Prayer: “The milky way”

Part 23 in a series; see other parts here.

The relationship between mothers and babies affords an intimacy perhaps unparalleled in human experience. The baby begins life as something simultaneously part and not part of the mother, and only slowly dissociates itself, as it must. Early in this process of separation, the baby nurses, [1] living now outside of the mother but still drawing nutriment from her in an experience of bodily nearness. And, as recent studies of lactation have shown, nursing is not a one-way experience, in that the baby’s saliva communicates chemically with the mother’s breast. Nursing is thus our first instruction in negotiating intimate relationships. It is our first instruction in prayer.

The breast at which we nurse in prayer belongs to Jesus. By the time Richard Baxter wrote in the seventeenth century, the identification of Jesus’ side wound with a breast was so commonplace that he could allude to it briefly in these words of comfort: “Our first and earthly Paradise in Eden had a way out, but none that ever we could find in again: But this eternal paradise hath a way in (a milky way to us, but a bloody way to Christ), but no way out again.” [2] Jesus’ heart becomes our second Eden, and prayer, not bloody sacrifice, the path to it.

Prayer is the milky way because it is soft and easily palatable. Even babes in arms can tolerate it. Prayer requires no heroic exertion, no vast strength. All it takes is turning to the breast and letting deep instinct kick in (although degrees of difficulty still remain, just as some babies latch more readily than others). Once we get the hang of it, we draw near and feed once we see the breast.

But we cannot be babies forever, and, as Kierkegaard wrote, even Mother Jesus must blacken the breast sometimes to wean us. Prayer can be rich and nourishing, filling out our rippling folds of spiritual baby fat. We must learn to walk, to run, to work, and to feed ourselves by the sweat of our brows. The way back to Eden that once felt so near and warm and safe now appears as nothing more than a smudge of stars in the night sky, barely discernible amidst the glare of city lights. Still, just as a mother remains a mother, even decades after the child has ceased to nurse, so has Jesus not truly forsaken us just because the simple sweetness of a child’s prayer seems less attainable.

Nevertheless, unlike our earthly mothers, for whom nursing us in our adulthood would be unseemly, Jesus never takes his breast finally away. Even in the Resurrection he retained his wounds, reminding us that the way to Eden running through them remains forever open.


[1] I do understand that nursing doesn’t work for everyone, for myriad reasons. Herbert’s text requires that I stick with the image, but I don’t want to make anyone feel like a lesser parent in the process. I see you, and I honor you.

[2] Richard Baxter, The Saints Everlasting Rest (London, 1650), 131. Baxter also read Herbert, as evidenced among other things by his including “Home” at the end of the Saints Rest.


  1. I hope this isn’t a threadjack, but after my daughter was born, I began to see a deep connection between the idea of the navel referred to in the endowment liturgy and the image of metaphorically nursing at God’s breast. The thing about the navel is that it is a scar, a reminder of a cord that was severed; a reminder that we no longer have constant, effortless nourishment, and so we have to constantly turn to God and nurse.

  2. Jason K. says:

    There would have to be a thread for it to be a threadjack :)

    I really like that reading of the navel and the need for a transition to less direct forms of nutriment. Thank you!

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