the Breasted One” teach me about the meaning of power? El Shaddai has power to nurture many, to mature, and to protect. To love, to comfort. Is this power? More than I know.
My ten year old son, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, frequently tells me just what he thinks. Last year, my husband had a compressed disc and was laid out in the bed a lot. My son blamed him for this. Underneath the blame was fear, I thought.
“Do you see mom and dad as all-powerful, sweetie?” I asked. “Is it hard to see Dad vulnerable?”
He said, “I see Mom as all-powerful to do good.”
Asper-kids tend to think in black and white/all or nothing categories, too. So Dad was just out of luck in that conversation. But my son’s remark about me as mom astounded me. I didn’t think I had been doing so well lately, and he had told me so. Yet, the power to nurture and protect, comfort and love is all-encompassing as the “power to do good.”
This was a different way to look at power. My view of power had been skewed. I had seen it as physical strength, as status, as wealth, even as the ability to destroy, as in a T-Rex or a bull dozer. And also as the power to be heard with the voice of authority. With all these powers come masculine pronouns, not feminine ones.
Yet the power of love is the power of God.
Praise El Shaddai, all nations! Exalt God, all peoples!
For great is her steadfast love toward everyone!
The faithfulness of El Shaddai endures forever. Alleleuia!
(Psalm 117, Swallow’s Nest, p. 5)
The Trustworthiness of God as Mother
When my son was 6, we were at a park on a play date. I was talking to a mother from preschool, and a curly headed little girl of about four years of age walked up to me. She looked up at me and said, “Do you trust God?”
Put on the spot, I said, “I try.”
And she responded, looking up at me with big brown eyes, “I trust God with all my heart.” And walked away.
Well, even back then I’d learned to pay attention to such random events, especially when they involve children and God. But it didn’t make me trust God right away. It just reminded me that I had an issue that God and this sensitive little girl were aware of. I was still years away from engaging God as Mother.
I can see now that, like my spiritual director said long ago, my image of God was all wrong. My gut feeling was that my own best interest was second to God’s. The image of God as Father left me with too few harbors to go for emotional safety. He would send me out to sea, endlessly, on some errand of his own design, as he did Jonah.
So I created my own harbor in passivity, or at least choices which felt safe: not leaving, not taking opportunities, or even not saying a hard, “No.”
With new glimpses of God as Mother, I understand now how deeply God wants to delight me. How She generously gives opportunities I can grow from, and provides support along the way. She wants me to set sail, but with a strong boat and companions on the way. The little girl at the park understood that.
I learned this over the past two years by the repeated connecting of my own experience of mothering with God. What wouldn’t I do to give my own sons a beautiful life? Oh, and ah. This is how God hovers over me, longing and working to create beauty and safety for me. But paradoxically, the safety in life is found in trust, the kind that says, “Yes” and “I will go.” I can give these answers because I know Mother God wants what is best for me, just as I want what is best for my children.
I wish I’d learned this long ago, but I am grateful to be learning it now. Mother God is a Giver, not a taker.
Pursuing God as Mother opened up a new life for me, of trust in a loving God rather than rejecting God’s direction because of an unhelpful metaphor.
Adding Mother to our long list of metaphors for God could open up new pathways for me and all women in the church, as well. What would it mean for women to finally see God’s image in themselves? And themselves in God’s image? What might it mean for men to fully embrace women as equal partners, as fully capable of reflecting divinity as they are?
It would mean old power structures would collapse, bit by bit. And not by force, but just with a few new words for God.
© 2017 by Susan McLeod-Harrison and Christian Feminism Today