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Mamas and the Papas

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.

6 thoughts on “Mamas and the Papas

  1. Thanks for this heads up – I blogged it also over at Heart, Mind and Strength! I look forward to reading it. I’m glad to see more theologians and Church historians addressing breastfeeding, especially as it relates to the Theology of the Body! Thanks for your work!

  2. Your chapter sounds interesting. Some of your readers might be interested in my latest book, Breastfeeding And Catholic Motherhood, which offers spiritual support from Church teaching, Popes, clergy, encyclicals, and Scripture. In the age of TOB, breastfeeding gives a mother the opportunity to learn self-giving love. Thanks for all you do to promote breastfeeding. Sheila

  3. It’s great to hear from you, Sheila. We received our advance copy of your excellent book about a month after we finished writing our essay, but we were able to recommend it in a footnote. Thank you for all YOU’ve done — and continue to do.

  4. Sandra Miesel wrote an interesting article about the nursing Virgin in Crisis magazine a few years ago:

    Also, I’ve seen a painting of the Virgin nursing both her son & a Saint at the same time; I think it’s St. Bernard, but I’m not sure.

  5. Thanks for the lead, Sheryl. The article is excellent. I sent it to my wife. For a gallery of images, see this page: Mary as Nursing Mother.

  6. Thank you for the clarification!!!
    So now I guess I have to check out the book, huh? I never thought about breastfeeding in a Biblical sense (guess I’m not obsessed as St. Augustine, anyway…apparently that guy was REALLY interested in…well, you know) I just breastfeed my kids and it works. Hmmm, I don’t think I’m going to do a major study of it all, but at least I could maybe find out why the art of breastfeeding is so FASCINATING to some people. It’s always interesting to see what trips people’s triggers.

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