The Eternal Model of Womankind
This is the third essay in our series on Mother in Heaven
Click here to read the first essay in this series
Click here to read the second essay in this series
By Sara Katherine Staheli Hanks
When I was a little girl, maybe around ten, I remember my mom telling me that one possible reason we don’t know or talk very much about Heavenly Mother is because Heavenly Father wants to save her from the pain of being insulted or rejected, the way He and Jesus are often treated. I don’t remember if this was something she said in response to a question I’d asked or if she was just musing aloud, but it was clear to me that this was just an idea of something that might make sense, not something she was teaching me to believe.
Since then, I’ve heard similar explanations over and over. The words can change slightly — “Heavenly Father doesn’t want us to talk about Heavenly Mother because she’s too sacred.” “Heavenly Father is protecting her from mockery.” The speaker’s intent can also vary, whether it’s to suggest a possible explanation for speaking of Mother in Heaven so rarely in the church, to teach what he/she sees as a fundamental doctrine, to discourage inappropriate conversations, or something else altogether.
The existence of a Heavenly Mother — a Goddess, a Divine Feminine being — has been a base assumption of mine since I was a Sunbeam. I credit that to a primary teacher whose name and face I can’t remember, a woman who used Eliza R. Snow’s much-referenced logic when she taught us that mothers and fathers naturally go together and that if any place had happily married parents, it was Heaven. While this belief has felt like a social liability from time to time, I’m pretty well-convinced that it’s common to a majority of Mormons (though I admit that I’m basing that on personal experiences and conversations, so it’s by no means a well-researched conclusion). Moving forward in this post, I’ll be working from the base assumptions that, yes, Heavenly Mother is real, and, yes, Mormons believe in her. The ins and outs of whether this is a real doctrine, whether it constitutes revealed truth, whether we have one Heavenly Mother or several, her real name and identity, etc., are for other blog posts, other articles, other writers, and other moments. For me and for now, all I’m concerned with is addressing this common explanation: Heavenly Father doesn’t want us to speak of Heavenly Mother because she is too sacred and deserves to be protected.
To start with, let me acknowledge that the Mormon belief in Heavenly Mother leads to reasonable questions: why don’t we speak more of her? While there are many members who testify of her in their personal lives, why is she not a central focus of our worship and conversation, the way Heavenly Father is? What are we to do with this knowledge? We ask questions in order to find answers, and it’s no surprise that we would try to assemble and decipher information about Heavenly Mother.
I’ve been fervently pondering on these questions (and many others related to Heavenly Mother) for the past three or four years. The answers have been occasionally plentiful, often scarce, but one thought has been shared with me repeatedly by people I know. Again and again has come the explanation of my childhood — that we don’t speak of Heavenly Mother because Heavenly Father disapproves, and that Heavenly Father disapproves because such conversations fly in the face of her incomprehensible holiness. We don’t speak of Mother in Heaven because Heavenly Father doesn’t want her name defamed like his so often is.
In a number of ways, this answer is reassuring and comforting. A few of my observations as to why:
– It suggests that Heavenly Father must love and revere Heavenly Mother very much. The urge to protect is inextricably tied to love, and if Heavenly Father wants to keep Heavenly Mother from emotional pain, that desire must come from his love for her.
– It affirms the status quo and makes us feel like the way we’re currently handling this topic is in harmony with Heavenly Father’s wishes. The idea that we’re already doing what’s right is comforting because it means that there’s no reason to change. Additionally, prefacing any statement with “Heavenly Father wants” or “Heavenly Father doesn’t want” is a quick and easy way to justify the words that follow, and if what we hear matches what we’re already doing (ie mentioning Heavenly Mother a few times a year, thinking of her during the third and fourth verses of “O My Father,” not worrying about her the rest of the time), so much the better, because then we get the cozy feeling that Heavenly Father is pleased with us. We all want that.
– It places Heavenly Mother on a separate and, perhaps, more adored plane of existence than Heavenly Father, which fits in with how we often consider a wife to be “the better half” of a married couple. The logic here is as follows: We don’t speak of Heavenly Mother because she’s too sacred to talk about. Heavenly Father, on the other hand, is someone we talk about, talk with, read about, sing about, and acknowledge regularly. Since we talk about Heavenly Father, it must mean that his sacredness is, in some fashion, less than Heavenly Mother’s. But why would we favor a teaching that belittles Heavenly Father, even in a roundabout way? It doesn’t make much sense, until you consider that it’s a reflection of contemporary perceptions of married life, which often portray a wife as somehow “better” (smarter, more attractive, more sensitive, more disciplined) than her husband. It also echoes things that I’ve heard for ages in Young Women’s and Relief Society meetings — frequent declarations of how women are more spiritual than men, more responsible than men, more intrinsically righteous than men, and more precious to God than men can ever be. Men and women alike tend to think that LDS women are incredible.
– It tells us that women are very, very special. Whenever we talk about Heavenly Mother, we are also talking about women — all women — by extension. We are made in the image of God, after all — men in the image of Heavenly Father, women in the image of Heavenly Mother. Mormon thought leads us to believe that she is the eternal model for womankind. As we progress in knowledge, obedience, and devotion, we can become peers with God. It follows that the status of Heavenly Mother is the most rewarding potential future for her daughters. Our aspiration is the existence she now knows; she is what we can become. If we learn that Heavenly Mother is special — so incredibly special, in fact, so as to somehow surpass the specialness of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ (two holy beings whom we speak of frequently) — then we learn that the feminine nature is special by proximity. As a little girl, hearing the “she’s too sacred to talk about” explanation from my mother made me feel a little extra sacred as well. It taught me something about how to see myself, perhaps more than how to see Heavenly Mother. I took it as a personal compliment.
So what’s the problem? Why kick against this explanation? I can only speak for myself, of course, but as the years have passed, this answer has given me less and less satisfaction or comfort. Here are some reasons that this explanation strikes me as not quite adequate:
– It has no basis in scripture or the teachings of the prophets. Now, to be clear, I’m not one to believe that a teaching has to be found in the standard works or Ensign in order to be true. I believe in personal revelation. I believe in seeking and accepting all truth, wherever it might originate. I believe that God will yet reveal many great and important things. If you, if anyone, were to be personally educated by the Holy Ghost in such a way that said, “Yes, Heavenly Mother is too sacred to be discussed, and yes, Heavenly Father wants it this way,” I would not so much as wish to contradict that belief. My objection comes when someone — a ward member making a comment in Sunday School, a home teacher presenting a lesson, a Relief Society president responding to a question — presents as doctrine or common knowledge something that is speculative (or, in the case of personal revelation, something that was meant as an answer for him or her, not for every other Mormon they ever come in contact with).
– It suggests a protective, parent-child relationship between Mother and Father in Heaven, rather than a relationship of equals. I’ve been married for a little over four years now, and in that time, both my husband and I have come across little life problems — medical issues, tension at work, family disagreements. As I said before, the urge to protect is inextricably tied with love. Perhaps both of us have wanted to protect each other, to swoop in and solve or prevent such problems for each other, but because we are both adults, capable of handling our own issues, we’ve resisted that urge and no swooping has occurred. I think that demonstrates mutual respect for one another. If I had a child who was being pushed around on the playground, I would assess the situation and, if circumstances warranted, I’d dash in and take care of business, protecting my little one from something that he/she isn’t equipped to deal with yet. On the other hand, when my husband is in significant conflict with co-workers, I don’t drive to his office or call his supervisor to make sure the problem is addressed. Why? Because my husband isn’t my little one. He’s my equal. And Heavenly Mother isn’t Heavenly Father’s little one, isn’t someone he’s charged with keeping safe. They are divine, exalted beings, God and Goddess. Equals.
– It denies Heavenly Mother would have any input in how she is manifested among her children. This explanation sets us up to believe that Heavenly Father made this decision on Heavenly Mother’s behalf, like he was in charge of how she would be represented to their children. That sort of dynamic doesn’t match my personal testimony of how a celestial, eternal marriage between two perfected beings would work. If we’re going to assume that our functional silence about Heavenly Mother is divinely ordered or inspired (which is a big assumption), then it’s really damaging to present that silence as being something that Heavenly Father decided on, as opposed to a decision that the Divine Couple would have made together (or that Heavenly Mother would have made for herself).
– It doesn’t acknowledge how painful and difficult it would be for a mother to be ignored by her children. One of the Mormon beliefs that I most cherish is our understanding of Heavenly Father as a father, how accessible that makes him, how relatable. I don’t have the slightest trouble imagining him rejoicing in my successes, laughing with me when I laugh. Similarly, I know that for all his perspective and perfect understanding, it must hurt him to see how badly we can mess up. He wants us to love each other and love him, and when we don’t, how much pain that must cause. Among all the causes of his pain, I’m sure that the rejection and insults and mockery and disdain thrown his way must be significant, and I can understand to some extent that shielding Heavenly Mother from that particular pain would be a kindness. Still, does it not hurt our Heavenly Parents — Father and Mother both — when we ignore them? A few weeks ago, I accompanied the full-time missionaries to visit a woman in my apartment building who’s learning more about the church. We spent some time talking about prayer, and one of the elders said, “Imagine you’re in this enormous room and the only other person there is your dad, and he’s sitting on a chair in the corner, and you walk around that room all day and never say a word to him. How do you think that would make your dad feel?” She responded that he would feel unappreciated and hurt. The point, of course, was to impress upon this woman that Heavenly Father, like any good father, wants to hear from his children, and though it would have severely sidetracked the conversation, my entire heart wanted to point out that the same is true for Heavenly Mother. As we consider the idea that Heavenly Mother is saved from pain when we limit our talk of her, how can we forget that being ignored by your children causes pain as well? How can we justify the pain this must surely cause for our mother?
– It is not in harmony with what we know of Godhood. When it comes to Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father, sacredness compels more and more speaking. In many wards I’ve attended, testimony meetings begin with the encouragement to deliver “Christ-centered testimonies,” and speaking assignments are handed out with the direction to draw a clear relationship between Christ and the given topic. Such counsel shows that, as Mormons, we’re taught to think of Christ as important, present, and — yes — sacred. The frequent mention of his name adds to that sense rather than detracting from it. Similar things can be said of Heavenly Father. His name begins every sanctioned prayer. He is the recipient of frequent thanks and the focus of many hymns. I struggle to imagine anyone in our congregations asking us to tone down or limit the Heavenly Father references in order to respect and preserve his sacredness. We are taught, instead, to testify of these beings frequently, always with reverence. I fail to see how a similar treatment of Heavenly Mother would cause harm, to her or to us as her children. Even the temple, the pinnacle of something “too sacred to talk about” in the church, is often the focus of lessons, youth nights, church outings, and primary programs. We can talk about something in a way that does not call its sacredness into question. Furthermore, placing Heavenly Mother on a figurative pedestal is not respectful of her divinity. A pedestal is every bit as confining as a prison cell or a deserted island, a small space from which there is no safe escape. Trapping her in such a way, even in our spiritual imaginations, does not testify of her godly power or majesty.
– It is not in harmony with what we know of motherhood. I acknowledge that motherhood is not a uniform or universal experience. Motherhood itself is millions and millions of different things, none of them simple. Can it be boiled down to its most essential and basic parts? I’m not sure. Through the years, dozens of general authorities and lesson manuals have conveyed awe at the power of a mother’s love, of a mother’s influence for good or ill on her children. I think of my own mother and feel that same kind of awe. Motherhood feels big and important and mysterious to me, so much so that I think it might be in that category of “you’ll understand it in the next life.” All I know is that when I had a terrible cold last week, I took one tiny dose of nasal decongestant, something that’s on my approved-medicines-for-pregnant-ladies list. After I took the pill, I laid on my bed with my hand right over my uterus for an hour and a half, monitoring my baby’s movements. I was vaguely nervous about the medicine having a negative effect, and for that hour and a half, I couldn’t think about anything else. When I felt a few of the teeny-tiny jabs that are standard procedure for a fetus this size, I felt saved and renewed. I felt like the world could keep moving. These all-consuming feelings were for a six-inch long, seven-ounce fetus without teeth or hair or a name. They were for somebody I’ve never seen or met or held. If I, an imperfect person, so new to this part of life, can love my still-forming child that strongly, then what sort of love must our perfect, eternal mother have for the children she knows inside and out? How deep does it go? How much abuse could it tolerate? Mothers do hard, hard, hard work. Disgusting work. Degrading work. Thankless work. They willingly do it, for years. I think of the love my mom has for me — the morning sickness and labor pains she experienced, the way she has cleaned up my vomit and brushed my hair and scolded me, and how she did all of it with such love, and how she would take literally any pain imaginable if it meant keeping me safe or making me happy — and it makes me sure that a being strong enough to be a Heavenly Mother is strong enough for any venomous, ignorant, loathsome, whiny crap her kids could throw at her, and that she would welcome it as part of her eternal stewardship, and that she wouldn’t sacrifice that for fear of pain, and that she would weep to think that her children thought there was anything they could say or do to insult her enough that she wouldn’t want them to know her.
– It constitutes a significant mental/emotional hurdle to forming a relationship with my Heavenly Mother. This, finally, is the biggest reason that I resist the explanation given: because it has made it distressingly difficult for me to connect with her, with my own mother. The repercussions have been huge in my spiritual life. Believing on some level that she was too sacred to talk about made me feel like I was damaging her sacredness when I wanted to talk about her. It made me feel afraid. It made me doubt my own righteousness. It made me feel like I must not have a strong testimony of the gospel, or of Christ, or of Heavenly Father. Learning that Heavenly Father didn’t want me to seek after Heavenly Mother made me see him, temporarily, as a security guard or a roadblock to spiritual knowledge that the Holy Ghost insists I need. I belong to a church that taught me, however rarely and subtly, to believe in Heavenly Mother, yet simultaneously, I feel incredibly nervous to mention her in any prayer or testimony or Sunday School lesson. Even in Relief Society, among my sisters, where motherhood seems to be the topic of every second or third Sunday discussion, I worry about the reaction I’ll get if I speak of Mother in Heaven. This hesitation comes largely from the explanation I’ve mentioned, though the explanation has never been backed up by scripture, revelation, or authority. It’s a pretty crazy state of affairs, when I really think about it.
Well, that does it for my lists. You might have noticed one objection I didn’t include — namely, that the explanation is inadequate because it simply isn’t true. While I don’t personally believe the explanation has any merit, while I’ve actively worked to remove it from my spiritual mindset … when I get right down to it, I don’t know why we speak of Heavenly Mother so rarely, why she is so peripheral in our worship and religious observance. Until I do know why, it seems unfair for me to claim that any explanation is categorically untrue. It’s only normal that church members should look for the reason behind this curious state of affairs, this powerful belief that goes largely unacknowledged, and I can’t fault anyone for coming up with the explanation I’ve discussed at such length. It simply isn’t one I find credible any longer.
So what is the actual answer to the actual question of Heavenly Mother? As I said, I don’t know. I can’t help but wonder, though, if we’re in the midst of another dark age, this one in regards to Heavenly Mother. Maybe there is a phase of understanding and worship that’s yet to unfold. I don’t know who the Joseph Smith of this absence will be. Who is going into the woods and asking? Who is praying with real intent? When will it be the right time and where will it be the right place? I’ll tell you this much: if a pair of missionaries showed up at my door and said, “We have a message for you about your Heavenly Mother,” I would throw the door open, invite them in, cancel anything else I had planned, and make them talk to me for hours. I am hungry for those words. I am trying to be ready hear them and recognize whatever is true.
Because of the church, I was able to make a connection with one of my Heavenly Parents at a very young age, and that was a precious gift. That connection has been with me through many difficult and wonderful moments. I don’t want it to seem as though seeking my Heavenly Mother means I love or appreciate my Heavenly Father any less. To put it simply, I just know that I need Her. I need a connection with Her and knowledge of Her, whether doctrinal or emotional or spiritual. I want so much for the Church to be a facilitating part of that connection, because the church is my home and my native language, but also because I have some idea of how immensely it would bless my brothers and sisters in the church. However, as I look around at my own path, I’m thinking that there are blessings in having to branch out and trust in the Holy Ghost’s guidance. Maybe this is one of those doors I’ll have to walk through alone.
I recently read A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. In it, a girl named Meg is searching for her father, a brilliant scientist who has been missing for years. She embarks on an unbelievable trip through dimensions and worlds, eventually ending up in the presence of a devilish figure. She asks the stranger if he will tell her where her father is.
“That depends on a number of things. Why do you want your father?”
“Didn’t you ever have a father yourself?” Meg demanded. “You don’t want him for a reason. You want him because he’s your father.”
Those words sum up my feelings better than I’ve ever been able to do. I have my Father. Now I want my Mother. Not for any reason — just because she’s my Mother.