“I thought she said this wasn’t a book of poetry,” I said to myself as I read through the first section of The Mother Tree: Discovering the Love and Wisdom of our Divine Mother by Kathryn Knight Sonntag.
I’d read the description of her new book on the Faith Matters Publishing website, and I assumed, having read her book The Tree at the Center, that this book was also poetry.
But Sonntag said this one wasn’t poetry. I think she may have stretched the truth.
And sure, I could see that it has an introduction, three main parts, endnotes citing scripture and scholarship, and is written in paragraphs. The structure is prose, not poetry. And yet, this book that functions as a guide to the feminine path of spiritual ascent using the Divine Mother’s metaphor in scripture as the tree of life, is at least prose poetry. It is insightful, instructive, and also, beautiful.
Take for example one part of her description of the roots of the cosmic tree. “In the gnarl of beets and rot, in the communion of roots and fungi, we find powerful forces, creatures who remind us of the ways in which death is woven into life in endless cycles. The work of the roots speaks to the hidden mysteries that unfold in the dark. They remind us that the dark is alive.” (pg 6)
Not poetry? Sure Jan.
Sonntag provides a diagram of the cosmic tree and goes through each section—roots, trunk, and crown—teaching the multi-layered meaning of each in the physical sense of the functions of these parts of the tree as well as their metaphorical significance in teaching about the underworld, earth life, and the heavens. I appreciated this dual approach because it allows us to approach the Divine Mother through metaphor, but also through a sense of grounded knowing in our connection to the earth and ourselves.
Though the book is short—102 pages including notes—I had to pause frequently, sometimes for minutes, sometimes for days, to ponder its ideas. I have been immersed in Heavenly Mother discourse for the past several months, and it has at times been overwhelmingly intense. Reading this book helped soothe parts of my spirit that have felt inflamed. One issue that has frustrated me is how infrequently LDS discourse considers Heavenly Mother to have any salvific importance. “Salvific” means leading or pertaining to salvation. In much of the discourse around the LDS notion of Heavenly Mother, the Mother is irrelevant to salvation.
The Mother Tree powerfully brings together a missing part of the salvific significance of the mother by focusing on the repeated scriptural metaphor of the Divine Mother as the tree of life. Throughout scripture, the tree of life has both redemptive and maternal properties. “The tree image connects maternal care to the saving powers of God, our divine parents.” (pg 1) Through examining the metaphor of the tree, we better understand the nature of the Divine Mother and Her salvific importance. Learning this feminine path of spiritual ascent is not about disregarding or overshading masculine ways, but harmonizing the feminine and masculine to make room for all.
While I find the tree to be a powerful metaphor, I appreciated that Sonntag kept bringing the discussion back from metaphor and into lived, embodied grounded experience. Integrating these ways of knowing feels essential. It results in coming to see our bodies as wise, not sinful. We better see our interconnectedness to other people and the earth. For me, it is a reminder that it is not enough for me to retreat to my intellect, but that learning involves my body and my connection to the earth.
There were moments in the book that gave me pause, and ideas when I wouldn’t necessarily come to the same conclusion. One such moment was in the idea of birth as an ordinance (pg 23). For me, viewing birth as an ordinance requires too extensive of a redefinition of the word as I understand it in use and practice. I’m inclined to want individuals to have full informed consent for ordinances, and I consider essential life events such as birth and death to be holy in a way that transcends ordinances, which I see as being controlled by institutions. It may ultimately be a debate of semantics more than any material disagreement about the holiness of life. But even in the moments that gave me pause, Sonntag’s words pushed me to think more deeply.
Ultimately, it is the push to think more deeply that I found so helpful about this book. It is an invitation towards wisdom and love, not a declaration of the only way to think about the Divine Mother.
Recently, Elizabeth Gilbert, one of my favorite authors, was on We Can Do Hard Things, one of my favorite podcasts. She talked about reading great literature and poetry as part of her spiritual practice. She said that sacred literature opens a doorway to the infinite, and that through reading, you can enter that doorway for your own communion. “And I feel like Walt Whitman was a mystic and a great Saint, and that he was in direct communion with God, and that he left the door open behind him. And I draft in on his draft. So I read a couple lines of Walt and then I’m with God, right? And it’s like, ‘Thanks, uncle Walt.’ And Rumi does that for me. Hafez does that for me, all of those. Mary Oliver does it for me. They left the door open behind them, out of their generosity. And you can slip in on their words and it changes something and you interiorly, and now you’re in divine space.”
And while perhaps The Mother Tree is not a collection of poems, that’s what Kathryn Knight Sonntag’s writing does for me. It opens a doorway to the infinite that allows me to enter a divine space with room for my own questions, seeking, and interpretations.