Beyond the experience of duality

Spirit as Mother

Image above: Fr Bede thought that this image of Shiva Nataraja could serve perfectly as an image for the Holy Spirit

This article was first published in The Tablet 9 June 1979 as a meditation for Trinity Sunday

One of the greatest defects of the Christian religion, whether Protestant, Orthodox or Catholic, is that it has no concept of God as Mother. The Holy Trinity in Christian tradition consists of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Father and the Son are both masculine by definition and even the Holy Spirit, though it appears as a dove or tongues of fire, is usually referred to as “he”. This is surely very strange, since the Supreme Being is by nature neither masculine nor feminine, and there is no reason why it should be represented as masculine rather than feminine. The reasons why it is so represented in the Hebrew tradition are clearly sociological. The Jews were a patriarchal people, and man alone was held to have supreme authority in the home and in public affairs. St Paul even suggests a theological reason for this, saying that “man is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man” and “man was not made from a woman but woman from man, neither was man created for woman but woman for man” (1 Cor. 11, 7-9). But this is a view which would hardly be accepted today. It is clearly based on a peculiar Jewish understanding of man. For the Hindu there is no such problem. Even in the Vedas God is addressed as both Father and Mother, and the Hindu devotee calls on God as “my Father, my Mother.” The name of Siva, the figure of the Supreme God, can be masculine, feminine or neuter, and Siva is often represented as male and female.

Is it possible to discover a feminine aspect of God in the Christian tradition? I believe that it is. Though Yahweh in the Old Testament is generally represented as a very masculine figure, yet there is another side to him, and Isaiah puts into the mouth of Yahweh the touching words: “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yes, these may forget, yet will I not forget thee” (Is. 49, 15). In the New Testament we have also the beautiful saying of Jesus: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you. How often would I have gathered your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under wings, but you would not” (Mt 23, 37). These are clear indications of a feminine aspect in God, but they do not take us very far. But there are two aspects of Old Testament thought, which would seem to give a solid basis for a conception of God as Mother. The first is that the Hebrew word for Spirit – ruach – is feminine. The significance of this is not developed in the Old Testament, but in the Syriac tradition, which is akin to the Hebrew, the word ruha or ruho remains feminine, and this led to an actual conception of the Holy Spirit as Mother. The expression “our Mother the Holy Spirit,” is found in the Odes of Solomon at the beginning of the 2nd century, in the Gospel of Thomas at the beginning of the 3rd century, and in Aphaates in the 4thcentury. Here then one can say that there was a tradition in the Church which recognised the Holy Spirit as feminine and could speak of her as Mother. But unfortunately, the word for Spirit in Latin is masculine and in Greek neuter, so that this development did not take place in the Greek or Latin Church.

There us, however, another concept in the Old Testament, that of Wisdom, which also has a feminine form, the word hochmah. Fortunately in this case both the Greek and the Latin had feminine nouns for wisdom sophiaand sapientia, so that the concept of a feminine figure of Wisdom was preserved in all three traditions. In the Greek tradition this led to the dedication of the famous church of Constantinople to Hagia Sophia or Holy Wisdom, and to the development of a form of sophiology by Russian writers like Soloviev in the last century, in which this aspect was given great importance. In the Latin Church these passages from the books of Wisdom, which referred to a feminine Wisdom, were applied to the Virgin Mary, but in the original Hebrew tradition, wisdom is quite clearly an attribute of God himself. In the book of Proverbs we read: “The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, ere ever the earth was…I was daily his delight, rejoicing ever before him” (Prov. 8, 22-23, 30). Again in the book of Sirach, we read: “Wisdom shall praise herself and glory in the midst of her people. In the congregation of the Most High shall she open her moth and glory in the presence of his power. I came forth from the mouth of the Most High” (Sir. 24, 1-3). Finally, in the book of Wisdom we have the clearest testimony: “Wisdom is more mobile than any motion, yes, she pervades and penetrates all things by reason of her pureness. For she is a breath of the power of God and a clear effluence of the glory of the Almighty. Therefore can nothing defiled find entrance into her. For she is an effulgence from everlasting light and an unspotted mirror of the working of God and an image of his goodness” (Wis. 7, 24-26).

It is obvious that we have in these texts a clear affirmation of a feminine aspect in God. In the early Church these texts were applied sometimes to the Son and sometimes to the Spirit, but as the Latin Church could find no place for a feminine aspect in God, they were eventually applied to the Virgin Mary, where the application is, to say the least, very remote. Would it not be possible for the Church today to apply these texts to the Holy Spirit, this recognising a feminine aspect in God? In his brief period of office, Pope John Paul I spoke once of God as Mother. Could this not be a precedent for a further development of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as Mother. This does not mean, of course, that the Holy Spirit is properly feminine, but that just as there is a father figure in Christian life and worship, as well as the figure of the Son, so also there should be a mother figure to represent the feminine aspect of God. It is permissible to speak of God as both Father and Mother, and Julian of Norwich even speaks of Christ as our Mother. But it seems most appropriate to use the feminine gender of the Holy Spirit, both because of the tradition of the Old Testament, which we have mentioned, and because the characteristic of the feminine is receptivity, and this would seem to be also the characteristic of the Holy Spirit. In the first chapter of Genesis the Spirit is described as “brooding” over the waters. She is the mothering spirit, who receives the seed of the Word and nourishes it and bring forth the created world. In the same way when Mary is about to conceive, it is said that the Holy Spirit “overshadowed” her. The Spirit prepared the womb in which the son of God is to be received. Can we not think of the Holy Spirit as the Mothering Spirit, who lies deep in the heart of all creation, nourishing the seeds of the Word and “groaning in travail,” as St Paul puts it, to bring the whole creation to fulfilment. Even in the Holy Spirit itself, could we not say that the Holy Spirit is the ‘receptive’ power of God, the womb, in which the Father places the seed of the Word?

These are speculations and I put them forward for what they are worth. But the need to study the feminine aspect of God and to give it a place in our theology is surely evident. The practical consequences of this are also only too clear. When God is conceived as wholly masculine in character, it is almost inevitable that the Church should be dominated by the male sex. The place of woman in the Church and the very nature of sex and marriage would all be affected by a proper understanding of the place of the feminine in God. Perhaps it will only be when we have learned to recognise God as Mother that woman will find her rightful place in the Church.