God as a Nursing Mother

One of the Psalms for this evening–131–is very short but takes us in swiftly to meditate upon the image of ourselves becoming before God as still as a child quietly and contentedly nursing.

I have never been a mother, and am unlikely to be (unless you count many students whom I’ve nurtured in one way or another).  Nor can I recall nursing; and besides, my mother says I didn’t take to nursing (back in a decade when it was discouraged, so she didn’t try very long either), and was only bottlefed.  So it’s with some hesitation that I venture to comment on this psalm, this image.

But then I think of my friend Bill, who as a gay man has nevertheless spearheaded an effort at my university to create lactation rooms all over campus.

And I think, too–how can any of us not linger over any of the handful of truly female images for God that pop up in scripture?  Even if most of them work primarily with the image of mothering–hardly the only role that women engage in.  Still, a sacred and primal role.

And this evening as I’ve let this image accompany me, hop into my consciousness as I pause between this task and that to recall it, I’m reminded again of the vital importance of dropping all our worries, fears, pains, pleas, questions–or at least looking over their heads–in order to pray simply in praise of God.  As if this is going back to the beginning, back to the feeding of our lives in dependence on God that precedes every expenditure of our own life energy on this earth.

Julian of Norwich, the medieval anchorite and counselor of many, imaged Jesus as a nursing mother on whom we feed in the Eucharist.  Since breast milk was believed to be processed blood, the image worked.  She straightforwardly incorporated female images for God into traditional Christian beliefs and practice.

Today, when I think of my friends breastfeeding, I think of their stories about others being uncomfortable witnessing breastfeeding in public, even to the point of asking them to stop.  There are many reasons for such attitudes, and especially in response to attitudes rooted in fear and shame of female (or any) embodiment, I’m gladdened by women who nevertheless take their infants with them and nurse in public (there’s a song about this–about being a hot-blooded mama).  But maybe one reason for the discomfort has something to do with our fear of really knowing and feeling that we are creatures.  In a culture in which we tend to value creating ourselves, being young forever, alleviating all signs of bodily aches and pains, and climbing peaks of success (fame, wealth, power, the perfect body, the perfect home)–maybe we’re reminded how we all begin small, all remain dependent on the gift of life that comes from our Creator and from all the creaturely gifts–from others, from the material world–that sustain our life.

Maybe.  I’m not sure, because I’ve always felt calmed, centered, warmed when I see a woman nursing an infant.  And while it’s delightfully hard for me to picture nursing on God, it’s not hard to work with the feelings of witnessing nursing to remember that our stillness before God always precedes our taking bold steps into this world, servants and children and eventually grown friends of the one who feeds us.

And, of course, Advent is a time of preparing to remember to witness and help usher in God’s own vulnerability in being with us, first as a child.

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