Spiritual Mothers – May 9, 2021

Just before my final semester in seminary, I took my first unit of clinical pastoral education.  It was a difficult time for me.  I had been struggling spiritually and was increasingly unsure whether I wanted to be a minister.  I decided I would use that summer to discern my path ahead, to complete this hurdle before making a decision.  My supervisor for this unit was a woman named Mary.

I quickly learned Mary was a person I could trust, someone I could be fully myself with.  I shared with her that I no longer found prayer to be meaningful – a statement which would have me burned at the stake at my seminary.  And she shared with me a book that helped me view prayer in a new way.  She saw my strengths and affirmed them.  She saw where I needed to grow and pushed me.  For example, for most of my life I had avoided confrontation.  I had learned to suppress my own needs, to see conflict as too risky, and that my own worth not great enough to validate that risk.  But when one of my peers acted in a way to diminish my worth, she supported me in confronting the situation despite the risk.

Mary empowered me to stand up for what I believed regardless of the consequence.  While she was a deeply devoted Roman Catholic, she also strongly believed women should be priests.  So she became part of a protest movement ending in her ordination as a Roman Catholic woman priest.  She invited me to her ordination, a ceremony at which a section of the sanctuary was set aside for those in attendance who did not want to have their pictures taken for fear of excommunication.  Mary herself was excommunicated as a result of her ordination – separated from the church she loved for what she believed.

 

There are two types of wisdom described in the scriptures.  One of those refers to truths which serve to guide our lives.  When wisdom is referred to in this way, it is presented as a thing, things like proverbs which convey truth based on common sense or experience.  But there are other passages which refer to wisdom as a person.  And when it is referred to as a person, it is expressed in the feminine, a female expression of the divine presence, Sophia.

We rarely hear of Sophia in contemporary Christianity.  But early Christian Gnostics had a special devotion to Sophia.  Central to gnostic beliefs was an emphasis on individual knowledge and wisdom as the path to salvation and oneness with God. Its followers worshipped Sophia as both divine female creator and counterpart to Jesus. According to Gnostic beliefs, Jesus was conceived of as having two aspects: a male half, identified as the son of God, and a female half, called Sophia, who was venerated as the mother of the universe.  After they were regarded as heretics, Christians began to distance themselves from Sophia for fear it would appear they adopted gnostic beliefs.

While the early church recognized her importance, Sophia gradually became less prominent.  Along with the desire to distance from Gnosticism, there was the fear that worship of Sophia would be confused with the worship of goddesses which existed in Greek and Egyptian goddess sects.  The Egyptian goddess Isis and the Greek goddess Athena were recognized for their wisdom, and there was concern over a lack of differentiation from these sects.  And as the Roman Catholic church gained prominence, God viewed as trinity took on an exclusively masculine identification.  And with that, Sophia and the acceptance of the feminine aspect of God declined.

Sophia is described in many ways, both in the book of Proverbs and in some of the apocryphal writings.  She is a teacher, a mother, more precious than jewels, a healer, a shelter.  In the Greek text, Wisdom of Solomon, she is an attribute of God – God’s breath, power, and glory.  She is an initiate into divine knowledge, a divine image of goodness.  She offers what is needed for spiritual transformation.  She offers guidance and direction for life.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, we find the Holy Spirit referred to using the Hebrew word “ruach” which is a feminine noun for breath, wind or spirit. Like the word for wisdom, the word “spirit” is feminine.  However, as with Sophia, this feminine nature of God has often been lost, with many contemporary Christians referring to the Holy Spirt as masculine.  But early Christians attributed to the Spirit the motherly features which Jewish prophetic writings like Isaiah find in God.

Just as female images and descriptions of God have been suppressed, the contributions of early spiritual mothers in the Christian tradition have also been marginalized – women who brought the traits of Sophia to life in human form. The desert mothers were Christian ascetics who lived in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria in the 4th and 5th Centuries.  They lived in monastic communities and held leadership roles in early Christian communities.  Many of their writings have been lost due to this history of male dominance.  The desert mothers were called “ammas” or spiritual mothers due to the respect they gained as spiritual teachers and directors.  Women like Amma Syncletica, Theodora of Alexandria, and Sarah of the Desert.

I think of Julian of Norwich, an English mystic and theologian.  Her book, “Revelations of Divine Love”, was the first book to be written in English by a woman.  She lived through two periods of plague in which she lost many she loved and almost died herself.  It is to her that the phrase “all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well” is attributed.  She described God’s love as “so tender that he may never desert us” and spoke of her experience of Christ as mother.  People from all over Europe would travel to her room to seek her advice and guidance.

I think of Catherine of Siena, an Italian nun in the 1300s, who sought “perfect love of her fellow human beings.”  She spoke out against injustice, challenged oppressive church leaders, spoke out against greed and corruption.  Teresa of Avila became a central figure in a movement of spiritual renewal borne from ascetic practice, becoming a prominent theologian of the contemplative life.  But like Sophia, the tradition and influence of spiritual mothers is often lost in the male domination of the Christian tradition.

In a more contemporary sense, spiritual mothers have led the way in our movement toward a more just and equitable society.  Marsha P. Johnson was an important figure in the Stonewall Riots and was on the front lines in the movement for LGBTQ rights.   She founded an organization to serve homeless trans youth and was actively involved in the AIDS charity ACT UP.  Yuri Kochiyama was sent with her Japanese American family to an internment camp during World War II.  She went on to become a civil rights activist, working alongside Malcolm X, and advocating for reparations for Japanese American internees.  Felicitas Mendez, a Puerto Rican immigrant, paved the way for Brown vs. Board of Education by suing to end racial segregation laws in California and winning.  Helen Keller advocated for the rights of the disabled and became a founding member of the ACLU.  Fannie Lou Hamer co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, becoming a leader of the civil rights movement after being arrested for attempting to vote.

While all of us have benefitted from the lives and work of these spiritual mothers throughout history, many of us have also been blessed with personal connections to spiritual mothers who have walked beside us on our journey through life, encouraging us, loving us, and guiding us on our paths forward – women who brought the traits of Sophia alive for us.

These are women who have a special ability to see us for who we are, to guide us in ways that our own mothers sometimes can’t, to tell us the things we most need to hear, to give us insights on our spiritual journey that have long evaded us.  Like the female image of God in Sophia, she shares her wisdom and provides a shelter for us as we grow in that wisdom.

Spiritual motherhood is about nurturing life.  It is about helping another in their journey of growth to becoming their most authentic self.  It is reminiscent of the promises a godmother makes during a baptism.  She promises to nurture her godchild and companion him or her along life’s journey, with love, understanding and spiritual guidance.  They are able to see deeper issues that are churning below the surface even when we present as being fine.  They help us to discern, to gain confidence.  In some cases, they can fill the role that an absent biological parent leaves behind – listening to their spiritual children’s struggles, showing them they have worth, affirming the person they are and encouraging them in their next steps.

When Mary gave me my final evaluation, she told me that she wanted to give me a blessing.  Being a good Catholic priest, she placed her hands on my head and spoke in Latin.  Not knowing much Latin beyond legal terms, I asked her what it meant.  To which she replied “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”  Mary knew the degree to which I internalized other’s reactions to me and my work.  And I remember that blessing whenever I see myself falling into that destructive pattern.  Mary spoke at my ordination, presenting me with my robe.  She remained in contact with me, supported me as I transitioned into my first ministry role.  Just as I was vulnerable with her, she was vulnerable with me.  And she became a shelter for me at a time I desperately needed it.

Today, as we honor our mothers, may we also honor these women.  Women who have guided us through time and women who have been an active presence in our lives.  Who have been Sophia to us, sharing their knowledge, healing us, and granting us a spiritual home.  Women who are our spiritual mothers.