Heavenly Mother and Paradoxical Embodiment
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.