Mary W. Anderson is pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Evanston, IL.
This article appeared in the Christian Century February 17, 1988 p. 156. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
If one envisions the deity as female, it motivates one to find new ways to speak of God.
Twice I have experienced the immediate presence of God: at the age of 19, when I met Jesus on the cross, and last October 27, at about three in the afternoon. At that moment, I’m ashamed to admit, I was feeling an upsurge of lust in the presence of a young woman.
As I was wrestling with myself, trying to stop the flow of fantasy, I was interrupted by a gripping awareness of divine presence, arresting and unmistakable. For the first time in my life I met the living God as Holy Femaleness, Awesome She. She impinged on me not as Mother, Sister or Lover (though no doubt she can be so known) but as the archetypal power and spirit from which such personal images derive. She told me, in words I can’t now frame, that the woman in my thoughts was precious to her, under her protection and someone I had better treat with respect. Faced with that towering presence, my fantasies evaporated, leaving me chastened and changed.
Between the immediacy of that presence and any conceivable representation of it lies a gulf. Her presence was sensed rather than seen, the visual element being indistinct. When I later tried sketching the impact of that presence, drawing rapidly, frustrated by lack of skill, I found myself summoning visual symbols I had not seen clearly, or seen at all, in the moment of encounter. The picture that follows is therefore partly a “vision” and partly a rendering of indefinable experience into visual form.
I saw, and met, a divine presence that was toweringly female yet beyond sexuality: She was arresting and awe-inspiring. There was the impression of a great dark mask, covering what was not a face. Above the mask of the face-not-a-face was an impression of hair, sweeping upwards and outwards on either side, becoming great wings, as of an eagle facing me, poised to soar upwards, or beat downwards in bone-breaking fury. The hair becoming wings was not joined to the mask, but above and close to it. Between the wings was neither shape nor form, but dark purple fire.
Below the mask over the face-not-a-face was the impression of an iridescent robe — dark blue, purple, russet and black — flecked with gold, covering a torso whose breasts were indistinct yet immense, able to comfort someone embraced or snuff out the life of one hugged in anger.
On each side of the robe was the impression of great arms in movement, indistinct, yet with fur and forepaws clearly visible. The paws, I thought, can bless and embrace, but also seemed those of a she-bear robbed of her cubs — reaching out ready to hug or crush and rip apart in wrath: a warning from fierce love. The robe swept down for a great distance, becoming indistinct far below, lost in clouds of thick darkness, with lightning flickering within and without. Beneath the clouds were tiny figures — the women whom she loves and protects with her power.
She is the Holy One of Sarah and Abraham. Miriam and Deborah, Mary of Magdala. Martha and John. She is Moving and Flowing Spirit, Birth-giver Unborn. Word and Wisdom, present in Jesus, El Shaddai, Awesome She. Protector of Women.
The presence came unasked, an encounter with the whole being of the one God, known in that moment as She. It was as if the complex diamond of the divine shone at me intensely from that one facet. In the moment of meeting there was no time for reflection.
I suspect that if men could pray to, and be encountered by, God present as She, the experience would transform their attitudes toward women (and I suspect that for women to do so would transform their valuations of themselves) Both women and men have mostly spoken to God, and depicted God, in male language and images. A hidden assumption of such language is that it is definitely not right for the Holy One to be represented in female terms. In part, this is because the female and feminine are disvalued in our culture. To see God in terms of what we are conditioned to disvalue is a culture shock — akin to seeing God in a peasant woman looking for a lost coin or in a failed Messiah with a mock crown of thorns.
Some of us, men and women, are trying to repent of such disvaluings. We may even have begun to use more diverse names and metaphors for God, including female ones. I have done so for half a decade, and doing so may well have opened the bridge for the encounter I’m trying to share. But theory and experience are not the same. Meeting God unmistakably as She was shattering and transforming. Though I have always believed that each woman I meet is made in the image and likeness of the living God, henceforth, when I speak to a woman, I shall know, deep within my being, that I am meeting an icon of God herself. I suspect that until we men — and perhaps also women — have met God as El Shaddai, Awesome She, Protector of Women, we cannot know the deep maleness of God. Though we constantly speak of God as Father, King and He, the particular beauty of the male icon will be known to us only when we have shed the proud pretense that it is the only true and whole representation of God.
Is my experience in continuity with the mainstream of the Christian faith? Trinitarian doctrine has been elaborated with the male metaphors of Father and Son, plus the nonpersonal name Holy Spirit. These names are a signpost pointing into the clouds, not a nametag identifying a guest. To speak of God as She is not to add a new nametag. and thus give God conflicting identities, but to follow a different signpost into the cloud of mystery. I believe I was stopped in my tracks by the first person of the Trinity, the source of all things. But since God is indivisible, when we meet one person of the Trinity the others are immediately present. The Holy One who met me certainly had something of the untameable wildness of Holy Spirit. She also had something of the fierce love for each human being that was enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth. and which prompted that male Jew to treat the disvalued and subordinated women of his time with revaluing love and respect.