“The Breasts of His Own Tender Love”
Motherhood needs a cultural reboot. Perhaps no institution is as roundly mocked, belittled, and discounted as motherhood. Our society neglects mothers and discards them when it finds them burdensome. There’s an urgent need for a renaissance of the mom. Above all, we need a rebirth of faith in the Motherhood of God.
Some think seeing God as our Mother will undermine the fact that he is our Father, the first Person of the Trinity. Perhaps they think we’ll forget the Pater Noster. Not so. We can embrace the theology of God’s maternity and femininity without discarding his paternity and masculinity. Nor are we required—or able—to replace the divinely revealed identities of God the Father or the Son. However, there is indeed Scriptural and Traditional precedent to talk about feminine attributes of God. And just because some Christians have advanced mistaken ideas about God’s motherhood doesn’t mean that the concept is unorthodox and doesn’t have a long history in the Church.
If we begin to appreciate how our Faith sees God as Mother, it can have beneficial ripple effects in the ways we see women, mothers, and the world around us.
A number of saints have described God as Mother in their spiritual writing. For example, in Dark Night of the Soul, John of the Cross makes reference to God’s maternal care for Christians:
The grace of God, like a loving mother, as soon as the soul is regenerated in the new fire and fervor of His service . . . enables it, without labor on its own part, to find its spiritual milk, sweet and delicious, in all the things of God . . . God giving it the breasts of His own tender love, as to a tender babe. (Book I, Ch. 1, Para. 2)
Look at John’s description of God here. He presents God as a mother nursing her baby. In the most intimate act between a mother and child, a breastfeeding mother gives of herself to nourish and comfort her “tender babe.” At the outset of his spiritual masterpiece, the Doctor mysticus wants us to see God’s love as inherently, perfectly maternal. God’s intimate motherhood is key to John’s theology of the Christian life.
How is God Our Mother?
Why is God primarily referred to by “he” and “Father” by Scripture and the Church, rather than “she” and “Mother”? This question has enormous implications for Christian theology and is often a topic of discussion among Christian feminists.
No word we use about God is adequate. Yes, the titles and pronouns we use to name and define God communicate vital concepts of Divine Revelation, but no human language can capture the entirety of the goodness and greatness of God. Therefore it is insufficient, in the scheme of eternity, to conceive of God as simply “Father” or “King” or “Lord,” or any of the words we use to describe him. The Church teaches that fully understanding the Holy Trinity is beyond the capacity of the human mind. In the light of the beatific vision, all human concepts we use to imagine God will be replaced with God himself.
Catholic doctrine is clear that God is not gendered or sexed. Neither is he solely masculine or feminine, since he contains all good things within his eternal nature. Nor is he merely masculine or feminine in the sense conceived by the limited human imagination. Nevertheless, God is somehow able to communicate real truth about himself through the concepts, words, and phrases in Revelation, as the Catechism teaches:
By calling God “Father,” the language of faith indicates two main things: that God is the first origin of everything and transcendent authority; and that He is at the same time goodness and loving care for all His children. God’s parental tenderness can also be expressed by the image of motherhood (Isaiah 66:13; Psalm 131:2), which emphasizes God’s immanence, the intimacy between Creator and creature. The language of faith thus draws on the human experience of parents. (Catechism, 239)
The Faith uses human experiences to explain God—we have no other experiences to consult. St. Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the holy Cappadocian Fathers, taught that references to God as “Father” and “Son” were not literal but metaphorical. Important metaphors, to be sure—but metaphors nonetheless, intended to convey particular truths about God. Revelation is so thorough that even the most basic language used to address and describe God tells us something about him.
Why is God first seen as masculine and paternal in biblical thought? I don’t believe it’s in order to negate his maternal, feminine nature. I shared a body with my mother and was formed inside of her. In a very real way, we’re made of the same “stuff.” Mother and child share a physical bond that fathers simply cannot claim. The first divine teaching is that God and I are not the same. God and his creation are not made of the same “stuff.” God’s total transcendence above creation lays the foundation for the rest of the Gospel.
There isn’t the space to get into this fully here. I’ll have to leave it at this: masculine language about God seems intended to express, not unjust patriarchy, but first and foremost difference in kind. For all his closeness to us, there is a void between God and creation. Before all else, Divine Revelation is instructing us that the one addressing us is utterly and entirely Other.
Asking Those in the Know
God’s love is like the love of a mother. He never forgets us. Never. He is faithful to his covenant. This gives us security. . . . God cannot disown himself, he cannot disown us, he cannot disown his love, and he cannot disown his people. Because He loves us and this is the faithfulness of God. (Pope Francis, Homily on 22 March, 2018)
Your initial reaction to the idea of God as “Mother” might be to reject it as contrary to Catholic teaching, but just because the concept is alien to you doesn’t mean it’s unorthodox. The first step in plumbing the depths of God’s nature is, of course, looking to the ones who have handed orthodoxy down to us. Scripture, saints, mystics, and popes have boldly discussed God as our eternal Mother or how his love is inherently maternal.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote of God’s tender, motherly love for Christians. She searched for the Lord, “wanting to know, O my God, what You would do to the very little one who answered Your call, I continued my search and this is what I discovered: ‘As one whom a mother caresses, so will I comfort you; you shall be carried at the breasts, and upon the knees they shall caress you.’ Ah! never did words more tender and more melodious come to give joy to my soul.” For Thérèse, nothing was a greater comfort than seeing God as the perfect mother.
Julian of Norwich is privately venerated by millions of Catholics. She lived into the early 15th century and is popularly commemorated on May 8th or 13th. Pope Benedict XVI said in 2010 that Julian is “venerated both in the Catholic Church and in the Anglican Communion.” He also praised her mystical texts, including her descriptions of God as our Mother. She is one of the enduring picks for potential equivalent canonization, similar to Hildegard of Bingen. Julian had strong words about her belief in Jesus as Mother:
Jesus Christ therefore, who himself overcame evil with good, is our true Mother. We received our ‘Being’ from Him and this is where His Maternity starts. And with it comes the gentle Protection and Guard of Love which will never ceases to surround us. Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother.
Julian of Norwich specifies that it is Jesus who is our Mother. God has taken up our nature forever and revived it. We are born of “water and the Holy Spirit,” and fathers do not give birth. I have to marvel, too, that the Creed declares Christ as the one qui conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto, “who was conceived by the Holy Spirit.” Fathers not only do not give birth; they do not conceive. Seeing God as one who is radically, unknowably different from us makes the shocking reality of Jesus’s maternity possible. St. Leo said that Jesus in Mary’s womb is an image of “wisdom building a house for herself” (Epistolae, 31. 2-3).
In one of his few addresses as pope, Pope John Paul I famously said:
[W]e are the objects of undying love on the part of God. We know: he has always his eyes open on us, even when it seems to be dark. He is our father; even more he is our mother. He does not want to hurt us, He wants only to do good to us, to all of us. If children are ill, they have additional claim to be loved by their mother. And we too, if by chance we are sick with badness, on the wrong track, have yet another claim to be loved by the Lord. (Angelus, 10 September 1978)
John Paul II also spoke on the motherhood of God a few times. In his Wednesday Audience on 8 September 1999, the saintly pontiff said:
The merciful Father who embraces the prodigal son is the definitive icon of God revealed by Christ. First and foremost he is Father. It is God the Father who extends his arms in blessing and forgiveness, always waiting, never forcing any of his children. His hands support, clasp, give strength and, at the same time, comfort, console and caress. They are the hands of both a father and a mother.
The merciful father in the parable possesses and transcends all the traits of fatherhood and motherhood. In throwing himself on his son’s neck, he resembles a mother who caresses her son and surrounds him with her warmth. In the light of this revelation of the face and heart of God the Father, we can understand Jesus’ saying, so disconcerting to human logic: “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (ibid., 15: 7). And: “There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (ibid., 15: 10).
And in his famous apostolic letter to women, Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul II tells us, “In many passages [of Scripture] God’s love is presented as the ‘masculine’ love of the bridegroom and father (cf. Hosea 11:1-4; Jer 3:4-19), but also sometimes as the ‘feminine’ love of a mother.”
There are liturgical and linguistic considerations, too. Grammatically, “spirit” is masculine and feminine in Hebrew, neuter in Greek, and masculine in Latin. The earliest Syriac liturgical tradition referred to the Holy Spirit as feminine, as with other Semitic languages. Often, the Holy Spirit was seen as the identity of God’s Wisdom, a grammatically feminine personification of the Divine found in the Old Testament.
In Eastern theology, Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”) is identified with the incarnate Logos. Before Scripture is read at Divine Liturgy, Eastern worshippers are repeatedly called to attend to “wisdom.” And the early Syriac Orthodox Church even had an entire theology of a feminine Spirit based merely on the word’s gender in Syriac. God’s maternity abounds in Church Tradition and was never seen as contradictory to his paternity.
Various other saints have spoken of God’s maternal love for humanity. Anselm, Bernard of Clairveaux, and Aelred of Rievaulx are some of the most prominent. But to explore them all here would delay us too long.
All This We Shall See in God
God’s maternity and paternity are not at war. The saints have no trouble seeing the feminine and maternal in the Divine Nature. We are mistaken if we try to oppose them to one another or second-guess Revelation. (As if God could better express himself if he just asked for our input.) We have neither the need nor the power to dispense with how God shows himself to us. As Gregory of Nazianzus also said, the truths of Revelation have been “introduced by a better theologian than you, our Savior.” Nor do we need fear that deepening our understanding of Revelation is forbidden or wrong.
It is always a mistake to try to edit the Faith because of new psychological or theological insights. The Faith is absolutely capable of integrating those insights. And of course it is. If Revelation is true, even though linguistically or conceptually limited (as it must be), we should expect as much. We shouldn’t ignore the less explored corners of theology because we fear we will somehow lose God by looking for him there.
Seeing God as our mother gives a renewed perspective on maternity and femininity. It lets us see the innate, eternal value of motherhood and womanhood. It shows us that Christianity is not about the victory of the patriarchy but instead the Eternal One emptying himself to become one flesh with his people. It is the story of a God who gives up his own life for the lives of those he loves. What better image of motherhood is there?
It is thus logical that God, being our Father, be also our Mother. Our Father desires, our Mother operates and our good Lord the Holy Ghost confirms; we are thus well advised to love our God through whom we have our being, to thank him reverently and to praise him for having created us and to pray fervently to our Mother, so as to obtain mercy and compassion, and to pray to our Lord, the Holy Ghost, to obtain help and grace.
I then saw with complete certainty that God, before creating us, loved us, and His love never lessened and never will. In this love he accomplished all his works, and in this love he oriented all things to our good and in this love our life is eternal.
With creation we started but the love with which he created us was in Him from the very beginning and in this love is our beginning.
And all this we shall see in God eternally. (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, LIX, LXXXVI)