Aunt Beast and the Icon of the Nurturing Mother

Madonna and Child (1508)
Antonio da Correggio
National Gallery of Art
wikimedia commons

 

 

“On Uriel there had been the magnificent creatures. On Camazotz the inhabitants had at least resembled people. What were these three strange things approaching?

They were the same dull gray color as the flowers. If they hadn’t walked upright they would have seemed like animals. They moved directly toward the three human beings. They had four arms and far more than five fingers to each hand, and the fingers were not fingers, but long, waving tentacles. They had heads, and they had faces. But where the faces of the creatures on Uriel had seemed far more than human faces, these seemed far less. Where the features would normally be there were several indentations, and in place of ears and hair were more tentacles. They were tall, Meg realized as they came closer, far taller than any man. They had no eyes. Just soft indentations.

Meg’s rigid, frozen body tried to shudder with terror, but instead of the shudder all that came was pain.”

In A Wrinkle in Time Meg, Calvin and Meg’s father Mr Murray, end up on a strange grey planet inhabited by strange, scary creatures with four arms and tentacles instead of fingers and heads without faces. At first they afraid of the creatures. To Meg, they seem less than human. She calls them Things and is afraid they are going to eat her. Her father and Calvin are both frightened when the beasts try to carry Meg off. But appearances, Meg learns, are deceiving. Her first contact with the creature fills her with utter loathing and revulsion but with the tentacles came a delicate fragrance and a soft tingling warmth that momentarily assuages her pain and a reassurance of safety The creatures are not the terrible monsters they seemed at first and they go on to care for Meg and heal her.

The care Meg receives from the beast is remarkable. She becomes like a helpless baby while the creature that she comes to call Aunt Beast cares for her:

“. . . lying there, cradled in the four strange arms, Meg, despite herself, felt a sense of security that was deeper than anything she had known since the days when she lay in her mother’s arms in the old rocking chair and was sung to sleep…. she could hold out no longer. She leaned her head against the beast’s chest and realized that the gray body was covered with the softest, most delicate fur imaginable, and the fur had the same beautiful odor as the air.

. . . she knew with a deep sense of comfort that even if she did smell awful, the beasts would forgive her… the beasts must be good. They had to be good She sighed deeply, like a very small child, and suddenly she was asleep.”

This moment reminds me strongly of the imagery in Psalm 131:

“LORD, my heart is not proud;
nor are my eyes haughty.
I do not busy myself with great matters,
with things too sublime for me.

Rather, I have stilled my soul,
Like a weaned child to its mother,
weaned is my soul.”

The weaned child is an icon of calm: not wanting anything, not needing to nurse, for nutrition or comfort, a weaned child can simply enjoy the comfort of a snuggle, content with the lap as the source of peace. (Darwin had an amusing post on what an unweaned child can be like.) To her great surprise Meg finds that same kind of peace is the arms of this frighting alien creature.

Aunt Beast even tells Meg that she must be a baby, must allow herself to be cared for:

“. . . lie still, small one. You must not exert yourself as yet. We will have a fur garment for you in a moment, and then we will feed you. You must not even try to feed yourself. You must be as an infant again.”

The most remarkable thing about Aunt Beast is her unconditional love, which Meg senses from the beginning with her intuition that even if she stinks the beasts would forgive her. It is such a lovely image of God’s mercy and forgiveness. God loves us even when we stink from our sins. The story reiterates this point again, later on:

“The gentle words, the feeling that this beast would be able to love her no matter what she said or did, lapped Meg in warmth and peace. She felt a delicate touch of tentacle to her cheek, as tender as her mother’s kiss.”

Meg experiences this gentle, nurturing, forgiving love as a maternal love, though later Aunt Beast correctly identifies “mother” as being the name of a specific person, and chooses the title Aunt instead. Still, her love for Meg consistently evokes maternal images and even stirs up memories of Mrs Murray and her stew.

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In Isaiah 66 we get one of the most beautiful maternal images of the Bible:



“Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her,
all you who love her;
rejoice with her in joy,
all you who mourn over her—

that you may nurse and be satisfied
from her consoling breast;
that you may drink deeply with delight
from her glorious bosom.

For thus says the Lord:
I will extend prosperity to her like a river,
and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream;
and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm,
and dandled on her knees.

As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you;
you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.

You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice;
your bodies shall flourish like the grass”

I love Isaiah’s image of Jerusalem, God’s city, being seen as a nursing mother, as a mother comforting her child. God is not a divine Mother and yet femaleness and maternal love are not foreign to God and they are very much a part of our experience of the divine love. Isaiah expresses this beautifully: God gives he people a holy mother to comfort them with his maternal love: Jerusalem is consistently identified as a mother. God is Father, but God knows his children need a mother and God always provides us with absolute maternal care.

And in Aunt Beast L’Engle evokes this imagery beautifully.

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A friend remarked that the scene with Aunt Beast identifies a common primal longing: We yearn to have that unconditional love and nurture, to be cuddled and cared for, to be accepted for the totality of who we are, with all our complexity of pain, sadness, shame, guilt, anger, grief, and joy.

This is what Mary, our Blessed Mother should be for us, a strong maternal presence, nurturing and loving. Sadly, images that portray her as this nurturing mother are too few and far between. So often Mary is saccharine and plaster: pretty, pastel, idealized, hardly human. She doesn’t have to be that way, but somehow that sentimental Mary is what most Catholic gift shops serve up and what gets displayed in too many Catholic homes and churches. Which is strange because it’s in such stark contrast to most medieval and renaissance art which portrays the Blessed Mother in her complicated humanity.

The genius of L’Engle’s beasts is that, to borrow a phrase from Tolkien, they “look foul and feel fair.” That is, if we judge by their physical appearance, they have nothing to recommend them, they are frightening. But everything else, the touch, the smell, the experience of them is deeply attractive. L’Engle cleverly gets away from a too-saccharine and sentimental motherhood by making her beasts physically unattractive— a delightful paradox.

The images of Mary I have hung by my bed are two small images of Madonna lactans, Mary nursing the infant Jesus at her breast, and one icon of Our Lady of Częstochowa. I love the former because they show Mary as the nurturing mother of Isaiah 66. And I love the latter because she looks so sad, so dark and the slashes across her face make her seem unlovely and therefore, paradoxically, terribly beautiful. 

The other image of Mary that has the same effect on me is Michelangelo’s late, unfinished sculpture, the Rondanini Pietà. I saw it once in Milan. The rough, unpolished, grief-stricken Mother bears little resemblance to the more famous youthful, graceful Madonna of the pieta in Saint Peter’s basilica. That beautiful madonna has her own pathos, that of the young mother looking forward to her baby’s death. But in his later versions Michelangelo chooses to portray an older, rougher Mary, less pretty and polished, but no less beautiful.

The beasts have that aspect: unlovely to the very limited human sense of sight and yet a total icon of unconditional, nurturing love.

Lower part of the middle window on the north side of the chancel of St Bartholomew’s parish church, Nettlebed, Oxfordshire. A pelican in her piety plucks her breast to feed her nestlings: a mythical symbol of Jesus Christ sacrificing himself.
wikimedia commons

These are the two observations I want to make about Aunt Beast: First, the unconditional maternal love she gives to Meg. Second, the eucharistic imagery of her feeding Meg with the “completely and indescribably and incredibly delicious” food. (Which immediately reminds Meg of her mother’s stew.) When Aunt Beast feeds Meg I cannot help but see it as a profoundly Eucharistic moment.

Again and again in the Old and New Testaments, God reveals himself as Father. And yet… God is Spirit and has no body until the Son becomes a man at the moment of incarnation. And male and female he makes us in the image of God. While God relates to us primarily as a father, human motherhood is also an icon of God’s nurturing love. God groans in labor. God gathers his people into his holy city where Jerusalem becomes a mother, feeding her children at her abundant breasts. God cherishes the soul like a mother holding a weaned child. And Jesus longs to gather the people of Jerusalem like a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. And finally Jesus gives us his own Mother, Mary, to be our Heavenly Mother because he knows that all people need a mother’s love. God gives his own sinless mother who gave her heart up to be pierced seven times, who gave her unconditional yes to God, not only to become the mother of his Son in his human incarnation, but to be the mother of his whole mystical Body, the Church… Mary is our Mother, given to us by Jesus because we are truly his brothers and sisters.

God feeds his people. God wants us to become like little children, to allow ourselves to be dependent, to be fed, not to take food and feed ourselves. He feeds the Israelites manna in the wilderness. He gives them the bounty of the promised land of Canaan. He feeds Elijah and the widow and her son miraculously on a little flour and a little oil. He has Daniel and the three young men subsist on vegetables and abstain from meat. Jesus begins his ministry by giving people wine made out of water, he multiplies loaves and fishes and promises to give people bread from heaven, the bread of life, the water that saves. And then he announces that he himself is the Bread of Life.

The pelican was an early Christian symbol for Jesus, for the Eucharist. For people believed that a mother pelican would tear her own breast with her beak to feed her chicks with her own blood. During this week’s Good Friday liturgy I contemplated the pelican yet again as it adorned the altar where the tabernacle sits. Jesus is the mother pelican, tearing her breast to feed her hungry children with her blood. Jesus longs to feed us from his very body, to give us his own flesh. And that is perhaps the most maternal thing of all. How often did I contemplate that as I watched in awe as my own body gave life to my children. How could every bit of that child have come from me? It’s astounding. And that is also our relationship to God: God made us, God feeds us, God loves us God comforts us. Such wonderful maternal care.

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