The Common Good

Motherly-ness: Shaping a Woman's Soul

Mary, Mother of God. Image via Wylio/ http://bit.ly/Jg8R6d.
Mary, Mother of God. Image via Wylio/ http://bit.ly/Jg8R6d.

A few years ago, I guest-lectured in a Women’s Studies class at Bethel University. My topic was How Motherhood Shapes a Woman’s Soul, but I ended up talking more about how motherhood sort of mirrors God, how being a mom (or hearing from moms) helps us understand God, his relentless love, his willingness to forgive and his patience with the whiney little complainers that we are.

Frankly, I was amazed at how engaged the women (and man) in the class were. I’m used to talking about issues maternal, but usually it’s to moms. Not to 21-year-old college seniors. But either these students were actually interested or exceptionally polite. I prefer to assume the former. After my lecture, we even had a lively round of Q&A. They asked lots of great questions, but two have really stayed with me.

The first that stuck was: “Why would anyone want to have kids?”

And the other was: “Why haven’t we ever heard this before? Why is it that I’ve gone to church my whole life and never once heard that moms might have special insight into God that should be shared?”

The first question made me laugh (and made me realize perhaps I ought to be guest-lecturing in abstinence classes!). The second question made me want to cry.

While I sort of fumbled through the answer to why one would want to have kids (because my desire to have kids came suddenly, mystically, in an unexplainable, primal, out-of-the-blue sort of way), I did better with the second question.

I told her I figured we didn’t hear much about it in churches because women haven’t been doing a lot of the talking in churches — at least in the history of the American church. And since the Bible routinely refers to God in fatherly images and since men are usually the ones doing the talking, it’s just easier to focus on the “fatherly-ness” of God. But this isn’t to say we don’t have reason to talk about God’s motherly-ness, as well. It’s even biblical. There are plenty of nurturing, mother-ish images of God throughout Scripture. Jesus even refers to himself as a mother hen. And heck, even Paul describes himself as a nursing mother. Not that he’s God, but he was comfortable with the comparison.

Throughout much of church history, I am told, the motherly images of God were common. Julian of Norwich has this beautiful hymn, which now may seem jarring, even scandalous, but apparently in the 14th century, it would’ve been seen as apropos. It goes like this:

Mothering God, you gave me birth in the bright morning of this world. Creator, source of every breath, you are my rain, my wind, my sun.

Mothering Christ, you took my form, offering me your food of light, grain of life, and grape of love, your very body for my peace.

Mothering Spirit, nurturing one, in arms of patience hold me close, so that in faith I root and grow until I flow'r, until I know.

Lovely, right? But why do I write all this? What’s my point? Well, this Sunday is Mother’s Day, that always makes me nervous—at least about church. I always get nervous about how women might be made to feel like motherhood is a woman’s highest calling, and I get nervous for women who long to be mothers but who aren’t, and I don’t like how we always seem to get a “girl” sermon that day (my church is doing Ruth. Yours?).

However, the question I got in that class made me think of why we should be celebrating Mother’s Day in church and how far the church has to go yet in how we “handle” motherhood. How we talk about it, how we honor it and how we let it become something through which others can see God. I think we need to reclaim and reveal what our church fathers and mothers once understood: that motherhood has something to teach us about God.

I think it’s up to us, women leaders of the church, to make sure that mothers aren’t honored simply because it’s hard work, simply because it’s a high calling, simply because it’s a wonderful and crucial job, but because we do have something to share about who God is. Because it’s one of the many experiences of life that God “gifts” us with that do help us understand his heart better. Heck, even the longing for a child — that desperation any woman who’s struggled with infertility other circumstances that prevent her from having kids understands — shares something so sweet with the heart of our God who longs for us to love him

So if you are a mother or you have a mother, take it as part of your call as a woman leader this Mother’s Day to honor moms in a new way — and that is, by giving voice to what motherhood teaches us about the heart of our own mothering God.

What do you think?

Caryn Dahlstrand Rivadeneira is the author of Grumble Hallelujah: Learning to Love Your Life Even When It Lets You Down. She lives with her family in the western suburbs of Chicago, and writes regularly for Christianity Today's Her.meneutics blog and for Gifted for Leadership, where this piece originally appeared.

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