I mentioned last week that my wife Terri and I contributed a chapter titled “Milk and Mystery: On Breastfeeding and the Theology of the Body” to a new collection, Catholic for a Reason IV: Scripture and the Mystery of Marriage and Family Life. A commenter asked, somewhat incredulously, what the Fathers could have to do with such an exclusively maternal activity as breastfeeding. It’s a good question, and she put it to me with three question marks. So it merits at least a partial answer. (For a full answer, you’ll have to buy the book!)
My wife and I begin the essay by reviewing the ample biblical material on breastfeeding — the customs observed in Israel, the blessings and curses associated with the practice, the use of nursing as a metaphor, and instances where the inspired authors used breastfeeding as an essential part of a narrative plot.
The second section deals with the world of the Fathers, and again we discuss the cultural norms for breastfeeding mothers. And then we provide many examples of the Fathers’ use of breastfeeding imagery. A few examples:
Odes of Solomon: breastmilk is a metaphor for the Eucharist.
Odes of Solomon: the Holy Spirit is compared to a nursing mother.
Irenaeus of Lyons: speaks of Scripture as the breast of the Church.
Clement of Alexandria: Christ and the Eucharist are compared to milk; salvation is compared with lactation.
Ephrem of Syria: Christ is called “the breast of life.”
The Book of Steps: compares the Church to a nursing mother.
Augustine: speaks of Christians as nurslings, Christ as milk, the Bible’s two testaments as two breasts, and the Church as a nursing mother. He also uses the mother-child nursing relationship to illustrate how God creates us to be interdependent.
Again, that’s just a sampling. Both Clement and Augustine ponder the act of breastfeeding from physiological, moral, and theological angles. The full treatment is in our essay, “Milk and Mystery: On Breastfeeding and the Theology of the Body,” in Catholic for a Reason IV: Scripture and the Mystery of Marriage and Family Life.
I have another post on the subject of breastfeeding, here, with links to some great scholarship.