I had a rather formative and utterly unique experience in Elders Quorum a few years ago. I taught the Mother’s Day lesson and at the end, after bearing my testimony, not one soul said “Amen.” Instead, there was a sea of blank faces staring silently back at me and a palpable atmosphere of discomfort. It actually happened. I’m not exaggerating. It really, that is really, took the wind out of me. I floundered, completely unequipped for how to deal with my quorum’s reaction. For a while I fluctuated between shock, hurt, outrage, and offense. Overall I felt completely rejected by my quorum, and felt like they collectively rejected one of our basic and most precious truths.
This feeling of rejection, however, has long since given way to what I now understand as an inability to deal with my violating a deeply, though not always explicitly, inculcated taboo concerning the object of my testimony: our Heavenly Mother [knowing that many of you will be either curious or skeptical concerning the full content, here’s what I did: I reviewed Zina Diantha Huntington Young’s well known statement of Joseph teaching her about Heavenly Mother, Eliza’s insights, and then bore a heartfelt testimony of their truth and how much it meant to me]. It was not rejection that I was receiving from my quorum, but surprise and complete lack of experience. The collective reaction was spontaneous, not a matter of intention or inference. It was the result, I believe, of our failure as a people to cherish among the greatest treasures of the Restoration: our understanding of the eternal family and our doctrine (as prophetically proclaimed and recently quasi-canonized) that our exalted Father is exalted through his living a celestial, eternal life with our Heavenly Mother. This is as clear a case as I know of the scriptural curse being fulfilled (stated and repeated explicitly in various places and captured in several parables and stories) that when we reject the light and truth that God has given us, we lose it.
That’s my diagnosis. We, collectively, and particularly in the recent past, have not only failed to follow up on what is undoubtedly among the most profound truths of the Restoration, but likewise neglected even the bare glimpse of eternity that we’ve been entrusted. Consequently, what little we have has withered.
Much has been said about Heavenly Mother recently, some of which has been more in depth and more eloquent than I can manage (I highly recommend Dr. Paulsen’s comments as a background, and many of you will recognize Margaret Toscano in my negative comments and Kevin Barney [see Dialogue 41 no. 4 2008] in my positive suggestions). But the taboo is still significantly in force, we’ve still failed to determine appropriate ways of treating Her in our public and religious discourse, and the topic is so poignant, so weighty, so worthwhile as to warrant another post – lots of posts, lots of honest, faithful, acroamatic dialogue. I look forward to a fruitful dialogue on the subject here at Times and Seasons.
I’m going to suggest some positive and what I believe are completely orthodox ways that we can honor our Heavenly Mother and overcome our curse. But first, inevitably, I’m going to respond to some of the frail and literally damnable, but also ubiquitous, even platitudinal excuses that have helped to reinforce the cultural taboo under which we bury She who gave us life.
- She’s too sacred to discuss. In response, it’s hard not to simply say, “Really? I mean, really really?” We hold many things sacred in our religion, and I’m convinced that our understanding and experience of the sacred are unique in Mormonism. But there’s not one additional example of something we hold sacred that we simply bury in the closet. Perhaps the closest analogy is the temple – we covenant not to reveal certain sacred things about the temple. Nonetheless, a significant part of our holding the temple (and its rituals) sacred is our parading it. We declare it to be the center of our religion. We make pilgrimages to temples and literally wear a part of the temple at all times thereafter, stolidly facing the ensuing scorn. Temples are at the center of our art. We talk of, sing songs about, and frequently teach public sermons on the temple. We build them in prominent places and open our doors to the public and invite dignitaries to visit before dedicating them. We hold massive, passionate, and meaningful cultural festivities before dedicating them. Holding something sacred is a matter of existentially taking that thing up in certain ways in our practices. Outsiders associate us with temples, and we love it when they do, and nothing sacred is lost or desecrated thereby. Quite the opposite. Ignoring has nothing to do with treating sacred.
- Heavenly Father doesn’t want her profaned. These first two are often related. The deep problems here have mostly to do with the repugnantly chauvinistic implications that are implicit. First, it assumes that Heavenly Mother is too weak and frail to deal with reality, particularly the not infrequently crass nature of her children, or perhaps that mothers ought to be protected from their own infants’ excrement. There isn’t a mother I know of for whom this is true. To the contrary, the work of a mother is to be elbows deep in it, working tirelessly and ceaselessly to help her children become more. This excuse is directly analogous to certain radical strands of Islam that not only suggest or honor veiling, but seek to enforce women’s complete public invisibility. Like the men who sustain such practices, this excuse problematically suggests our Heavenly Father’s unilateral authority to hide our Heavenly Mother, setting up a divine and clearly immoral disparity between the two. Such a position is entirely antithetical to our belief in the divine and celestial union between wife and husband. Third, it assumes that Her salvific role and positive effect on Her children is more effectively carried out in secret, rather than as the inspiring public model that we ought to take her as.
- We’re scared or embarrassed that the truth might be that by “Mother” we really mean “Mothers.” There’s far more going on here than I can get at in this post. I think the only thing to really be anxious about is the reality of the existence of this excuse. First I think we need to ask, why is this an issue in the first place? There is simply nothing compelling to substantiate the worry. I personally do not believe in celestial polygamy (I’m persuaded by Eugene England’s [see On Fidelity, Polygamy and Celestial Marriage] and others’ similar reasoning). But let’s assume that it is a reality. Why ought we to be anxious about it? Why wouldn’t I love and cherish and seek after my (though not your) Heavenly Mother just as deeply? Why wouldn’t She be just as involved in my salvation? Or on the reverse, does envisioning Her to have another husband somehow detract from the honor and glory of and my sacred relationship with my Heavenly Father? Does it detract from all He’s done for me? Children have occasionally been deeply ashamed of people finding out about their parentage on account of repressive social norms – they are embarrassed that their parents are divorced, that they are orphans, that their family is poor or the parents work jobs that are typically scorned. Here the children are made victims, and the (at least long-term) solution is not to assist them in keeping the embarrassing aspects of their parentage secret, but in exorcising the immoral social norms that victimize the children in the first place.
- We simply don’t know enough and discussion of Her is inevitably idle speculation. This is surely the most reasonable and understandable of the excuses. There is to date, relatively little revealed knowledge about our Heavenly Mother. There are several important things to say about this excuse, however. First, there is revelation on the matter – and there are no divine or prophetic injunctions against discussing Her. Second, the excuse, as I’ve stated it here, is simply false. We know that She is the Divine and exalted Wife of our Heavenly Father, and that She is our spiritual Mother in just as real and literal a sense as He is our Father. Furthermore we have officially endorsed our prophetess Eliza’s hymn. Indirectly at least, this is an endorsement of the “reason” that led her and us to this profound insight. Knowing what we do, reason certainly suggests many other prudent truths. Furthermore, discussing Her, acknowledging Her, honoring Her certainly does not count as “idle speculation.” This brings up number three: it’s simply wrong to assume that all discussion on matters for which we do not have a complete knowledge are “idle speculation.” If this were true, Sunday School would have to be condemned. There is nothing pernicious about cherishing doctrines that are partial – like those revealed in the 76th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, of which Joseph Smith declared he could reveal a hundred times more if the saints were ready [see his address 21 May 1843]. I think it’s instructive to ask ourselves, “Is there really that much more that I actually know about my Heavenly Father?” Fourth, if this were true, the default response surely ought not to be that we ignore Her, but that we collectively yearn for and seek after greater light and knowledge concerning our Heavenly Mother. We ought to pray that we will be worthy of such truths and that our prophets might receive greater revelations on Her. Ask, Knock, Seek, Find.
There are others, but these are the most common excuses, and I really don’t want this post to be primarily negative. This last point leads us into the positive portion of our discussion: orthodox ways of taking up our Heavenly Mother at church and in our homes.
To begin, there is another inevitable preamble that must be inserted: I really am trying to get at orthodox ways of honoring and discussing Heavenly Mother. There are lots of unorthodox things you can do, some of which might even get you into ecclesiastical trouble, others of which will merely be personal – things you don’t want to share publicly. The rule of thumb here, as instructed by Elder Pinnock while on my mission, is not to presume to teach things other than what has been specifically laid out in the scriptures and prophetic revelations and declarations of our day. And of course, don’t flagrantly violate the direct counsel of Church leaders on this (or other) matters. I’m quite confident that nothing I say here does so. I trust that the well-meaning souls who have been willing to read to this point will let me know if I do otherwise.
And now on to my suggestions:
- Talk of Her. I think this is the most important thing we can do. The taboo has been developed largely because we’ve ignored Her. Consequently, the number one thing we can do both to honor Her and help remove the curse of ignorance we currently bear is to make Her a regular part of our religious discussions. We ought to talk of Her, rejoice in Her, preach of Her [i.e., preach the actual revelations and things we know], prophesy of Her [i.e., bear testimony], and make sure that our children know to what source they may look to know from whom they came. We ought to mention Her in our private and public prayers [read: mention, not pray to]. In general, bring Her out of the closet and treat Her as sacred. Know and repeat every shred of prophetic revelation that has been given on Her. In doing so, be mindful of the reality that She is genuinely (if tragically) a current taboo. Be prepared for others’ shock and be sensitive. I don’t think I said anything particularly shocking in my lesson and testimony. But I was perhaps too cavalier. And heaven forbid, in discussing Heavenly Mother, don’t set yourself up as a light or pretend the authority to reveal more about her.
- Teach your children about Her. I think the ideal is that we raise our children up, at least initially, oblivious to the taboo. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t clear distinctions, which are sort of built in to Mormon worship practices (e.g., it might well be conspicuous to your children as it is to mine that we don’t pray to Heavenly Mother). But let your home be a place where talk of Her is completely normal. Let the inevitable shock that they one day experience not be hearing someone explicitly bear testimony of Her, but instead that they find out about the existence of the taboo for many Mormons. Like most of my religious experiences, it has been in the home and in discussions concerning Heavenly Mother with my wife and children that the sweetest moments with the Spirit have come.
- 3. Pray for greater individual and collective light and knowledge. This is a divine privilege that we claim and one that is scripturally promised to us as children of God, as well as an obligation that we all have. Elder Oaks’ just given General Conference talk lucidly describes our need for both personal and collective revelation and involvement in ordinances. As Mormon’s we maintain an intimate union of and dependence on the individual and the community, heaven and earth, past and present. Elder Oaks’ counsel and instruction ought to be applied to this issue as well. As the Book of Mormon makes clear repeatedly (e.g., see here and here and above), God will reveal things to you as an individual (but only for you as an individual) that have not yet been given the Church as a whole if you faithfully pursue such knowledge. We also have numerous examples both scriptural and historical of the prophet’s tongues being bound when the community of Saints are lacking in faith and striving. Let us not be guilty of tying the hands of our prophets.
- Honor Her in your prayers. We’re all aware of Pres. Hinckley’s Ensign comments (“Logic and reason would certainly suggest that if we have a Father in Heaven, we have a Mother in Heaven. That doctrine rests well with me. However, in light of the instruction we have received from the Lord Himself, I regard it as inappropriate for anyone in the Church to pray to our Mother in Heaven”). We’re also aware of BYU’s firing Gail Houston for teaching her student to pray to Heavenly Mother. But not praying directly to Her does not equate to an inability to honor Her in your prayers. We don’t pray to Jesus either, but we certainly praise and honor Him in prayer. Some have elected to respect Pres. Hinckley’s statement but still pray to our Heavenly Parents. This is an idiosyncratic, though creative and interesting approach. But one need not go that far. The fact is, I love it when people praise my wife. Very little gives me greater joy. And you can be assured that my wife always hears about such praise (I’ll admit, sometimes it even gets amplified in the retelling). I can testify that my personal experience confirms to me that my Heavenly Father reacts in a similar way when I honor His Wife in prayer.
- Sing to her praises. The reality is, however, that we already have a perfectly orthodox and accepted way to pray to our Heavenly Mother, and we do so frequently in sacrament meetings all over the Church. If “The song of the righteous is a prayer unto me,” then a song to our Heavenly Parents is a prayer unto them. My children all know and love “O’ What Songs of the Heart,” and of course our classic “O’ My Father,” and I’ve even taught them “All Creatures of Our God and King,” changing the last stanza, which speaks about “Dear Mother Earth” in order to say, “The flowers and fruits that in thee grow/Let them Her glory also show.” “Sons of Michael” is another great candidate (and particularly interesting in my opinion, given its connection to the Adam-God theory), though the tune is an abysmal march. My children and I also sing one of my all times favorites, “I Often Go Walking” as a hymn of praise to both their mother and their Heavenly Mother. Singing prayers to Heavenly Mother is a sacred form of worship that is entirely acceptable in our community, one that respects our present, limited understanding.
- Follow Eliza’s example and enshrine her in worshipful art. We desperately need hymns to our Heavenly Mother that are not entitled “O’ My Father.” Write more hymns. Those of you who are musically talented could try and publish them (or at least share them with us!). But we ought to honor and worship Her in every good form of art. My five-year old daughter just today (entirely coincidental but it was as though she were reading my mind since I was actually typing this post when it happened) drew a beautiful picture of a couple holding hands in the clouds. I asked her who it was and she told me it was Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father. Yes, it’s now hanging in our home. The reality is, art is one of our most powerful experiences with religion, as President Monson just testified in conference. I’m convinced that the lack of worshipful artwork enshrining our Mother is one of the reasons she remains absent (or tabooed) from our religious consciousness. Is there anyone with connections who can commission an exhibition of fine art dedicated to Heavenly Mother?
- Celebrate her. I’m highly in favor of idiosyncratic family holy-days. My wife’s a connoisseur of exotic holidays, and we’ve had them spring up both organically and intentionally in our family – all of which have been a wonderful blessing. I think that an organic but genuine and widespread Latter-day Saint holiday honoring our Heavenly Mother would be absolutely beautiful. In its absence, you and your family might determine significant ways that you can celebrate her yourself. As Barney has suggested, you might want to adapt your Christmas tree into a revered symbol of Heavenly Mother via Asherah traditions in I Nephi 11 (see Daniel C. Peterson’s article). If re-appropriating pagan traditions makes you uncomfortable, I’m sure you can develop other traditions.
- Study Her in the scriptures and ancient cultures. Again, Kevin Barney and Daniel Peterson have done a lot of legwork for you there already (trees, groves, wisdom, etc.). But far more significant than the connections they have pointed out to me are the connections I have found on my own as I have searched for Her. Seriously, if we can find Christ in the Old Testament – which we’re very good at, in both more and less legitimate ways – we can find our Mother in all our standard works. You can find Her in other traditions as well. As Joseph Smith said, “Have the Presbyterians any truth? Yes. Have the Baptists, Methodists, &c., any truth? Yes. They all have a little truth mixed with error. We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true Mormons.” (see address given 23 July 1843). I testify that the pagans and other ancients likewise have truth and can help you come off a truer Mormon, with a deeper connection to your Heavenly Mother. (We have a beautiful framed depiction of Nut hanging in our home to remind us.)
- Honor the other women in our tradition. There’s no coincidence to our ignorance or burying of our Heavenly Mother, the lack of female heroes in the scriptures and our history, and our being next to illiterate concerning those who are actually there. Seek them out and learn of them. In general, endeavor to study and enrich your life with a greater understanding of the feminine. As President Hinckley commanded, honor women in your life. Surely this is a way of praising Her.
- Name your children after Her. Barney suggests variants on Asherah. This is likely to be a bit much for many of you, especially given the inconclusive connection between our Mother and this ancient fertility goddess condemned in the Old Testament. And let’s be honest, it’s not that pretty of a name. But you can connect your children’s names to Heavenly Mother in other ways. ‘Mere’ is one of my favorites. I personally think that Emma, Myriam, and Eve also have direct linguistic, symbolic, or cultural connections. In addition to this sort of sacred act, be willing to discuss the meaning of these names with other saints when appropriate.
- Appropriately connect her to our other (perhaps even more firmly established) truths of the restoration. Understanding the gospel, and enriching that understanding, is not merely a matter of possessing a list of true doctrines, but also continually gaining new insights into how those doctrines on the list relate to one another. For example, one’s understanding of the temple, the family, and the home are all mutually enriched as one gains new insights into how these are related. How can we talk of eternal families and not mention Her? How about the scriptural symbolism of water, blood and spirit in the atonement and birth? My most profound insights on the atonement have come as I’ve been able to connect the atonement and what is taking place therein with the other aspects of my religious and scriptural knowledge and experience. My sacrament is enriched as I ponder these connections. We can do something similar, recognizing individually the ways in which our Heavenly Mother connects to our own families, the temple, our covenants, eternal progression, social relations, nature, wisdom, spiritual gifts, and all other aspects of the gospel. This is not a matter of spontaneously creating new doctrines, but allowing the Spirit to help you connect doctrines that God’s prophets have already revealed.
I hope these thoughts have been worthwhile. I desperately hope that we can overcome the curse of ignorance we currently operate under. It’s not just our women, but also our men and Zion itself that significantly loses out when we excise our Heavenly Mother from our discourse.
I would love to hear your thoughts and any other suggestions you might have.