Speaking the unspeakable: mother-language before the reformation
People I talk with about using motherly language and pictures to talk about God often accept that the Bible sometimes uses motherly pictures, but because fatherly pictures are so common in the New Testament they assume that talk of God as mother died out after the Bible was completed. This is just not true. For more than 1,300 of those 1,900 years the main theologians and writing pastors of the Christian church were happy to use motherly pictures.
Syriac Fathers and the womb of the Spirit
(Sorry to get all technical, but Syriac was a dialect of Aramaic and the language spoken by many of the earliest Christians, for some years it was as important as Greek or Latin in the early church. It is a Semitic language like the Hebrew in which almost all the Old Testament was written.)
Because ‘spirit’ is a grammatically feminine word in the Semitic languages, the pronoun ‘she’ was naturally used when talking about the Holy Spirit. This made it easy to picture ‘her’ as a mother. This happened very regularly when thinking about baptism, the ceremony which marks the new birth into Christ. There are lots of examples of this language from Syriac Christian writers and preachers over many centuries.
Syrian Orthodox and Maronite baptismal services, still in use, express this idea very clearly using the phrase ‘the womb of the Spirit’:
Blessed are you, Lord God, through whose great and indescribable gift this water has been sanctified by the coming of your Holy Spirit so that it has become the womb of the Spirit that gives birth to the new man out of the old.
Similar wording was already present in the service attributed to Timothy:
Indeed, we beseech you, Father of mercies and God of all comfort, send your living Spirit and sanctify this water, and may it become the womb of the Spirit that gives rebirth anew to mankind who are baptised in it.
In more theological discussion of baptism, this maternal role of the Holy Spirit is linked back to the very beginning of Scripture, where the Spirit of God is described as ‘hovering’ over the primeval waters. The word translated ‘hover’ in Gen 1:2 is rare in the Bible and translators vary between ‘sweep,’ ‘move,’ ‘beat,’ ‘brood’ and ‘hover.’ It is used of birds and most of these translations reflect that. The early Syriac translation uses a similar word (Syriac-Aramaic and Hebrew are cousins) which clearly meant ‘brood’ (like a hen hatching chicks).
If you can describe yourself as ‘born again’ who do you picture as the mother who gave you this new birth?
Such talk of the Spirit as mother, and of baptism as ‘her’ womb, did not come naturally to Greek and Latin speakers. As Jerome reminded his readers, when thinking of the ‘forming of Christ’ in the believer (Gal 4:19) ‘spirit’ is feminine in Semitic languages, masculine in Latin and neuter in Greek, a nice reminder that: ‘In the godhead there is no gender.’ (In divinitate enim nullus est sexus.)
Several of the best known and most influential Greek and Latin ‘fathers’ similarly stress that God is not gendered. (Some of them mentioning the passage in Gal 3:28 in support.)
God the ‘Father’ as mother
Because in Latin and Greek ‘spirit’ is not feminine there is not among these writers as strong a tendency to picture the Spirit as mother. However, this means they were more free to speak of God the Father as ‘mother.’ Thus Clement tries to explain the love of God like this:
What else is necessary? Behold the mysteries of love, and then you will have a vision of the bosom of the Father, whom the only-begotten God alone declared. God in His very self is love, and for love’s sake He became visible to us. And while the unspeakable part of Him is Father, the part that has sympathy with us is Mother. By His loving the Father became of woman’s nature, a great proof of which is He whom He beget from Himself; and the fruit that is born of love is love.
Here Clement illustrates how a mix of father and mother pictures encourages different truths about God to be expressed together. For Clement (in a world of distant respected fathers, and intimate loving mothers) thinking of God as ‘father’ helps us recognise the ‘unspeakable’ (transcendent) nature of God, while thinking of God as ‘mother’ helps us realise the nature of God as love.
The motherly ‘Son’
Thought of the second person of the Trinity (Jesus as God) as motherly is also present throughout, and reached its peak in a prayer by the great pastor and theologian Anselm. The prayer influenced a whole stream of motherly spirituality about Christ particularly among Cistercians and in Bernard of Clairvaux.
Anselm’s prayer is addressed to St Paul, but expresses his difficulty in accepting God’s grace. He feels unworthy, and, though he knows Christ died for sinners, still finds his sense of sinfulness a barrier.
Then he remembers that Paul (and the other apostles) spoke of themselves as being like mothers (giving birth and feeding) the Christian communities they founded. If they are like mothers how much more is Jesus, who died to give us life, our loving mother. Anselm cannot imagine a divine mother who will turn away her child (cf Isaiah 49:15) and so is able to approach Christ.
Perhaps the fullest flowering of such thinking of, and relating to, God as motherly came in the writing of Julian of Norwich. Julian (her birth name is unknown) was one of the most influential Christian mystics at the end of the 14th and early 15th centuries. Her Showing of Love is an extended meditation of the love of God and makes extensive use of motherly language and pictures.
Julian explicitly speaks of the whole Trinity and each of the persons Father, Son and Spirit as motherly. She is thus a fine example of how one can both avoid speaking of God as gendered, and use motherly language without risking splitting the Godhead (as the trend in the 70s to speak of only the Spirit as mother risked doing).
In view of these 1400 years of willingness to speak of God as motherly it seems particularly strange that for more than 400 of the the next 500 years such talk was almost silent. (When researching my thesis, I only found one example of motherly talk of God between 1450 and the 20th century.)
What accounts for this strange unspeakability of one of the most powerful pictures that can help us understand and relate to God more fully? Is it as CS Lewis clearly felt, and many people do today, that such talk is heterodox, leading into error? If so most of the most respected Christian thinkers of the first 1400 years fell into the trap (eg Iranaeus, Eusebius, Gregory of Nyssa, Chrysostom, Ambrose and Augustine as well as Jerome and Clement might have been cited above).
I suspect (as chapter nine of my thesis argued) that the growth in the Catholic Church of the veneration of Mary the mother of Jesus as a quasi-divine mother figure reduced the need to talk of God as mother. (There are examples of well-respected Catholic theologians who clearly go beyond the bounds of careful Catholic dogma in speaking of Mary as divine.) Among Protestants such excesses in Mariology may have given rise to a suspicion of talk of a divine mother-figure.
Whatever the cause, this unspeakable image of God can greatly enrich our spirituality today, as it did for the first 1,400 years of Christianity. I’ll try to show you how in the next (and last) post in the series.
In the meanwhile, a question: do you use motherly or other feminine language or pictures when thinking or speaking about God? Or is such language ‘unspeakable’?