Say the word "God" and what comes to mind? Close your eyes and pray: Who is the being who hears the cries of your innermost heart? For more than 2,500 years that question has been answered almost exclusively in masculine imagery and language. Centuries of patriarchy have left a lasting imprint of God as a male deity on the human psyche. As familiar as this heavenly father may seem, however, most of the world's religions trace their roots back to an ancient source: the Goddess. Older even than the image of God as a man, in fact, is that of God as a woman.

What if, just like our ancestors, we talked to God as if "She" were a woman? What if, when we bowed our heads to pray or crossed our legs to meditate we deliberately brought to mind a presence that was feminine in nature? To some, such a practice may seem an unspoken criticism of the masculine gender. To others seeking to evolve more inclusive expressions of spirituality, relating to God in a gender-specific way can seem like a step backward. But the essence of spirituality is wholeness. And to genuinely experience the aspect of God that is beyond form and gender means that we must first integrate both sides of our nature -- the yin and yang of the soul.

For far too long, both women and men have been orphaned of their divine parentage: raised by a Father God, they have lacked a Mother Goddess to care for their spiritual needs. Indeed, a part of all our history and a part of all our souls has been missing. Just as archaeologists have uncovered temples to the goddess buried beneath churches, so, too, is there a deeper layer in all our souls waiting to be excavated.

How might we begin to unearth our feminine spiritual nature? For one thing, we can start with the simple practice of using feminine figures of speech in our prayers or meditations. Many ancient hymns to the Goddess, for example, describe Her as the "Lady of life," "Queen of Heaven," or "Mother of the world." Language shapes our perception of reality -- including inner states of consciousness. And though it may sound strange at first, adopting feminine pronouns and adjectives can evoke a powerful shift in the way we relate to and experience God. In my own contemplative practice, I have found that doing this infuses my dialogue with the divine with a sweet intimacy. Often, I let my heart speak, composing such endearments as "She, who encircles the stars and the universe with love, heal my soul." Or, I recite an already existing prayer, replacing "She" for "He," "Her" for "Him," or "Goddess" for "God."

Indeed, a feminine-based practice can complement, rather than replace, the rituals and services of the church, synagogue, mosque, or spiritual community we may already belong to. Most of the world's faiths, for instance, include within them women holy figures, both real and mythical. Meditating deeply on the Goddess as She has appeared throughout history is a gateway to the mysteries of the divine feminine.

Many times I have focused my inner eye on the Buddhist Kuan Yin. In imagining Her as She pauses in Her ascent after attaining enlightenment, pulled back toward earth by the cries of the suffering, my own heart opens to the pain of the human condition. The statue of Artemis of Ephesus, layered in rows of nurturing breasts and animals, awakens me to the nurturing force of nature. The prehistoric wide-hipped, full-bodied fertility Goddess figures have restored my faith in the sacred beauty of the female body and its life-giving powers. I have found that visualizing the Goddess when praying for others is especially powerful, as She embodies maternal protection.

Acceptance of the body as sacred, in fact, is central to a Goddess-inspired practice. Rather than the monastic ideal of renunciation in which instinct and desire are viewed as a hindrance to union with God, feminist spirituality cherishes physical incarnation in all its richness. Whether sexuality, childbirth, or hunger, the desires and needs of the body are considered holy rather than sinful. In this sense, imagining God as a woman awakens the part of us that is endlessly creative and regenerative. Thus the children we raise, the projects we initiate, or the dishes we cook become living prayers -- colorful celebrations of the miraculous gift of life.

This step-by-step shift from the masculine to the feminine can even affect how we contemplate the formless aspect of the Divine. Though we may not think of it this way, the use of words like "detached," and "impersonal" carry masculine overtones. From a feminine perspective, the mystical experience of oneness becomes less like the void of emptiness and more like swimming in a womb of space that is vibrant with potential life. In this oceanic light, we experience the Goddess as the essence of such qualities as forgiveness, mercy, and unconditional acceptance - the feminine aspect of every religion. In my own deepest moments of mystical participation with the divine feminine, I have felt bathed in waves of the rarest joy, as if the background hum of all creation is the happy-sounding laughter of the Goddess.

Indeed, if there is one thing contemplating God as a woman awakens, it is the soulful patience to bear with the process of life in all its wonder and uncertainty. From a theological perspective, a feminine-based contemplation deepens our capacity for a faith based on inner knowing, rather than external doctrine. It means acceptance of things as they are, rather than how we want them to be. It is about connecting to the cyclic wisdom in the rhythms of nature, in which things ripen in their own time. By restoring the long-buried Goddess to Her rightful place in our spiritual lives this way, we help to heal an old wound -- redressing history's omission and making whole our souls that have been halved too long.

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