Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in is his own image…
-“The Creation” by James Weldon Johnson
The summer after my senior year of college, I picked up Sue Monk Kidd’s book, The Secret Life of Bees. This book was quite popular (it was even turned into a “major motion picture” a few years back), and many of you have probably read it. But this story, which follows young protagonist Lily Evans, her African-American nursemaid Rosaleen, and a trio of sisters living in the heart of the deep south during the civil rights era. I was drawn into the story, but the images that stuck in my mind long after I finished this book were those stories of the Black Madonna.
In one particularly moving scene, the Boatwright sisters, makers of Black Madonna Honey, invite Lily and Rosaleen to participate in a ritual. In this ritual, the Madonna is bound with chains, and then unbound by all of the women in the ceremony. As the sisters unbind the Madonna, the eldest sister, August, says, “Mary is rising. She is rising to her heights. Our Mother Mary will not be cast down and bound up. And neither will her daughters. We will rise, Daughters. We…will…rise.”
For me, this was one of my first encounters with the idea that there were feminine parts of the Divine presence that could be used as part of worship and ritual. I was drawn into this image. It captured my imagination. I began to seek out other images of the Feminine Divine: from verses in the Bible, from books, from poetry like James Weldon Johnson’s account of the creation (which paints a powerful image of motherhood despite masculine references to God throughout).
Later, when a good friend of mine graduated from college and took on an internship, I learned about the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, which has developed prayers, liturgies and rituals that use unique women-centered experiences and language to help access a Divine presence in the world, and celebrate transitions in a woman’s life as holy and sacred moments worthy of commemoration.
And I discovered Carol Christ, who focuses her work on a thealogy of the Goddess/God, who is ever-changing and adapting. She writes, “Goddess/God changes with the experiences of every individual in the changing world that is the divine body, while remaining unchangeable in one respect: Goddess/God will always and everywhere relate to the world with love.”
I read Christina Hutchins with fascination, as she described a God in process who was not female or male, but queer. She paints a picture of a Divine being that is not simply a noun, or a being, but a process moving us forward towards greater creativity and novelty. Hutchins writes, “If so, that which ‘refuses to be embalmed alive’ and ‘cannot be fully known’ is no noun, but a verb, the creative process itself, the bursting open, the novel connecting, the queering, dissolving, fracturing and excessive blooming, the expansion of social and sacred possibilities for our shared and open-ended future.”
I have not wholeheartedly embraced each of these traditions, but in each space, I found something of value that I could claim and carry with me. An image or a prayer that spoke to me and gave me greater insight into a Divine presence that had sometimes seemed cold, unreachable and unknowable. For me, these images of the feminine Divine, of God as mother or Goddess, have been helpful narratives to carry alongside my understandings of who Jesus was and what he meant. They help to broaden the picture of God beyond any simply gendered picture of the Divine and help me to understand the multiplicity of forms and genders that the spirit can take on in the world. They give me a more robust picture of a Divine co-creator, who is still calling people of all genders in the world into better being each day.
What images of the Divine have been important to you?