A Turn of the Kaleidoscope
It was a long-overdue dermatologist appointment. With my pale skin and family history of melanoma, I really need to be checked every year, but it had been more than five since I’d donned an open-backed gown; this was just one of many things that got lost in the shuffle of mothering small children. When I turned forty last year, I leaned into a surge of energy to schedule all the appointments I had neglected, to care for myself as I care for my children.
Because we’d moved from Los Angeles to Seattle since my last dermatology check, I saw a new doctor. And it was her gentle warmth that turned a routine appointment into a holy experience.
It’s natural to feel vulnerable in a medical setting, and particularly one in which your body is examined so closely. There is the open-backed gown of course, but you do, section by section, remove it—no other appointment requires this degree of, essentially, nakedness.
The doctor started with my face, narrating what she saw. “Oh, you have a cute little mole behind your ear,” she would say, or, “There are some lovely freckles under your eyes.”
She read the history of my body, pointing out spots where I’d had biopsies before, noting the thickened skin on my knees that will never be the same after eight years of kneeling to tie little shoes and zip up little jackets.
I found myself a bit emotionally overwhelmed. I hadn’t expected, at this routine appointment that I was looking forward to crossing off my to-do list, to feel so tenderly seen. I was lost in imagining that this must be the way God gazes upon us—lovingly, attentively, not missing a single detail—when the doctor parted my hair to check my scalp. The next thing she said took my breath away. “Oh,” she exclaimed joyfully, “You still have your stork bite!”
A stork bite, a common birthmark just at the nape of the neck in newborns, is something with which I am intimately familiar. I remember kissing those pale pink clusters on both of my sons and watching as they slowly faded over time, covered by fine hair that grew thicker with each year. Something clicked into place in my heart, and tears pricked my eyes. A door opened that I didn’t even know had been locked. Seeing myself as a child allowed me to see God as Mother.
The truth is that I’m used to being the mother. The one who kisses my children’s scrapes. The one who tucks them in at night. The one who delights in their laughter and treasures the hugs I manage to squeeze in. But I was suddenly able to imagine God doing those things for me. I was able to hear the voice of God as a mother’s voice. I was able to imagine that gentle hushing when I felt anxious or when I was having trouble falling asleep, and I could almost feel myself being tenderly rocked.
A few weeks later, I was ambling through the library with my kids when I saw the children’s book Mother God written by Teresa Kim Pecinovsky and gorgeously illustrated by Khoa Le.1 I checked it out for them, but first for me. The book is made up entirely of feminine images of God found in Scripture, brought to life with vibrant, joyful pictures. Here was God as Sophia Wisdom, as a hen gathering her chicks, as a mother nursing her child.2 I was familiar with some of these images, but not all of them. In all honesty, I’m still trying to shake the exclusivity of the image of God as a white man with a long beard, which was the standard in my very American, very Western-European-focused education.
We’ve been conscious about teaching our children that God is neither male nor female, but something far more wonderful, more loving than we can even imagine—something that breaks through every boundary we construct to contain it. One afternoon my son was playing a video game called “Doodle God Universe” that features, you guessed it, a white-bearded God with a booming voice. My heart filled with joy when I heard him say, “Hey! That’s not what God looks like!”
Although God exists somewhere far beyond our limited human conceptions, understanding God as Mother alongside Father broadens our understanding of holy mystery, of the nurturing and care that exceeds our capacity to grasp.
There was one image in the book that I didn’t understand at first—God hovering over the waters in Genesis 1. I’m familiar with the text, but I wasn’t sure why it was included. Then I discovered that the Hebrew word for hover, rahap, also means to brood, as a bird does over her nest of eggs. In fact, the same word is used in Deuteronomy to describe an eagle fluttering her wings over her young, protecting them and warming them; this, Scripture tells us, is how God cares for God’s people.3
Seeing God as Mother takes nothing away from our understanding of God as Father. It simply expands our vision of a love that is deeper, greater, more enduring than we can possibly comprehend. It’s a turn of the kaleidoscope, a new configuration of shapes and colors through which to see the same beautiful light, a new way to approach a goodness somewhere far beyond even the wildest human imagining.
As I was preparing this essay, my son walked by and saw the book Mother God on the table. “Wait,” he said, “Isn’t God Father?”
“Yes,” I said, “But God is Mother, too.” A Mother who births us, who nurtures and protects us, who draws us close to look with love and wonder at our every freckle, to listen with joy to our every word.
1 Mother God by Teresa Kim Pecinovsky and Khoa Lee. The author (Teresa Kim Pecinovsky) was generous enough to share this free Scripture guide that accompanies their book.
2 See Proverbs 8:22-31, Luke 13:34, and Isaiah 49:15.
3 See Deuteronomy 32:11-12.
Cameron Bellm is a Seattle-based writer and contemplative in action. She combines her love of language with a deeply rooted spirituality to compose poems, prayers, essays, and devotionals linking our modern lives with our ancient faith. She is the author of the Spirit & Verse column at Jesuits.org and A Consoling Embrace: Prayers for a Time of Pandemic. You can find more of her writing on Instagram at @cameronbellm and on her website, cameronbellm.com.
This week’s sponsor of Mothering Spirit is Brazos Press, publisher of Feminist Prayers for My Daughter. This new book from Shannon K. Evans encompasses all of life from birth to death while imagining God in ways that resonate with the feminine experience. Feminist Prayers for My Daughter offers short prayers that affirm the unique challenges and embrace the natural abilities embodied by our daughters. Categories of prayers include embodiment, relationships, wholeness, justice, equality, and milestones.