Memories immersed me like descending clouds, humid and fecund. It began when I arrived in Pennsylvania for a silent retreat. At first the rising grief did not disturb me except it was associated with swaths of corn, brittle in the autumn air, not green and fragrant like the corn I once trotted my horse alongside. So long ago. I’d left Pennsylviana after my divorce. I rarely returned. Yet here I was and I was crying at the sight of the cornfields and the memories of love. I knew that corn represented Mother God, but I did not know that the corn would embrace me in a literal way before my time in Pennsylvania ended.
The Retreat House reached clear across a plateau overlooking rolling hills, next to a cemetery. How, I wondered, will I ever understand and experience God—not as Father but as Mother. I’d grown weary of all the patriarchal language of Christianity. I’d come to see that I could not see, because as a woman, I’d been rendered invisible for centuries. Of course, all women were. And of course, women were now gaining equal rights in the West, but these were societal rights. Needed, yes, but I wanted something more. I wanted to think God in terms of feminine deity, and somehow integrate that into my being. I did not know if such a reality could even be possible.
Yet, at this silent retreat, after floods of grief finally were spent–the grief of having left my country forty years earlier, the grief of a failed marriage, the grief of leaving my pastoral role in a church, the grief of my uncertainty about what had seemed such a certain spiritual path, Christianity–I reconnected in a profound way with Mother-God.
Here is an excerpt of a reflection, Warm Socks, published in Presence, An International Journal of Spiritual Direction, Volume 18.4, p. 23:
Through years of spiritual direction practice, I’d come to a sense of balance about my parents: both had been flawed; both had also been marvels of complexity. I wished I might experience their love again, but they’d been long dead. At times I could envision Dad as if he were still present and thought this ability came from the concept of God as Father. With no internalization of God as Mother, my mother’s memory and image had faded into nothingness, seeming impossible to retrieve.
At last…I plodded through clods of earth down to (a) farmhouse. My director had mentioned a novitiate house down here. Soon, I came upon a dilapidated concrete block building. Ragged weeds sprouted from the cement porch, now cracked from age. The door handle turned easily and I stepped into a big cold room. If ever there had been walls, they had been removed long ago. A raised wooden platform like the chancel of a church filled one end of the house. On it, a sagging cot covered by a threadbare blanket draped across a dirty pillow might have been used by the young men training to be priests. A white enamel table placed close to the bed might have been used to serve communion. In the drawer I found a hammer and beeswax candles.
An old record player, empty trunks, and garbage bags full of straw, possibly used as seats, formed a semi-circle in front of a large stone fireplace, dominating the main living space below the platform. Hoping to light a fire, I hunted for matches in metal kitchen cabinets lining one wall. I pulled open drawer after drawer until a gray mouse darted into a corner. Several pink babies lay helplessly in a nest of shredded paper. The mouse stared at me, its whiskers quivering, its eyes alert. An old pad of matches lay nearby. Gingerly, I retrieved them, and then gently slid the drawer shut. Since there was no stove, I wondered how the priests cooked, unless they fasted. Dead bugs filled the crevices and lay on the countertop. There was no sink, no water and no plumbing of any kind. Through the window of a back door, I noticed an outhouse at the edge of an unkempt lawn.
On the walls, yellowed photos depicted foxes and birds and landscapes. A crude twig cross tied with string hung from a rail enclosing the platform. Sermons, no doubt, were once spoken here. A dove of peace, cut from white paper, mounted on curling cardboard, sat high upon the brown wall paneling just below the tiled ceiling. The whole place seemed dirty and isolated, perhaps a metaphor for the unhealed state of my soul that needed soap and water.
I pulled an upholstered red chair across the concrete slab floor over to the hearth, swished the bugs off with my hand, cautiously sitting down. A statue of Mary, like a goddess, stood on a shelf as if it were guarding the fireplace. A baseball bat in a glass case caught my attention. Something in me wanted to seize it and bash the statue of Mary, but all at once I realized this statue was not of Mary but was of Jesus with his heart bared and with nail holes in his hands.
Suddenly I understood I had been burdened for forty wilderness years with a sense of being unworthy and of being second class. I knew in my brain I had never been stupid, and my mother had never been stupid either, but at some deep experiential level, I had accepted her status as a person without much value. Perhaps that was why I’d always blamed myself for the failings of my marriage. I looked at the Jesus statue and saw the mother and the son entwined. Without the mother there was no Jesus.
I tore a piece of newspaper from a pile lying near a stack of firewood. I scribbled my hurt and my innocence in the margins and in the clear spaces between the columns. I scrawled on every inch of open space, until finally my writing wound across the newsprint obliterating the typed words. It seemed an act of heroism. At last, I crumpled the paper and laid it in the hearth. A small fire from the first match ignited the tip of the paper. It burst into hot white and blue flames which quickly died, leaving only smoldering ashes. I felt as if some heaviness within my soul had eased.
That night I awoke as if someone had entered my room. An overwhelming but gentle presence as vast as the night and as deep as the ocean surrounded me. In a moment of grace, I looked into the dark shroud and through the veil I saw Mum’s smiling face. Love filled all the nooks and crannies of my life leaving no room for old wounds. I laughed out loud, just as we used to laugh together, Mum clacking knitting needles and I pouring hot tea.
My mother used to knit sweaters and scarves and blankets for others. She raised babies, cooked and cleaned, and worked in a shoe shop. When my feet are cold, as I pull on warm socks, I will remember her importance. I will take a moment to be grateful for the strength of all women. I will remember not only my mother, but the patience and the care, the fierceness and the completeness of Mother God, aware that She is the forebear who gives meaning to who I am, to who all women are as important persons of God.