Dark Devotional: In Search of a Mothering God

Dark Devotional: In Search of a Mothering God June 30, 2016

A reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah. 

thus says the LORD:
Lo, I will spread prosperity over Jerusalem like a river,
and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing torrent.
As nurslings, you shall be carried in her arms, and fondled in her lap;
As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you;
in Jerusalem you shall find your comfort.


When I was a practicing Protestant minister, I held a small service in our chapel for a family who had lost a pregnancy, a brave woman who had come to me weeping because she knew of my own history of miscarriage and wondered if she was overreacting in her grief. I presided over a memorial service for their born-too-early child, praying that God would knit us all together at the communion table. Then I set out commemorative rocks to be inscribed with the name they had given the child.

I was also seven or so months pregnant, breasts swollen and sore, gait awkward, belly huge under the concealing robe, baby stirring and stretching behind panels of black polyester and velvet. Life and death stared awkwardly at each other, mutually quieted by the convergence of grief and hope.

We lost our first pregnancy when I was still in divinity school. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but I still remember the shock of the grief, the dissonance between what I thought was an “appropriate” response to early miscarriage, and what I was actually experiencing.

I did an independent study on pregnancy loss to try to subdue and order the oceanic emotions, trying to find theological accounts of prenatal death that reassured me. Because, you see, I didn’t trust that God would take care of that little life. I felt that I was overreacting, that my impotent anger at my own body for failing to protect and appropriately nurture that nascent one, my anguish over the loss, were “too much” – but if they were, if they were out-of-bounds, if God didn’t care as much about this growing life as I did, I wanted nothing to do with God.

The accounts that existed were largely unhelpful, primarily because many of the accounts of miscarriage were written for the sake of having something to say about abortion. In other words, theologians, depending on their bent, would argue things like, “Unborn babies cannot be in heaven, because if they were, abortion would be a quick trip to eternal life, and God would be in favor of it; God is not in favor of abortion, so miscarried babies must not be redeemed;” – or – “We must be in favor of a woman’s right to determine what happens to her own body, and we therefore know that abortion must not be the termination of a ‘real’ life, and so miscarriage must be primarily a loss of hope, but without meaning insofar as it relates to any theoretical personhood of the  miscarried tissue.”

None of the arguments gave me assurance that God had my baby. And that was all I wanted.

I wrote a lot about it all in the end, pressing words through the sieve of my despair and doubt, fighting to build an analytic bridge back to God, hopeful structures revealing themselves through scripture, through the prenatal first encounter between John the Baptist and his cousin Jesus, Elizabeth’s and Mary’s wombs separated by inches of flesh as one fetal life recognized the other.

I have an image from that small memorial service that mattered at least as much, though. I have an image of that tiny chapel, my life-filled belly squeezed behind the altar, remembering when my womb was a tomb instead; the bereaved mother kneeling just steps away from me, her own belly flattened and aching for its former fullness. I remember fullness and emptiness speaking to each other, calling out for recognition.

And I remember sensing God as God describes Godself above:

Oh, that you may suck fully

of the milk of her comfort,

that you may nurse with delight

at her abundant breasts!

For thus says the LORD:

Lo, I will spread prosperity over Jerusalem like a river,

and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing torrent.

As nurslings, you shall be carried in her arms,

and fondled in her lap;

as a mother comforts her child,

so will I comfort you.

Both our bodies, motherly and aching with love both fulfilled and denied, both our bodies overflowing with desire to love and nourish. Both our bodies standing as icons of God’s body, of the God who promises to carry our vulnerable lives, to caress us helpless infants, even as I later traced the contours of my infant daughter’s scrawny arms with tenderness, stroked her funny shock of black hair with awe, even as I had sought unsuccessfully for the tiny one who had died in the darkness of my body, longing to treat that body tenderly as well, though it was so small as to be impossible for me to find.

God teaches us about God’s own love through these desires, these metaphors, these icons. And if God tells us that God will nurse us, fondle and comfort us, as a mother comforts her child, then the desperate grief and tenderness that hung over that altar can only be a taste of the desire and tenderness of God for us, for our half-developed, needy, immature, beloved selves. We are all on the way to becoming, whether our home is a womb or a nursing home; and no matter how long or how little we have walked along the path, we cannot, will not, be lost to this mothering God.

Elise 2Elise Erikson Barrett is a mother of three, writer/editor, singer/songwriter, and daytime manager of things philanthropic. She is a former ordained United Methodist pastor, was recently received into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, and finds herself suddenly very interested in church unity and ecumenism. Elise is the author of What Was Lost: A Christian Journey through Miscarriage, which won Christianity Today’s “Best Book” award in Christian Spiritual Living. She just released her second album, Valley: Hymns for Travelers. You can connect with her at www.elisebarrett.com.




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