A second atonement: Mother’s Milk and healing a theological crack in Mormonism’s heart
By Elizabeth Pinborough
Rachel Hunt Steenblik has stepped into a great Mormon spiritual-theological gap and filled it with a gentle, yet thunderous, sound. The tiny poems of Mother’s Milk reach into the cosmos to deliver a message about the nature of our spiritual-developmental origins as children of a Heavenly Mother. These poems occupy a distinguished place as a uniquely Mormon book of wisdom literature, and as such they map a path for our spiritual seeking that contains the guiding hope of one day healing the wounds of her absence.
The daughter seeks the Mother through childhood games, just as the child seeks the earthly mother: Peek-a-Boo, Marco Polo. Rachel casts the daughters and sons of Mormonism as the Lost Boys and Girls, wishing to see their Mother again, remembering her, and encountering the grief of her absence. “I woke up again/ without my Mother” (“Every Day,” 22). The wisdom of the Mother’s relationship with her children is more complex, though.
The give and take of these poems reflects the developmental process of the infant. Sometimes the Mother is there, sometimes She is taking a shower. Sometimes She is tired, and then Her strength renews. She uses Her voice with power, and yet Her books are blank so that we, Her children, can learn to write. Yet, although She is obscured by the veil, by mortality, the Mother is there. Rachel senses Her when she is giving birth. The more she looks, the more she sees Her, even if it is only through a dark mortal lens. “I look through/ the glass, darkly,/ and can just barely/ make Her out” (“Darkly“ 122).
She exegetes that in Mormon Christology the Mother must be the cross, just as She is anciently Asherah, the tree representing the mother goddess of Ugarit. Unlike the Father, She is perhaps present during the Atonement and in Gethsemane, strengthening the Son: “When Jesus was on the cross,/ . . . His Mother might have been/ right there,/ branches holding Him—/ a weeping willow,/ the Tree of Life” (“Tree of Life,” 73).
Heavenly Mother’s priceless milk and care are never far away from us. Her spiritual attentions are no less involved than the Father’s are. Yet, “One of the first things/ we must learn on earth/ is how to sleep/ without our Mother” (“Life Lesson,” 55). We learn to be spiritually self-reliant, when we still need connection with Her, just as we need connection with our earthly mothers (“She can sleep/ without her Mother/ but she doesn’t want to” (“The Child,” 12). This need for connection turns us into seekers.
This reveals a keening truth of spiritual development: seeking might need to tear us to produce the growth and answers we are looking for. Working within the tidily coherent theological framework of Mormonism, we sometimes forget the nature of spiritual growth. We are called upon to transform our vision and our hearts, a soul-expanding process. Motherhood perforce brings this kind of self-stretching. And Heavenly Motherhood, we learn, is perhaps no different: “Mother, too, is anxious/ when Her children cry out, a/ veil of forgetting hiding Her/ last words: I will always come/ back for you. It shall be/ a small moment” (“Separation Anxiety, II,” 55).
Now, what of the crack. There are two cracks (perhaps three) in this book. One is that of Rachel’s heart after she gives birth to her daughter, Cora (“Crack,” 84). The second is the Mother’s cracking, which is somewhat ambiguous (“Something cracked open. She is everywhere.” “Crack, II,” 123). We are not given to know what it is. Rachel does not quite know what it is in the moment of the poem. But, the text makes a larger argument for the second atonement, a series of sublunary sacrifices, that Mother makes for Her children in numerous, intimately knowing ways that are part of their spiritual development.
These consist of the sacrifices the Mother makes when she weans a child to earth life so the child can grow in strength: “On Her daughter’s/ first day of Earth,/ they both wept” (“Separation Anxiety,” 12). Rachel teaches us that what may seem like the milk of a thus-far watered down theology of Heavenly Mother is really meat—the opportunity for us to enter the space where we encounter our own woundedness, keening, searching, and questioning, and find an answer, hear a voice, deepen our understanding that we are sons and daughters of Heavenly Parents, that we need a Heavenly Mother, even while on earth. (Søren Kierkegaard offers philosophical undergirding for this idea of a “stronger sustenance” when the child is to be weaned [see note, “What Søren Aabye Taught Me,” 148]).
Rachel’s cracking offers itself as a surrogate for our own spiritual exploration. See me crack open wide so that you can find the crack in yourself that will then reveal other even larger cracks, the crack that created our Mother in Heaven’s abiding concern for us.
Mormonism has the feel of an already-complete theology, one with an entire plan of salvation mapped out from beginning to end. At first glance, there are few perceptible structural cracks. The foundation is certain. Thus, when we uncover a gap in that theology where the current light is not enough (polygamy, race, gender, Heavenly Mother) we often become agitated, unseated, undone. Paradoxically, it is in the crack and in the cracking that we can hope to find healing. These cracks serve as places where a deepened spirituality emerges from the crucible of our searching.
In Mother’s Milk, readers meet a female deity responsive to their hunger for Her. A foundational language of Heavenly Mother had not been fully realized until this book, which is itself a précis to more theological knowledge and more ways of speaking about Heavenly Mother than ever before. Eliza R. Snow revealed the concept of Her, and Rachel has given us flesh and blood, grammar and syntax and emotional-spiritual vocabulary. Heavenly Mother stands before our mind’s eye enfleshed, calling out for a response.
I have only touched the surface of this text, which has the texture of scripture. It cannot be fully comprehended in one reading, nor should it be. It will be comprehended in reading upon reading of the text wholly and upon reading the numerous little texts that tear our hearts open one strand at a time to make room for the Mother to come into healing relationship with us.
You need this book. Your mother, sister, daughter, brother, father, son, bishop, husband, partner, Relief Society President needs this book. We all need the Mother, and Rachel Hunt Steenblik’s Mother’s Milk is an essential place to find Her.
Elizabeth Pinborough believes in the power of women as creative theologians and writes theological poetry. She graduated from Yale Divinity School and Brigham Young University. Her work has been published in Fire in the Pasture: 21st Century Mormon Poets, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Psaltery & Lyre, and Exponent II.