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  • Mary Kept These Things, Pondering Them in Her Heart:Breastfeeding as Contemplative Practice and Source for Theology
  • Elizabeth Gandolfo (bio)

Throughout the history of Christianity, women have engaged in sustained theological reflection on experiences—of God, themselves, and the world—that they have undergone in the course of practices of contemplation. Contemplative women of the past were not seen by their contemporaries as theologians, but what little survives of their spiritual writings represents a mother lode of rich theological insight. Today record numbers of women are formally trained theologians, but the academic discipline of systematic theology is generally resistant to making a space for spiritual practice and personal experience (especially women's spiritual practice and personal experience of embodiment) in its well-ordered, cerebral discourse. What's more, the demands of work and family life on many lay theologians today result in a lack of time and freedom to spend hours on end in the silent, contemplative prayer that provided the desert mothers and medieval mystics with such rich fodder for theological reflection. Contemporary women theologians are faced, then, with a dual challenge: first, to integrate contemplative practice into their daily lives—in the spirit of St. Teresa of Avila, to find God among the pots and pans; and second, to integrate contemplative practice into their work as constructive theologians.

As if these challenges were not enough, women theologians committed to this integration of contemplative spirituality and theology are faced with an additional obstacle. Given that we are human beings and not angels, contemplation is always an embodied practice, and it often involves intense and even ecstatic bodily experiences. Historically dominated by a hierarchical understanding of the relationship between mind and matter, Christian theology has often approached the body (especially the female body) with ambivalence or even hostility.1 There are few models for contemporary women theologians who seek to reflect on women's bodies and bodily experiences as sites of spiritual practice, divine revelation, and theological reflection. As Marcia Mount Shoop insists, the language of our bodies is "not easily 'heard,' but it cries out [End Page 163] for acknowledgement. Tuning into body language means listening to bodies themselves. Indeed, the problem of silence and negativity [that surrounds the body in Christian theology and practice] needs a solution that can hear and speak out of embodied experience."2 Theology and spiritual practice can benefit, then, from hearing and speaking out of the embodied experiences of women (as well as men and children). At the same time, however, the Christian tradition does offer a rich and varied array of resources for embracing the body in contemplative prayer, social action, and everyday life.

In the pages that follow, I humbly seek to meet the challenge of integrating female embodiment and contemplative practice into constructive theological writing. I write from a very particular and admittedly limited context of embodiment—the bodily experience of breastfeeding as contemplative practice and source for theology.3 I begin by making a case for breastfeeding as an empowering spiritual practice of contemplation. I then proceed to explore theological insights that arise from critical reflection on the experience of breastfeeding as a source for contemporary God-talk. The experience of nursing an infant, especially in the first few weeks and months of life, is a rich and varied source for nearly every topic that falls within the purview of systematic theology.4 In this essay, however, I will limit my reflections to what this form of embodied spirituality has to say to us about God, including the nature of divine power and the relationship between God and creation. The underlying methodological commitment at work in my argument grants pride of place to practice as the starting point and goal of theological reflection. I conclude that, while my theological locus is scandalously particular (most human beings will never actually have the opportunity to nurse an infant and most breastfeeding mothers probably do not see lactation as a spiritual practice), the insights gleaned from this experience about both embodied spiritual practice and the nature of divine love are relevant to a much broader audience than lactating mothers.

Part I: The Case for Breastfeeding as Contemplative Practice

A Broadened View of...


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pp. 163-186
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