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Catherine Cowell: Is God Feminine?

Episode 51

Catherine Cowell: Is God Feminine?

Welcome to the Loved Called Gifted Podcast. This is your place to come for musings about spirituality, identity, and purpose.
I’m your host, Catherine Cowell.

Welcome to this episode of the Loved Called Gifted podcast.

It's just me this time, so I'm sat in my little office.

What I want to explore with you today is something that I've spent quite a lot of time thinking about over the last few years, namely how we view the gender of God.

My reflecting on this topic began with a comment made by a friend quite a number of years ago now.

We were together having lunch, I think, and she just happened to say, "If we're all made in the image of God, then God must be as much female as male."

What was really interesting to me in that was that it sent my brain in a number of different directions at once.

Firstly, my logical brain completely agreed with her.

It makes total sense.

But alongside that logical response, I was immediately aware of what an alien concept that seemed.

The idea of viewing God as at all feminine felt completely outside my experience.

And not just outside my experience, but kind of somehow wrong, heretical, transgressive.

And that set off a whole load of questions and alarm bells in my head.

Many of those questions were about why I had alarm bells in my head at all.

Where was my sense that even thinking about God as feminine might be heretical, coming from?

How have we ended up with such a masculine view of God?

And if we could be seeing God as feminine, but we don't, what difference does that make?

How might it affect our spirituality?

What actually might we be missing?

And does the Bible talk about God in feminine terms?

Because I wasn't particularly aware of it doing so very much, other than a few verses here and there.

And then thirdly, there was the question of whether it was sensible to think of God in gendered terms at all.

So this whole question of how we view God and how gender-biased our view of God is culturally, sent me on something of an exploration.

And I want to share just a little bit of what that exploration has been like and where it's led me to, in this episode.

I think it's worth starting with that last question about whether it is sensible to think of God in gendered terms at all.

And at one level, God is obviously beyond any question of gender, far more immense and mysterious than we can ever imagine.

God is obviously not literally male or female, rather cosmically non-binary, utterly transcendent.

But, while God obviously is utterly transcendent, what the story of the Bible and the spiritual experience of countless human beings tells us, is that the divine chooses to draw near to us.

We see this transcendence and imminence, if you like, that unknowability and intimacy in the conversation that Moses has with God.

So this is where Moses has just seen the burning bush, God was sending Moses back to Egypt to rescue the Israelites from slavery, and Moses asked, "Well, who shall I say has sent me?"

Basically, "What's your name?"

And God says two things to him.

Firstly, he says, "I am who I am.

Tell them I am sent you."

And that's a pretty indescribable, transcendent explanation.

God is saying he's mysterious, God is saying that God is beyond any description other than that God simply is.

But then, God says, "I am the God of your ancestors, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."

And that speaks of a God who is near, intimate, knowable, who tells us that we are made in God's image and who uses all sorts of imagery and metaphor to help us to draw close.

So I think it's very reasonable to both understand that the divine is beyond gender, transcendent, unknowable, and also to understand that we use metaphors and names to help us to relate to the God who chooses to draw close to us.

It's as we connect with God, our close friend and companion, that the gender question becomes most acute.

When we talk to God, we talk to someone and not something, otherwise there would be no relationship.

Traditionally, we've been taught that this someone with whom we commune is male, almost completely and exclusively.

We've been taught this not primarily through our theology, because theologically we would understand that we are all made in the image of God and therefore God reflects both masculine and feminine characteristics.

But we've learnt it through our use of language and imagery in our worship, through our church culture.

I was aware when I began this exploration that the Bible does include feminine imagery and metaphor as well as masculine when it talks of the divine, and we'll talk more about that in a bit.

But I was so used to thinking of God as male that I'd hardly noticed it.

Interestingly, like quite a lot of people, I had read The Shack, and I don't know if you know that book, but in The Shack somebody called Mack meets in a shed, basically a shack, with God and God is portrayed in that book as feminine as well as masculine, quite powerfully so.

What was interesting to me was that although it had been both helpful and meaningful at the time, it actually hadn't really done anything to change my very masculine view of God.

It certainly hadn't made me feel any more comfortable about beginning to consider whether it would be reasonable to think of God as she as well as he.

As I reflected on this I realised that both the deep discomfort about thinking of God as feminine, and the fact that even The Shack hadn't fundamentally shifted my perspective, told me just how deeply ingrained my inherited view of God as masculine was.

I don't think it's surprising the cultures from which Judaism and Christianity emerged and in which the Bible was written were also heavily male dominated and patriarchal.

And the same can be said of the church and of our own culture.

We are part of a culture that has been male-dominated for centuries and although that has shifted a bit in recent decades, sexism certainly hasn't gone away and we still live with the legacy of that culture.

And one of the consequences of that is that we tend to default to looking at the world through a male lens and therefore seeing God as male has not only come very naturally to us, it's not even really been something that we particularly notice.

Anyway, time, I thought, to have another look.

So what I started by doing was going back to the Bible with the question, how is God portrayed in the pages of the Bible if we take off the bloke-tinted lenses through which we're used to viewing it?

So what I want to do is to share with you a little bit of what I discovered.

There are many names for God in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament.

Most of those names are completely gender neutral.

So El-Roy, that's the name that Hagar gave God, means the God who sees.

El-Emet, the God of truth.

El-Suzy, the God who is just or righteous.

El-Olam, the everlasting God.

But there are a couple of names that are not gender neutral.

El Shaddai, which is a name of God you may well have heard of, has often been translated as God Almighty.

But it turns out that that was a bit of a misunderstanding by early translators.

I wonder whether they were not entirely comfortable with the idea of God having breasts, even if it was metaphorical.

But El Shaddai literally means the Lord, the Breasted One.

And where it occurs in the Bible, there is always an association with fertility or with children.

So in Genesis, El Shaddai promises Abraham countless descendants.

Isaac asks El Shaddai to bless Jacob with many children.

El Shaddai tells Jacob to be fruitful and multiply.

In Genesis 43, Jacob asks for the blessing of El Shaddai when he wants a couple of his sons to return safely from Egypt.

And then later, when Jacob is blessing his son Joseph, he prays "May Shaddai bless you with the blessings of the heavens above, and the blessings of the watery depths beneath, and the blessings of the breasts and the womb."

It's a name that also appears in Psalm 91 which talks about people sheltering under the shadow of God's wings, which is an image that invokes the picture of a mother bird protecting her young.

So it's pretty clear that one of the ways that the Israelites knew God early on was as the Breasted One, with everything that that implies.

In fact, interestingly, this seems to be one of the very first names the Israelites had for God before they were even Israelites.

So in Exodus 6:23, God tells Moses "I am Yahweh" which means "I am that I am".

"I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not reveal my name Yahweh to them."

That is really interesting.

So what that is telling us, that God was known as the Lord the Breasted One before being revealed as Yahweh, which is a fairly gender neutral name I think you'll agree.

Feminine first.

So actually, whereas we tend to have a default image of God that is male, think Adam and God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, back in antiquity the default image of God was likely to be feminine, and archaeologists actually come across ancient statuettes of goddesses, or of God as female.

The other strongly gendered name for God is El Racham, which means the God of Compassion, and comes from the Hebrew word for womb.

So what that means is that whenever you read the Old Testament and read about God being compassionate, and God is frequently referred to as compassionate in the Old Testament, you are literally reading about the womb-iness of God, God as compassionate mother.

For us, those other gender neutral names such as El Roy, the God who sees, or El Emet, the God of Truth, tend to have a masculine feel to them, because we have such a strong default sense of God as masculine.

But for the people of God back then, for whom the default image of God was feminine rather than masculine, those names too probably had a far more feminine feel to them.

I think that all of this feels very alien because our image of God has been so masculine for so long.

To find that the Bible has such rich feminine imagery for God is quite jarring.

It feels almost blasphemous, but it's really not, it's in the Bible.

So let's have a little bit of a look at some of the times when this feminine imagery comes up.

Isaiah uses some very rich maternal imagery from God.

Let me read just a couple of things to you.

In Isaiah 42, he has God saying, "Like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant.

I will level the mountains and hills and blight all their greenery.

I will turn the rivers into dry land and dry out the pools.

I will lead Israel down a new path, guiding them in an unfamiliar way.

I will brighten the darkness before them and smooth the road ahead of them."

There's a lot of kind of travail and pain and passion in that.

But it begins with that image, "Like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant."

Those are not words that we expect to hear on the lips of God.

And then again, he has God saying, "Listen to me, descendants of Jacob, all you who remain in Israel.

I have cared for you since you were born.

Yes, I carried you before you were born.

I will be your God throughout your lifetime until your hair is white with age.

I made you and I will care for you.

I will carry you along and save you.

To whom will you compare me?"

That is incredibly feminine.

And in Isaiah 49, God says, "Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has born?

Though she may forget, I will not forget you."

Those are really powerful motherly images that we don't often spend much time meditating on and sitting with, I don't think.

Actually, the idea of God feeding, breastfeeding, also carries through into the New Testament, where the writer of the Hebrews, you may well have come across this, talks about his readers needing spiritual milk.

And Peter encourages his readers, "Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good."

Interestingly, for years I kind of abstracted that verse away from the very obvious El Shaddai breastfeeding imagery that it contains to just hearing it as an instruction to read my Bible more, to absorb the correct doctrine, if you like.

And that's probably because in my formative years as a Christian, I listened to a lot of sermons where that was the emphasis.

But where are you going to get spiritual milk and taste that the Lord is good if it's not at God's breast in God's patient embrace?

As beautiful as this imagery is, I have to confess that I don't find it that easy to incorporate it into my spirituality.

It doesn't feel terribly comfortable.

I am slowly getting there, but it's taking a very long time.

And I think I have just spent far too long in an English, masculinised church to easily incorporate into my prayer life the idea of enthusiastically suckling at God's breast like a hungry baby.

For most of my life, these images have been entirely missing, and so I am not comfortable with them now.

I have lived, as you probably have too, many decades in a society where breastfeeding in public is largely taboo, and most church-going nursing mothers would be far more likely to find a quiet spot out the back than to feed their babies during a service.

But having said that, these images of God as mother are beginning to shift my understanding and to shift my imagery of God.

And it is really deeply affirming to my own female self to know that I am created in the image of God who chooses to be known in imagery of womb and breasts and birth.

In a world where religion so often demands of women that they hide not only their breasts but also their hair, their bodies and sometimes even their faces, as if the physical form were somehow profane or carnal, we have here God expressing our relationship with the divine, using really visceral metaphors of birth and breasts and womb.

It's passionate, it's the stuff of earth and guts and blood and love.

As Christians, we are used to the idea of incarnation, of God coming and being amongst us in the form of Jesus, identifying with us, turning up in human form.

And so for God to be turning up in these images of birth, of breastfeeding, actually is quite natural, but we're just not used to it.

We are very used to thinking of God as Father, because Jesus called God Abba, which means 'daddy', and we're used to that imagery turning up in the New Testament.

Interestingly, it also occurs in the Old Testament, and where it does, it's often paired with maternal images, the fatherhood and the motherhood of God side by side.

So in the book of Job, for example, describing the work of creating and sustaining the universe, God asks, 'Does the rain have a father?

Who gives birth to the dew?

Who is the mother of the ice?

Who gives birth to frost from the heavens?'

Culturally, our picture of God is generally clothed, stately and male.

The old guy on a cloud, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, reaching out towards a semi-reclined Adam.

That is our archetypal image.

Michelangelo, of course, was painting out of his experience of Christianity and the church, and that iconic image perfectly encapsulates the masculine feel and culture of the church down the centuries.

Whether it's towering cathedrals with robed clergy and choir boys, or little Methodist chapels, or big charismatic churches with preachers in Chinese shoes and skinny jeans, it all carries the cultural DNA that helped shape that Sistine Chapel image of God.

It's all masculine.

Imagine how completely incongruous it would seem if you walked into a church to find a piece of art depicting God as a pregnant woman or a breastfeeding mother.

But it shouldn't be incongruous because, as we have been discovering, it's thoroughly scriptural.

There are strong images of God pregnant, God giving birth as breastfeeding mother, and also, interestingly, as midwife.

So thoroughly part of, and identifying with, the whole messy business of giving birth and caring for children.

Changing tack slightly, I wonder what your conception of the Holy Spirit is.

I spent quite a lot of time in my formative years as a Christian in charismatic churches that put quite a lot of emphasis on the Holy Spirit and receiving gifts from the Spirit.

It was frequently pointed out to us that the Spirit is a person and not an impersonal force, the third person is a trinity, not an it but a he.

When describing the character of the Spirit, I frequently heard people describing the Holy Spirit as a gentleman.

It wasn't until years later that I discovered that Ruach, the word used in the Hebrew Bible to describe the Spirit, happens to be feminine.

And, although you would never have guessed it from any of the church services I was part of, or the sermons I listened to, or the books I read, it turns out there is actually a long and rich tradition of understanding the Holy Spirit to be feminine.

I think it really changes things if you read the Bible with this understanding of the Spirit as feminine.

I just want to give you a couple of examples.

So going right back to the beginning, to the very start of the creation story, the first two verses of Genesis could reasonably read like this.

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and she was hovering over the waters."

When I first heard a womanist theologian translate the start of Genesis like this, I was jarred initially and then enchanted.

Ruach, as we've just discovered, the word for Spirit and wind and breath that we translate as the Holy Spirit, is a feminine word.

A feminine word for a feminine spirit.

And the hovering, apparently, suggests the kind of protective hovering of a mother bird over her chicks.

And then hiding in plain sight in the New Testament is one of the most powerfully feminine and intimate metaphors in the whole Bible.

I'm talking about that bit in John's Gospel where Jesus says to Nicodemus, "Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.

No one can enter the kingdom unless they are born of water and the Spirit.

Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to the Spirit."

And this, of course, is where we get the idea of being born again from.

Born again Christians.

Not a term that we hear so much these days, but when I was getting interested in faith as a teenager in the 1980s, it was a very common way of describing a particular kind of Christian, used variously as an insult or a compliment or an entry requirement, depending on your perspective.

Often, and this is somewhat ironic, I think, the people who talk most enthusiastically about needing to be born again are often the same people who talk enthusiastically about the Holy Spirit being a gentleman without ever noticing that there might be a contradiction between the idea of the Spirit being a gentleman and us being born of the Spirit.

And I have to confess that that is a contradiction that I didn't see either for quite a long time.

In my experience, this idea of new birth has been made into quite an academic concept a lot of the time, sort of connected with a spiritual experience that follows a particular sort of introduction to the Christian faith.

And although the words ‘born again’ are used frequently, often by some of the most trenchantly masculine-dominated Christian communities who wouldn't really entertain the thought of God being anything other than male, they tend to be rendered sterile and separate from that rich metaphor of pregnancy and birth.

And certainly not linked at all to the awareness of the feminine nature of the Spirit who gives birth to this new life inside of us.

But it's such a rich metaphor, that idea that before we have that experience, and I know it's not everybody's experience, but it was mine, but that idea that before we have that experience of meeting Jesus, of an explosion of life and faith within us, that before that happened, we have been held, if you like, in the womb of God, in the womb of the Spirit, being nurtured and protected until the moment comes when that new life emerges.

This idea of dying to the old life and beginning a new life of faith runs throughout the New Testament.

It's not just in John's Gospel that it's referred to as new birth.

Peter uses the metaphor as well.

He says, "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead."

Paul talks about it frequently as well.

And this beautiful multi-layered symbolism of being held tenderly in the womb of God, that sense that finding faith, becoming aware of God and being born, it might not be a comfortable process, that it might shake us from familiar surroundings into something breathtakingly new.

And powerfully, the fact that the effort and the pain and the travail of that birth are God's and not ours.

We are simply the ones being born.

We get very used to the idea of an almighty God and we sometimes forget, I think, that God chooses to be vulnerable.

And a God who gives birth is definitely vulnerable.

In ancient times, we must not forget, when John was writing, pregnancy and birth were not only painful but also dangerous.

To give birth is to risk death.

And then, as we noticed earlier, having been born of God, we are invited to crave pure spiritual milk, to be nursed by God.

And actually for many people finding faith is followed by the discovery of a deep, intimate closeness to God.

Just like a baby is intimate with his or her mother in those early, early weeks, that sense of being loved and held and cared for by God fits really, really well with this metaphor of being born of God, of being born again.

I think it's just worth noting, although that experience of new birth very much fits some people's experience of what it was like to come to faith, sort of an epiphany moment, the birth metaphor is not a particularly good fit for everyone.

Not everyone experiences finding faith that way.

For some people it's much more gradual.

But I don't think it's necessary to limit the metaphor of new birth to the moment of encountering God for the first time.

I think the Holy Spirit is often birthing new things within us.

God's midwifing work in us continues.

The old dies, the new is born, again and again.

There are such riches to discover in this idea of God as a mother, the one who gave you birth and held you tenderly before you even existed.

Paul tells us that we were chosen in God before the foundation of the world.

We are invited, I believe, to rest in the love of the God who holds us with all the gentle affection of a mother nursing an infant, who loves us with all the affection and stubbornness of a mother who will not stop loving her children no matter how far those children wander.

There is great, great solace in that.

Not all the imagery of God that is feminine in the Bible is this kind of archetypal, motherly image.

One of the really interesting things is that in the book of Proverbs we come across the idea of wisdom.

And wisdom is a personification of God in those first nine chapters of Proverbs.

It's like wisdom is expressed as a woman who is wise and who invites people to take of that wisdom.

That wisdom which was expressed in kind of the science, if you like, of creating the universe and creating life.

And interestingly, traditionally there has been an understanding that the wisdom described in the book of Proverbs is synonymous with Christ.

So Christ by Paul is described as the wisdom of God and there has been this understanding that those two things are together.

So somehow part of God's femininity is to do with wisdom, it's not only to do with mothering.

And it's the Holy Spirit who endows us with spiritual gifts, who inspired the prophets, who was there in creation, who gives us life, assures us of God's presence, acts as a counsellor.

So this femininity of God, although it is powerfully expressed in the whole kind of childbirth mothering thing, that's not only where we find it, we find it in other places as well.

We find it in the description of the fruit of the Spirit.

Paul says that as we walk in companionship with the Holy Spirit, then the Holy Spirit, the character of the Holy Spirit, rubs off on us.

And that we become increasingly full of the things that the Spirit is full of.

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

So there is a power of goodness, a feminine power of goodness, within the Holy Spirit.

Just to take a slight side step for a moment, Christians often talk about the power of the Spirit and Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would come upon the disciples with power.

But this isn't power as we usually understand it.

In fact Zechariah the prophet actually has God contrasting power with the Holy Spirit.

God says "not by might nor by power but by my Spirit".

So this power that the Spirit has is about goodness.

It's not about coercive force.

It's a feminine power, not what we would regard as a masculine power.

The ultimate source of soft power if you like.

So increasingly there is an understanding that traditionally masculine approaches, for example to leadership, which prioritise tasks and hierarchy, assertiveness, telling people what to do, have severe limitations.

They can so easily slip into force and threaten coercion which isn't any good for anyone.

And there is increasingly an awareness that more feminine approaches to leadership and management that are about cooperation, relationship, equality, empowerment and persuasion are much more humane.

So although from the perspective of our patriarchal society a feminine style of leadership might look as if it could be ineffectual, these approaches are far more effective in the long term, usually.

Not least because they seek to use the wisdom and skills of everybody and not just those at the top.

They attract people to be part of something because it's good and they want to be involved.

And my experience of the Holy Spirit, and probably yours too if this is something that's familiar to you, is that that is exactly how she works.

Always gentle, patient, tender, sometimes challenging but never violent, always beautiful.

But the Holy Spirit isn't only described as gentle and loving, she is also playful and creative, wild and unpredictable.

Jesus, when he's talking to Nicodemus, compares people who are led by the Holy Spirit to be like the wind.

You never quite know what they might be up to.

He says you don't know where they're coming or where they might be going to.

If we're up for it, the Holy Spirit will lead us on adventures, little adventures and big ones, opportunities to bless people and to be blessed, moments when the ordinary world suddenly becomes resonant with beauty.

My experience is that the Holy Spirit is not a conformist but is endlessly creative.

She is a dancer.

Steve Turner wrote a poem a number of years ago about the Holy Spirit called Spiritus and I think it captures it well.

It goes like this.

"I used to think of you as a symphony, neatly structured, full of no surprises.

Now I see you as a saxophone solo blowing wildly into the night, a tongue of fire flicking in unrepeated patterns."

So when I think of what it means to be born of God, to be born of the Spirit, I think of the Holy Spirit as being wild, creative, non-conformist, loving, persuasive, bringing counsel and wisdom, binding up the broken hearted, setting people free, quietly powerful, full of love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and gentleness.

And it is amazing to think that I, like you, am made in her image.

So the more that I have explored this theme of the femininity of God, the richer it has become, and the more that it has opened windows into seeing God in new ways, into understanding God differently, and new paths of connection and prayer and fellowship with the divine, which has been amazing.

So I hope that you found this whistle-stop tour of some of the feminine imagery of God in the Bible helpful and interesting.

It has been a whirlwind of discovery for me and a complete delight to discover that, as my friend remarked all those years ago, we are all, male and female, created in the image of God and that God is as much feminine as masculine.

These are not new discoveries, there are people, mainly women, it has to be said, who've been exploring and writing about this stuff for a long time, but equally it still remains on the periphery, so some of this may be really really new to you, despite the fact that it really isn't new discoveries and it is there to be found.

But it has been marginalised, I think this understanding has definitely been marginalised by the overwhelmingly masculine culture and practice of our Christianity.

And you might be wondering whether it matters.

If we know that God isn't really a man or a woman does it matter what we call God, does any of this matter?

After all the church seems to have managed with its entirely masculine God for quite a lot of centuries and it is possible to have a very rich faith life whilst only ever seeing God as masculine.

But I do think that we have missed out in the process of that in big ways and small ways.

One thing, on a really pragmatic note, is that sometimes people struggle with the idea of God as father, often because they haven't had a great relationship with their own father.

And the usual approach is to encourage people to pray to the God whose fathering frightens them, about the fact that they find relating to God difficult and then seek healing.

Often actually that's really slow, it can take years.

Many of those people have great relationships with their mothers and they could find connecting with a mother God a far easier entry point.

It could save them years of struggle, but that's not an option that's usually on the menu because we are not often thinking about God as mother as well as father.

For those of us who are women, I think understanding that our female selves are created in the image of God and that God chooses to honour us by using the metaphors of wombs and breasts and motherhood and midwifery to describe herself is transformative.

On a really personal note, I experienced sort of a mysterious change in my inner spiritual landscape when I began to take on board the fact that as a mother I was reflecting the image of God to my sons, the image of God as mother to my sons.

Before that I realised that I was subconsciously sort of seeing my mothering as a female version of God's fathering, if you get my meaning.

There was something of a translation that needed to happen, so God's a father, I'm a mother, but I can be a mother in the way that God's a father.

But that process of sort of translating that understanding created a bit of a distance and it also diminished my sense of confidence in who I was.

Somehow coming to an understanding that I didn't need to do that subconscious translating, that I was seeking to mother in a way that I understood God to be mothering, had me standing on much firmer ground.

I felt more confident, I felt much more myself, and that was deeply beautiful and very releasing.

For all of us I think, understanding God in this way gives us a much more rounded image, a fuller understanding of who God is and more entry points into connection, into prayer, and that's deeply spiritually healthy for us.

It creates lots of opportunities for growth.

So I hope that's been interesting, thank you ever so much for listening.

If you have any thoughts or questions then you can get in touch via the Loved Called Gifted Facebook page or through the website, it would be really really lovely to hear from you.

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Hope you enjoyed this episode of the Loved Called Gifted podcast. If you’d like to get in touch, you can email You can find a transcript of this podcast at and that’s also the place to go if you’re interested in the Loved Called Gifted course or if you’d like to find out about spiritual direction or coaching.
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