Heavenly Mother and Paradoxical Embodiment

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November 7, 2012 by Rachael Rose

One day, when talking to a lifelong Mormon woman about the church, she told me that she prays to Heavenly Mother all the time.

Surprised that an orthodox woman would admit this, I said “But your leaders would call you blasphemous.”

“I know,” she said matter-of-factly, “and I don’t care. She understands me.”

I was twenty at the time, and it was when I became aware of the variety of women’s relationships to the divine Mother- dynamic, living, and intimate. Church leadership would hardly encourage this reality, but even among the orthodox, Heavenly Mother finds Her way into our prayers, our questions, and our conversations.

The concept of Heavenly Mother, as we know, is the result of a simple extension of logic: if we have a Father of our spirits, we must have a Mother of our spirits. While this logic works to give Her a place in our cosmology, it also creates a unique version of divinity in which Motherhood becomes the primary mode of existence. Unlike Heavenly Father, Heavenly Mother exists not through Her body, but because of it.

This difference, as simple as it is, has allowed a deep silence to surround Heavenly Mother, both from church authority and members. I think our silence does two things:

First, it bases her goddesshood on an antiquated version of femininity in which the woman is wife and mother first, and individual second. It reaffirms the sexism that reduces women’s identities down to silent bodies. She is defined by Her female body, rather than by divinity, compassion, or power.

Second, our silence erases Her from our collective imagination. Though doctrine teaches that she is an individual woman (or multiple women) with a body like ours, imagery of the divine has focused on God the Father and Christ, rendering the Mother invisible to us. And since we are discouraged from talking about Her, our spoken imagery, too, keeps Her hidden: Our silence disembodies Her.

So on the one hand, Heavenly Mother is defined by an essentialist view of the female body; but on the other, is denied a visible body in our collective imagery. And here is the paradox: Mormon doctrine somehow contains a divinity who is simultaneously defined by Her body, and denied embodiment.

This paradox hit me at Margaret Tuscano’s Sunstone lecture this summer, “Images of the Divine Feminine,” in which she showed us hundreds of images of goddesses from around the world. Some were sensual, some were warriors, some were intertwined with water or sky, and some were mothers – but all of them together revealed a feminine divine who was vivid and powerful, who was given voice and subjectivity by Her artists.

“Our access to Her -our understanding of Her,” said Tuscano,  “begins through symbol, myth, ritual, and art that images the divine feminine…Images can empower us or imprison us. They can liberate us and put us into contact with God and our best selves, or they can enslave us into narrow categories of our own making.”

With images of goddesses lighting the screen, it became clear to me that our silence surrounding Heavenly Mother, Her invisibility in our images, and our narrow conceptualization of Her role, are tied intimately together. We have rejected Her full participation in godhood and inscribed Her with classic sexism.

What would happen if we could pray openly to God the Mother? What if we began talking about our relationships with Her, the way the life-long Mormon woman did with me? What if we began making images of Her? How would we begin to paint Her in our consciousness, giving Her life and subjectivity?

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14 thoughts on “Heavenly Mother and Paradoxical Embodiment

  1. Heavenly Mother might be a lot closer than you think. Consider this.

  2. Eric says:

    I find this intriguing. My thoughts lead me to the question, why it is that we must tell someone our thoughts. Does it enhance the experience? If I had a personal spiritual conversation with my heavenly mother, would I tell others? Again, would that enhance the experience? Or make it more of an experience? The Taoist teaching now comes to mind of ‘less is more.’ In the context of less speech equals more experience. Not absolute, but relevant. Just a thought.

    • Mark Schulthies says:

      Until I was a missionary for the church, I never gave my “mother-in-heaven” much thought, just when singing the hymn that mentions Her. The accepted explaination that my father gave me of why we didn’t discuss it is because Heavenly Father couldn’t and wouldn’t tolerate the kind of treatment for Her that that He received from his children. I kind of bought that because my father was so respectful of my mother (publically) and would go berserk if she was treated or spoken of disrespectfully. On my mission I was exposed to the Catholic notion that Mary (Christ’s earthly mother) was easier to approach and more sympathetic than Christ / God because of Mary’s feminine attributes when you wanted something / asking through prayer / and would have influence on God to get you the answer you wanted. Certainly, that worked in my earthly experience with going to my mother to ask my father. Makes human sense and it’s logical to me as a child that would work better than asking Father / God directly. Now that I’ve lived and thought through this aspect of mother-in-heaven, I’ve evolved / learned to approach this with knowing that my own judgement is based on what I have experienced rather than what actually is the fact. With that said, and after having lived long enough to have an adult perspective on my mother / father’s relationship and my own relationships with two wives (divorced & remarried), I tend to think that praying either to Father in Heaven and/or Mother in Heaven isn’t up to us to decide and – who knows – what the complete truth of the situation now. Perhaps, we’ll have the more of the answer when we move on through death. I know I haven’t figured out women and come to the conclusion that all I really have to do is be able to open up when they love you and guard against the many ways they hurt you. I feel about the same way in my approach to my experiences within the church.

  3. Jason Brown says:

    A brilliant post from a brilliant woman! Rachael articulates the central, but seldom talked about theological issue of modern Mormonism!

  4. Ryan Allred says:

    Great points. I never considered all of these nuances. You’re very thoughtful. When I was on a mission in Poland I visited Czestochowa, the shrine for the virgin Mary. Catholics across Poland and Europe make pilgrimages there to worship the Mother of God and experience healings and miracles in large numbers. The Mother of God answered these people’s prayers and women especially could relate. I think you have point that women might better relate to Heavenly Mother than Heavenly Father. Like some Catholics can benefit from faith in the Mother of God, some Mormons could probably benefit from faith in Heavenly Mother. And I’d bet that she’d answer prayers in like manner. I feel it is belief that is the requirement for experiencing the hand of the divine – not dogma. That has taken me a while to understand.

  5. BenA says:

    As far as praying to her, we don’t because Christ told us how to pray. As for why she’s not talked about much, I think it’s because of something you hinted at. There a probably lots of Heavenly Mothers.

  6. Joseph says:

    In the Old Testament we learn that King Josiah destroys a number of items in the temple. Margaret Barker contends that an item that was part of this destruction was likely the original menorah. She also contends that this menorah originally represented the tree of life, which in turn was a symbol of a Goddess in the original Jewish religion before it was dramatically reformed around 600 BC.

    Though not LDS, Barker has applied this interpretation to 1 Nephi 11 in the Book of Mormon. It is interesting that just after King Josiah destroyed the representation of the tree of life out of the temple, Nephi and Lehi have a vision of that very tree of life. Also, Nephi does not understand what the tree of life is until he sees Mary acting in her role as the Mother of the Son of God.

    In spite of these visions the Nephites and Lamanites seem to remain a very warlike, dominantly patriarchal society. It has been proposed at the Mormon Worker that in addition to the lessons the ancient compilers of Book of Mormon overtly stated, there may be others those compilers missed or simply didn’t overtly state but we should still be learning. Maybe this is another one of those. Even after having visions of the female member of the Godhead, the Nephites ignored this and were destroyed, just as Jerusalem was after destroying the original menorah.

    Maybe understanding the balance between male and female in the Godhead isn’t just an interesting theological concept, but something that can save us from destruction.

    • Thank you for bringing up Barker here. Her work makes it clear that we can consider Heavenly Mother part of the restoration. The true, ancient Israelite religion would be restored if/when she is restored to the temple.

  7. There is at least one visual representation of what Heavenly Mother looks like. She appeared on the cover of the March 2012 issue of Sunstone in a painting specifically commissioned for the issue: http://www.cafepress.com/shopsunstone/8708466

    I am a member of a number of communities that openly discuss interactions with Heavenly Mother and I can point the way to whoever is interested and messages me, but I will respect the privacy of those groups and refrain from posting here.

    The question that intrigues me most is what were to occur if Mormons were to openly pray to Her. I believe the church leadership is terrified of embracing Her for fear of alienating mainstream Christians. However, I believe there are millions of more moderate people out there who would recognize the equality inherent in recognizing equals in marriage and deity. I personally find the thought of Her empowering, especially when I think of her in terms of Proverbs 31. Those verses seem to illustrate a whole-woman concept of feminine roles: capable, publicly involved, and intimately connected to loved ones. Except a Goddess’s realm would be in the spiritual realm, ministering to her children via the Spirit.

    • Jen says:

      I would love to hear more about the communities you referenced. Please let me know if my email is not accessible through this comment. Thank you!

  8. EdwardJ says:

    I pray to Heavenly Mother every day and feel her tenderness and encouragement all around me. Sometimes She holds me, and sometimes I hold Her.

    Eric poses a legitimate question of what benefit there would be to telling others about our communication with Heavenly Mother. I would ask the same thing about our communication with Heavenly Father. For me, talking about the joy Heavenly Mother brings me opens up a space for others to experience the same joy.

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