Writer seeks Mormonism's Heavenly Mother — through poetry

(Courtesy Photo) Writer Rachel Hunt Steenblik.

People write poetry about God all the time, but by “God” they usually mean “Father.” What about poetry that explores our relationship with God as Mother?

For Mormons, this shouldn’t be a “first,” but it is, at least to my knowledge: Rachel Hunt Steenblik’s new book “Mother’s Milk: Poems in Search of Heavenly Mother” is the first full-length poetry I’m aware of that explores this facet of Mormon belief.

Steenblik started learning more about Heavenly Mother nearly 10 years ago as a researcher for the team that eventually produced the landmark 2011 BYU Studies article “‘A Mother There’: A Survey of Historical Teachings About Mother in Heaven.”

RNS • Since that 2011 article, there seems to be an uptick in Mormons discussing or at least mentioning Heavenly Mother, including some General Conference talks and also the Gospel Topics essay on Mother in Heaven. What did you think of that essay?

Steenblik • Caroline Kline and I have a co-authored chapter that is going to be responding to that. I was really grateful for the start, because it makes Heavenly Mother more accessible to members of the church who might still have harbored reservations or been told by their parents that we don’t know enough to talk about her. This could give them awareness and confidence that it’s something we can talk about, that it’s not forbidden.

I’m sad about how brief it is, though, only six paragraphs. The average for all the other essays is four times that. More could have been said, because there are resources about Heavenly Mother that are more beautiful and expansive than what was shared, though they did include one of my favorite passages about Heavenly Mother. It’s by Harold B. Lee, saying:

“We forget that we have a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother who are even more concerned, probably, than our earthly father and mother, and that influences from beyond are constantly working to try to help us when we do all we can.”

It places her in a position of not only caring for us but also being able to actively work for good in our lives right now, which I find very lovely and hopeful.

RNS • I was remembering as I read your book that I once taught a Relief Society lesson where I asked the sisters to discuss their ideas of the afterlife, and one of the questions was “What burning question do you have now that you can’t wait to have answered in heaven?” I was surprised that several sisters, ones that I would consider to be traditional and not particularly interested in feminism, said something along the lines of, “Who is Heavenly Mother and why don’t we know more about her?”

(Courtesy Photo) Cover for Rachel Hunt Steenblik's new book of poetry, "Mother's Milk."

Steenblik • The whole point of the BYU Studies article is to say that it’s OK to talk about her, and that we actually know more about her than many people think.

Once in Relief Society the teacher introduced her remarks by saying that she chose the hymn “O My Father” for us to sing because it was special for what she was going to say, and she hoped we could learn more about this specific topic. I got very excited, thinking that maybe we would talk about how we could draw close to Heavenly Mother, or feel her love or know more about her. Instead, the woman said that her remarks were going to be focused on how we can draw close to Heavenly Father. I looked around the room and wondered if I was the only one who wanted to know more about Heavenly Mother.

At that meeting, I realized how desperate I was to hear someone say “Heavenly Mother” at church. And then in the same meeting, I realized I was someone and I could say her name at church.

So at the next fast and testimony meeting, I bore my testimony of Heavenly Mother. I said something super-simple, like “I know I have a Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother who love me, and the Heavenly Mother makes me feel like I have a place on Earth and in heaven.” Just two sentences.

RNS • What was the reaction from your ward (congregation)?

Steenblik • I sat down and my whole body started shaking. Even though I knew it was OK to do, it still felt brave. Afterward, someone I had never met before came up and gave me a hug, and thanked me for my nontraditional testimony. He became one of my very best friends in Boston.

RNS • Did you think at that time you might write a book of poetry about Heavenly Mother?

Steenblik • Never, not at all. But Martin Pulido [the co-author of the BYU Studies article] and Caroline Kline co-founded an art and poetry contest in 2014 called “A Mother Here.” They, like I, mourned that there wasn’t more about Heavenly Mother, but did the beautiful thing of raising money and inspiring people to create more representation of her.

I had no intention of writing something myself, since I was not a poet. Then one of the poets, Elizabeth Pinborough, said, “I can’t wait to see what you submit.” My first thought was, “No, I’m not submitting anything,” but my second was, “I am a writer. Maybe I could do something.”

RNS • How did one poem become a book?

Steenblik • I wrote one poem, and went to sleep that night, and literally dreamed that I was standing at a pulpit reading five Heavenly Mother poems I had written. I woke up and wrote them. They felt given to me.

I submitted that first set of five tiny Heavenly Mother poems as one poem, and ended up getting Honorable Mention in the contest, which was enough encouragement to keep writing them. But even more than that, I couldn’t stop writing them. They kept coming to me as full poems or as ideas for poems. I ultimately wrote almost 300. There are 246 in the book.

RNS • How have readers responded?

Steenblik • The most common reaction is that they cry when they read it, which has been true of men as well as women. One woman reported reading it in the doctor’s office and sobbing. I’ve received a lot of gratitude, as people have thanked me especially for giving voice to their questions. A woman called it the prayer she had offered in her closet of “where is my mother?”

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