January 17, 2020 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Just as the world was preparing to enter a new fearful reality, I was facing my own fearful unknown. Now that I am in the post treatment phase punctuated by periodic check-ups, the everydayness of cancer has receded. In its wake, however, I am left with an indelible mark. A mark that has made all of the difference.
Elizabeth Felicetti recently wrote in The Christian Century about how her breast cancer diagnosis, with an emphasis on breast, challenged her previous view of the Incarnation because of Jesus’ male experience.
I, too, had a breast cancer epiphany. However, instead of challenging my theology, my experience led me to embrace more fully the mothering God found in the first testament, the Hebrew Bible.
Like so many other women, I was instructed to return to the mammography center for a biopsy. Lying face-down with my head uncomfortably turned, multiple people pulled and squeezed, pinched and poked at my breast, while I closed my eyes trying to transport myself out of my anguish. After more than an hour, the technicians finally secured a usable sample to place under the microscope. I was ushered down the hallway and into a dark room where the doctor pointed to the image of my breast on the screen. “This is the area of concern,” she said. “You can see it looks like sand; a change when compared with last year; though it is small, maybe the size of my pen.” Maybe she said something else, too, but I don’t recall. This was the beginning of being in the liminal cancer space where everything was suddenly refracted through the light of disease. My disease.
That evening as I sought respite through some mind-numbing television, everything seemed to be about cancer: women with metastatic diagnoses, basketball players wearing pink shoes. I turned to Amazon looking for a memoir to take me into a different life. As I scanned the new releases, a common denominator felt disturbingly unavoidable: they were all, seemingly, about the big “C.”
A few days later, a few hours before I received the call, I learned from a tear-filled colleague that her daughter had been diagnosed with breast cancer over the winter break. Returning to my campus office I felt like I already knew I would have cancer, too. The hints had been too apparent to dismiss.
It was a Wednesday, late in the afternoon, just before 5:00 pm. My husband and I were on the way to the bank to complete some paperwork. One minute I was stopped at the red light—without cancer—and the next I was inside the bank, waiting, feeling numb, trying to make a mental note of all of the things I needed to do, especially as this was the first day of the university’s semester. Suddenly my “to do” list was infinitely longer and looming.
A cancer diagnosis is shocking and overwhelming. But there is also the feeling of bodily betrayal, fear, and loss. Perhaps most pervasive, however, is the feeling of loneliness. No matter how much friends and family can offer, you are the only one with the illness. This burden, it turns out, is only yours to carry.
In a flash, life becomes frenetic: calls to make appointments, receiving calls from doctors and offices who may or may not have been working in tandem, fielding offers from friends and/or family members of comfort and/or advice, filing insurance claims, negotiating with insurance companies about coverage, and worrying about how much everything will cost and insurance rates in the future.
If ever there was a time for divine aid, having cancer ranks high.
READ: It’s Complicated: A Different Liturgy for Mother’s Day
Years ago, when teaching a course called Women and the Bible, I discovered a divine feminine image that, until then, I never knew existed. Since then, I have shared this insight here and there with students and have sought to expand my own awareness of how this knowledge might work its way through my head and heart, often with less success than I desired. More recently, however, I shared this gem with an especially bright and discerning undergraduate student in an independent study course. In our study, we read the Bible with an eye for feminine language, images, and concerns; aspects that are often ignored and dismissed. We examined El Shaddai, a name for God that most often has been translated simply as God Almighty. “Almighty” conjures up notions of strength, control, power, and most notably, if we are honest, masculinity. This is a God who will stand up to anybody and win because He has all the power!
In contrast, however, El Shaddai can just as accurately be translated “God of many breasts.” As we sat in my campus office, he and I wondered how this image might undo our patriarchal memory and invite us into different, fully embodied expressions and experiences of the divine. A breasted God surely encouraged intimacy, sustenance, and touch. This divine Mother embraced us: body-to-body, Life-nourishing life.
Later, when I told this former student about my diagnosis, his response transported me back to this moment in my office. “Know that you are strong and that God our Mother will bring you through,” he said. “After all, She is the Almighty One, the God of Many Breasts.”
While I did not want this diagnosis, I decided it was the right opportunity to experiment with this mothering image from the Hebrew Bible. How might this breasted body sustain me throughout my breast cancer treatment?
Following surgery, I began radiation. Since the timing of these treatments corresponded with the rapidly expanding pandemic, like most people, I was thinking more strategically about hand-washing, creating a ritual to ensure proper hygiene. Instead of using the happy birthday song as many were doing, however, I chose to sing a feminine version of the Doxology I had learned in my New Wineskins community under the creative leadership of Rev. Dr. Jann Aldredge-Clanton.
I knew I needed a mantra to help me endure each treatment. The minutes of lying on the table in the cold radiation chamber, hands overhead and gown half-removed, were interminable. Hearing the door lock when the technician exited left me feeling frightened and vulnerable; desperately alone. I felt my pounding heart reverberate throughout my entire body as the radiation machine came to life. With its ominous hum as my cue, I turned to the Many Breasted One, trusting Her to sustain me. She was the one who knew me intimately, who shared Her very self with me, who held me as the rays entered my body, sometimes creating an unsavory odor. During these anxious moments, I turned to El Shaddai reciting the words I had memorized:
Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow
Whose Womb gave birth to all we know
Who holds us close to Her warm breast
For nurture, love, and tenderness.
(by Elizabeth Watson Martin and Lisa Taylor)
For twenty-one days these words filled my head and sank further into my soul, cultivating trust where there had been distrust; hope where there had been despair; love where there had been guardedness. Years of academic rigor and Christian patriarchal oppression had created within me a hardened shell. Masculine naming and explaining had all but extinguished any remaining delight, magnetism, or mystery.
But as I turned to Her, trusting she could identify with me, could recognize the tenderness of skin changing texture, of life and healing born through loss and pain, I slowly felt the hardening soften. Trust and hope, faith-full love, became possible again.
My experience points me to both the paucity and possibility of our approach to divine images and language. The Bible, for all of its many flaws and challenges, contains far more expansiveness than we allow or embrace. My former student is now studying and preparing for ministry. This, too, gives me hope that one day our tradition will eventually expunge the idolatry of masculinity and seek in its place liberation for all. May we all come to know, as Jesus did, that our divine Mother has been waiting for us to find Her!