Heavenly Mother and Paradoxical Embodiment

Posted by on November 29, 2012 in Heavenly Mother, women | 12 comments

by Galen Dara

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 Toscano,  “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?

Rachael is a Utah native, Mormon feminist, and a recent graduate from USU in cultural anthropology. 

(this post is cross-posted at Young Mormon Feminists and The Mormon Worker.)

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12 Comments

  1. I love that presentation of Margaret’s…it’s so powerful and it makes me wish it could be a Relief Society or Young Women’s weekly meeting presentation.

    I love your idea of being able to talk openly about our relationships with Her as we are able to talk so freely about our Heavenly Father. It is an interesting question to ponder.

  2. I love the idea of talking about her openly as well. Right now, there seems to be something of a cultural taboo against mentioning her much in meetings. As Toscano says in a paper of hers, many Mormons attribute this penchant for silence about her to her sacredness. But as Toscano points out, Mormons believe temples are sacred too. Yet we talk about them all the time, put temple pictures up on our walls, etc. I’d love it if we could treat HM that way too — constantly emphasize how central and important she is, her compassion, her love, her godliness, etc. and also embrace artwork of her in our homes and meeting houses. I see this is as a first step toward leaving behind the directive to not pray to her.

    Thanks for your thoughts on this, Rachael.

  3. For what its worth, every LDS congregation I’ve ever been in has offered a collective prayer to Heavenly Mother at least once a year – on Mother’s Day. Per D/C 25:12, “the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me.” By singing to Mother – which is exactly what we do in verse 4 of Oh My Father – we are also praying to her.

    So next time you pray in an LDS congregation, if you feel so inclined, just include a variation of these words:

    When I leave this frail existence,
    When I lay this mortal by,
    Father, Mother, may I meet you
    In your royal courts on high?
    Then, at length, when I’ve completed
    All you sent me forth to do,
    With your mutual approbation
    Let me come and dwell with you.

    • Dave, I totally agree. This hymn is a prayer, a prayer to our Heavenly Parents, though I feel most don’t understand this. I love singing this verse.

    • This idea is tip-toeing around the issue. As LDS members we are taught that our prayers must not be ritual in nature. (Or to use our terminology, “vain repetition”.) We are intelligent beings who can form our own prayers. As a man, you have Heavenly Father to aspire to become like in every way. As women, we are told that the model we are to strive to become is a mystery and not to be openly discussed. In a church culture that supports personal revelation, why would we not pray to her? Is personal revelation only acceptable if it doesn’t interfere with any GA’s opinion that ever lived? It is actually incredibly demeaning to have this threat over our heads that if we pray to our Heavenly Mother we could be excommunicated. Would any righteous priesthood holder demand that his children not speak to their mother? It’s truly absurd.

  4. Really excellent article and great elucidation of a truly odd paradox. Thank you. Let’s open up the discourse.

  5. I think about this a lot …. and wonder. What would our dialogue be like in church if we were encouraged to speak of our Heavenly Mother? Would we talk about her divine attributes and how we could be more like her? Both men and women? Would we pray to our Heavenly Parent – as a unit? Or sometimes one and/or the other?

    I’d like to find out. Perhaps we will.

    Thanks for writing about Her.
    Suzette

  6. Rachael, thanks for your thoughts. I think that it has only been in recent generations that Mormon women have been afraid to speak – or even think about – Heavenly Mother. I recently talked to my Grandma, who openly talked about thoughts she has had about HM and her place in the Godhead (think of the familial terms in our first article of faith: God the Father, Jesus the Son, Holy Ghost . . .) She seemed very comfortable with HM having a real place in the Mormon Godhead. But when I talked to my mother about it, she was adamantly against such an idea.

    I personally pray to both of my Heavenly Parents. This is something that has developed over time, as I have learned about HM and the place she has, beyond just bearing children, in the creation and and other parts of religious history (look at Proverbs 8 for a great example). My bishop recently called me in to talk about several things, one of them being that people in the ward had complained about me praying to HM in church. I am sure that I used the term Heavenly Parents in my prayer in Sunday School, but apparently it was offensive to some. I told him that I naturally pray to both my parents, just like, when I call my parents who are serving a mission, I speak to both of my parents, not just my father.

    It is very important for us to develop images, ideas and understandings of our Heavenly Mother and to share them. It is only then that we can find our place as real, developed, important spiritual beings within our faith tradition.

  7. Rachael, I love your insights, and especially the paradox of the divine female body being denied acknowledgement, when She is, in fact, the very creator of life. I’m sure She is up there, answering our prayers and understanding our hearts. She is one half of who God is. The word Eloheim is plural. God is male and female. My Heavenly Mother is very real to me and I can’t wait to meet Her AND my Father. Thanks for writing.

  8. Hey Rachel,

    I agree with a lot of what you have said here. I too have felt that discourse on HM would improve if we used more imagery–visual and plastic arts, including symbolic poetry. But no one seems to be really doing it! We just note the absence. I think we have to look for the solution in ourselves. If we want art, we need to spur ourselves and the community to create it. If we want to have her in discourse, then we need to bring her up in our testimonies, in our talks, our sunday school classings, our visiting teaching/home teaching messages. If we want visuals, we need to draw them. I would love to start an art contest with HM as the topic. Do you know of anyone that would be interested?

  9. When I pray, I quietly ask both Heavenly Mother & Father…

  10. I found this article very interesting. I am a young feminist who has stopped attending church meetings and participating because I always felt like there was such staggering sexism not only from the members and their interpretations, but also coming from the authorities of the church. I feel like if I were taught about Heavenly Mother when I was younger growing up in the church, maybe that would have balanced out the gender inequalities and allowed my conscience to believe. There is such a stigma against talking about her, or even mentioning her that I didn’t know she existed until last year.

    I know I have no right to be weighing in on this topic since I do not attend, but I feel like being able to pray to a woman as a woman is something that is lacking in the Mormon church. The bond between a daughter (or a son for that matter) and her mother is something that is sacred. But I can’t help but notice the injustice of not teaching of her and that fact that I didn’t know that she even existed.

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