God as a Woman in Labor

Recently I read a book by Lauren Winner, an ordained Episcopal priest and professor at Duke Divinity School. The book is entitled Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God.

Winner begins by reminding us that all the ways we describe God are inadequate. God is beyond anything we could ever say about who God is. Yet the Bible offers us many images or metaphors of God that can give us insights into Who God is. Many Christian denominations, however, focus on only a few of those biblical images of God such as king, shepherd, father. By doing so, says Winner, we “have truncated our relationship with the divine.”

Winner’s book explores other scriptural images of God that are often overlooked. What images? God as clothing… smell… bread… laboring woman… laughter, to name a few. Today I want to look at one of those images: God as a woman in labor. (It is a mere coincidence that I am posting this on Labor Day!)

A clear description of this image is found in Isaiah 42:14 where God says through the prophet: “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.” This section of Isaiah was written when a significant part of the Judean population was living in exile in Babylon with little hope of return. These words, in the wake of such a catastrophe, were meant to assure the people that God was with them even now. God was one with them in their pain—a pain that would lead to birth. God was at work among them bringing them to new life.

Other scripture passages echo this image of God as a laboring woman. The psalmist puts these words into God’s mouth: “Out of my womb before the morning star I bore you” (Ps. 110:3).” We might ask in shock, “You mean God has a womb?” Isaiah later gives the people these tender words from God: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or not show compassion for the child of her womb? Even if these forget, yet I will not forget you” Is. 49:15). So, God is portrayed not only as a woman who gives birth, but also as a woman who nurses her child.

Some people are disturbed by these images of God as a laboring woman groaning, writhing in pain, bleeding, shaking uncontrollably. Do we want a God so utterly vulnerable? Or a God so out of control? But Winner suggests such images tell us that “God chooses to participate in the work of new creation with bellowing and panting.” God somehow participates in our pain.  And God, especially through Jesus, continues to nourish us with his own body as a woman nourishes her child with her own body.

The image of God as a laboring and nursing woman gave Winner another insight into who God is. She says because God is all-powerful, we can assume that redemption is “easy for God… a snap of the divine fingers.” But Isaiah’s image tells us how hard God is working to bring forth redemption. I would add, if I am participating with God in the work of the new creation, then I too will experience times of gasping and panting and moaning. I too will know periods of intense pain and vulnerability and loss of control. I too must be willing to nourish others with my whole being.

Winner concludes her chapter on God as laboring woman with a prayer by St. Anselm of Canterbury written in the 11th Century. Anselm employs the feminine image that Jesus himself gave us:

And you, Jesus, are you not also a mother?

Are you not the mother who, like a hen,

gathers her chickens under her wings?…

It is by your death that (we) have been born…

For Winner, God as laboring woman impacts her understanding of Jesus’ crucifixion. She says we have “sanitized” the crucifixion. It no longer shocks or disturbs us. We have turned a horrific, bloody state execution into a “tidy doctrine.” Perhaps “God as a woman in travail” can help reclaim some of the anguish involved in Jesus’ cruel death. Perhaps it can also reclaim some of Jesus’ great love.

As I said earlier, all images of God are incomplete. Words, sooner or later, fail us when we are speaking of Divinity. Yet good images and metaphors can offer us glimpses into who God is. And in doing so, they can enrich our relationship with the One who loves us far more than words can say!

What do you feel and/or think about the image of God as laboring woman, as nursing mother?

Are there some images of God that speak to you? What are they? Why do they speak to you? Are there any images of God that do not speak to you? Why?

In our Catholic tradition there are few songs of God as mother. Landry’s “I Will Never Forget You My People” is one I found. (We have many songs about Mary as mother.) But I wanted a song that speaks of God as mother, so I reached into the Hindu tradition. This song, “Hymn to the Divine Mother,” is from a CD entitled 108 Sacred Names of the Divine Mother by Craig Pruess and Ananda. It is 10 minutes long. I’d be interested in knowing what you think of it.

Now it’s your turn to respond below—to the reflection, or the questions, or the song. I always enjoy hearing from you!

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  1. Thomas D on September 3, 2018 at 4:12 am

    Oddly coincidental: I’m reading Episcopal priest Margaret Guenther’s book “My Soul in Silence Waits,” and I just finished the chapter that deals with the same topic! Yes, God to me can be feminine: I begin to recoil from the (alas!) ineffaceable image of the Deity as perennially testy white-haired and pale-skinned Lawgiver, and crave reminders that God is refuge, haven, harbour, shelter. I have seen and known God’s grace, clearly, palpably, in the personalities of many of my women friends, who convey charity and grace to the persons whom they encounter with virtually every word and deed. Love, mercy, patience: any image of God that lacks these attributes, I would venture to say, is deeply flawed.

  2. Kathleen on September 3, 2018 at 5:38 am

    What beautiful thoughts on this Labor Day!

    Thanks for bringing the the forefront all the feminine images of God. Although we focus on Mary in our Catholic faith often, it is good view God as giving birth to creation.

    In these sad times of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, God as a mother is a comforting image.


  3. Judy on September 3, 2018 at 6:52 am

    What a gift this song was. Peaceful, respectful, universal repeating Namastasyi reminding me of Namaste from Yoga which is peaceful, respectful, energizing body, mind, spirit expression of as Mother God.

  4. Ardy on September 3, 2018 at 6:55 am

    Hi Sister
    I worked with laboring women for 22 years there is no more touching image of God. The hymn to the Divine Mother was wonderful and sung with such tenderness. I will listen to it again and again thank you for sharing it!

  5. Kathy on September 3, 2018 at 7:06 am

    Thanks for this reflection today, Sr. Melannie. I participated in a retreat many years ago where the focus was praying with feminine images of God. Since then I have frequently relied on these images to help on my spiritual journey.
    My daughter is currently pregnant, this will be my first grandchild. Very appropos is this image, and I will continue to pray with this through the coming months.
    Thank you again, I always enjoy your reflections.

  6. Pete on September 3, 2018 at 7:07 am

    I couldn’t help thinking of my granddaughter who will be going thru this experience for the first time at the end of October. As God is in all of us, what image will be represented? I see God’s creation all around me. When I am in the woods, I thank God for the beauty God created. When I see an insect, going about their business, I reflect, ” one of Gods creations”. Knowing God is there, wherever and whenever we need God, is very reassuring. The image is there, whatever it takes, when we need it.

  7. Mary Therese on September 3, 2018 at 7:15 am

    Thank you for your reflections Sister Melannie. This song is beautiful. I believe I heard it before at the end of a Yoga class at a local cancer center. It is calming and settling. Just yesterday I met with a group of women, mostly in their 70s, at our parish to discuss a Richard Rohr book we’ve been reading . Inevitably, the conversation came around to the latest exposure of sexual abuse within the church, and we all agreed that more women in visible roles of leadership would certainly be beneficial. I will be sharing today’s reflection on the feminine images of God with them.

  8. Mary on September 3, 2018 at 7:45 am

    Such a beautiful song…..so contemplative and wonderful to begin an early morning. I see God as LOVE,MERCY, FORGIVENESS, UNDERSTANDING, PATIENT and on and on. The one image that I do not like is as King……that is so opposed to all that I see of God. Mother, certainly, brother, yes, sister absolutely…..family, confidante, BFF.

    I am reminded of Henri Nouwen”s book on The Return of the Prodigal Son and how consumed he became with the original painting. One conclusion he came to was that Rembrandt had painted one of the father’s hands as masculine and one as femine. This perhaps is the best image for me…..God is whatever I/we need God to be at any given time. That is the kind of God I can be in awe of and worship mightily.

  9. Mary james on September 3, 2018 at 7:52 am

    Wow! Beautiful! Says it all Such a wonderful summary of all Richard Rohr has been saying on his blog the past
    few weeks. .A great summary of our Christian beliefs.
    Thanx much!

  10. Sharon on September 3, 2018 at 9:02 am

    Thank you, Sister. Since perceiving God as feminine is so restful and peaceful to me, I’ve often asked God if “he” would mind that I think of “him” and pray to “him” in the feminine for a while, since for over sixty years, it has been in the masculine. Each time I ask, I think I have been given not only permission, but encouragement. The masculine works in my head, but not ever in my heart. I’ve been taught that God is neither, but maybe God wants to be perceived as both … and even more.

  11. Toni Gross on September 3, 2018 at 9:27 am

    The song is especially meaningful as it speaks so lovingly of Her presence in everything and thus our union with everything.

  12. Jean Canatsey on September 3, 2018 at 9:40 am

    Dear Sr. Melannie,
    What a wonderful, soothing way to begin our holiday. What we lack most in our busy lives are quiet reflective moments such as this. I will try to go back to this and to some of the other selections on this album when I need to escape from the sheer madness of life. Thank you!

  13. Ryan Gallo on September 3, 2018 at 10:12 am

    I love this! My sense of God is neither male nor female, and as a woman and a mother, the image of the Creator as predominantly a Father figure has become off-putting to me. Not because of any animus against men, but because it feels so presumptuous and incomplete. One of my favorite scripture quotes when I feel overwhelmed by longings and feelings that I can not control is from Psalm 131 “Surely I have composed and quieted my soul; Like a weaned child rests against his mother, My soul is like a weaned child within me.” (131:2). I imagine God as that Mother and I breathe and surrender myself into her tender, loving arms, hoping God’s grace will give me the peace of the weaned child.

  14. Joseph Johnson on September 3, 2018 at 10:25 am

    And may God always have room enough for you in the palm of her hands.
    So this is a prayer- blessing I give folks when I bring communion to them at the hospital in our town. So I have no trouble seeing God as female-male. It’s all good

  15. Jean on September 3, 2018 at 10:38 am

    Good Morning Sister Melannie,
    The sunrise today just summed it all up!!
    Wonder-filled reflection today.
    Thank you and Happy Labor Day.

  16. Susan Jordahl on September 3, 2018 at 11:22 am

    I am thrilled with the image of our Lord as a laboring mother giving birth, being human and feeling the utmost love for us.

  17. John Hopkins on September 3, 2018 at 1:02 pm

    Good afternoon, Melannie. Beautiful song! I’m listening to it while I write this response. Lauren Winner’s book sounds fascinating, and, yes, timely, for nothing is more anti-clericalism than the image of God panting and moaning in labor. Thank you for all you do!

  18. Mary S. on September 3, 2018 at 3:05 pm

    I agree with all the wonderful comments already posted, but would suggest that we won’t fully free ourselves from a dominant male imaging of God until we attend to the exclusive use of male pronouns for God. As long as God is exclusively ‘he’, feminine images will never really take hold in our hearts, minds or discourse.

    • David on September 4, 2018 at 12:45 am

      The problem with this suggestion (however well intentioned) is that Jesus addressed God as a male, as his Father. When his disciples asked Jesus, “Lord teach us to pray”, He began with the words “Our Father”. With respect, I don’t think this is up for debate.

  19. Judy helms on September 3, 2018 at 6:59 pm

    “Father, Mother, God, loving me. Guide my little feet up to Thee.” A poem I said to my small children in the 60’s, has never left our thoughts and still good today.

  20. Joanne Bennardo on September 4, 2018 at 7:47 pm

    I am currently reading The Selected Poetry of Jessica Powers. The poem entitled: Millet’s “Feeding Her Birds” is one in which the author is inspired through a painting to contemplate God as mother.
    The final lines read:

    or if there must be words, to speak none other
    than: O my Mother God, my God and Mother.

  21. Amy Secrist on September 5, 2018 at 12:11 pm

    Dear Sister Melanie,

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. And to this loving community. Thank you all for being in the world.

  22. Charlene on September 7, 2018 at 11:49 am

    A great example, the labor pains of a birth of a child as to our beloved Savior who suffered even worse pains on the Cross in hopes of giving birth to a grateful nation who will honor, adore and glorify HIS Father. We will never feel the extent of HIS pain HE suffers because of our sins. Just imagine the sharpest thorn grazing your head each time we give into our self desires and the sword that pierces His heart would make panting through our labor pains ‘a walk in the park’, and yet HE is there with His forgiveness once we repent. We all need to be reminded about what is SINFUL in GOD our FATHER’S eyes and know that HE has more love, comfort and mercy than any human, female or male.

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