“Where is the Motherbody?”

Many good things can be said about Terry Tempest Williams’ 1991 spiritual memoir, Refuge.  Its subtitle reveals that it is in part about the intimate connection between people and the natural world: “An Unnatural History of Family and Place.”  I’ve heard people talk about and praise this book over the decades since its release, and just now got around to reading it in full.

One passage stands on its own and needs to be read and considered by as many people as possible.  It’s on pages 240-241:

In Mormon theology, the Holy Trinity is comprised of God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Ghost.  We call this the Godhead.

Where is the Motherbody?

We are far too conciliatory.  If we as Mormon women believe in God the Father and in his son, Jesus Christ, it is only logical that a Mother-in-Heaven balances the sacred triangle.  I believe the Holy Ghost is female, although she has remained hidden, invisible, deprived of a body, she is the spirit that seeps into our hearts and directs us to the well.  The “still, small voice” I was taught to listen to as a child was “the gift of the Holy Ghost.”  Today I choose to recognize this presence as holy intuition, the gift of the Mother.  My prayers no longer bear the “proper” masculine salutation.  I include both Father and Mother in Heaven.  If we could introduce the Motherbody as spiritual counterpoint to the Godhead, perhaps our inspiration and devotion would no longer be directed to the starts, but our worship could return to the Earth.

My physical mother is gone.  My spiritual mother remains.  I am a woman rewriting my genealogy.

In the larger context of the book, this passage reflects the intimate and painful experience Williams’ has living with the process of her mother’s dying as well as the 1987 flooding of the Great Salt Lake.  The way that physical and spiritual, human nature and nonhuman nature, birds and women, all intertwine are captured in her poetic writing.

Williams’ wrote recently about her Mormon feminist awakening, and you can read more about that in a 2011 piece in The Progressive.  It’s a great summary of the women’s reproductive health movement over the past century (“the world is splitting open,”) and toward the end of it she relates a story of being summoned to her Church headquarters shortly after Refuge was published.  It turned out to not be for this un-orthodox theological suggestion about the Motherbody, but rather for something more personal altogether:

What disturbed him most was that my husband and I had chosen not to have children. This was the threat I posed. I had a voice. He asked me if I realized that by not becoming a mother, I, too, would become an endangered species leading future generations of spirit-children down the path of extinction just like the wild birds I so loved and championed.

The phrase that my religious leader uttered that I have never been able to forget was this: Just as a mother bird has no choice whether or not she will lay her eggs, she must, God insists. So the eggs you possess, over which your husband presides, must also come forth. Will you choose to become a Mother of Zion, or will you allow your womb to become empty and barren, defying the faith of the women who came before you?”

In that moment, I became a feminist. In that moment, I realized that to control a woman’s body and deny her the choice over her own reproductive health is to silence her individual voice and rob her of her innate power, which is the power to choose her own life’s path. To control women is another way of controlling nature.

Please.  Read more Terry Tempest Williams.

About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and also teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

  • E David Ferriman

    Go to the temple. The Holy Ghost is Micheal, the archangel/Adam. Heavenly Mother is on EQUAL standing with God the Father. we learn this in the temple as well. If He has a body of flesh and bones, then she must as well, so she cannot be the Holy Ghost. It is my opinion that when we speak of Heavenly Father, we are speaking of Heavenly Mother too. He rarely talks to us directly, usually it is Christ talking for Him. When Christ does this, he is also speaking for our Heavenly Mother as we can presume that Heavenly Mother is one in testimony and one in purpose just as Christ and God the Father are one. But, we do not worship Her. We worship God the Father, normally through our worship of Christ. If you want to say that worshiping God the Father is worshiping Heavenly Mother, that is likely fine, but we do not worship Her. Our Covenant is with God the Father through Jesus Christ.

    • pagansister

      Can Heavenly Mother be addressed directly or does Christ have to intervene there also? Interesting that a person can’t “talk to God the Father” without a middle man”.

  • pagansister

    In the response that her Mormon leader had to the decision that she and her husband had made not to have children sounds like what a Catholic priest would say if she had been Catholic, as the teaching of the Catholic Church is to accept all the children God gives you. (stated during the marriage ceremony). Really? To reproduce or not should be the decision of the couple involved, not the faith they may choose to engage in. I admire the author for questioning that teaching in the Mormon environment.


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