Mother Jesus and Dame Julian
For people who think on such things, May 13th marks the day of medieval mystic Julian of Norwich.
I learned about her in my college English class. (I like to say that at St. Olaf College, I got a major in English and an unmarketable minor in medieval women mystics. Hmm. I don’t know how marketable the English major was either, in 1991, come to think of it….)
Dame Julian pulled me in. Her quiet, sensible, compassionate, and tender writing and love of God pulled me in.
I remember pressing my professor, “Did she really have these conversations with God? Did Jesus really come to her?”
That I have not a whiff of the mystical about me confounds and intrigues me about her all the more (I had an interesting albeit brief conversation at lunch yesterday. An intelligent and thoughtful man came up to me and asked how I liked OMG-ing. I said that I love thinking and writing and teaching about theology all the time. He replied that he imagined that the intersection of theology and spirituality must be fascinating. I paused, and said, “Well, I don’t do much spirituality, per se. I’m not particularly spiritual, I’d have to say.” This surprised him, and he said that he believes that theology is intrinsically spiritual. I said that I think for some it is, but the term “spiritual” is awfully nebulous to my ears. I preferred, perhaps, “relevant.” But that’s another blog).
The point is that mysticism is so out of my regular range of experience that my little spirit is stretched like taffy when I’m presented with it.
So geek that I was (am) I wrote a paper about Julian as a way to get nearer to her, to learn what “really” happened…and probably in hopes of a shot at a mystical experience.
She lived from around 1342-1423. It’s quite possible that she knew of Margery Kempe, another mystic (though possessing a less, um, certain and reliable mental and emotional equilibrium) and that she offered Margery comment and counsel. She may well have come from a wealthy family, as it seems clear that she was literate in English. That’s a big deal–a literate person let alone a literate woman in the 14th-15th century.
Her mystical experience occurred after an illness. She wrote about them soon after her “Showing,” and then again twenty years later. There are some alterations in the versions, but most avid readers of Julian don’t trouble themselves with these differences.
There is much to discover in Julian. But because this week follows Mother’s Day, and Julian wrote breathtakingly eloquently about the maternal nature of God, and the sensuality of God, we’ll linger there.
Historically, the ascetic ideal was to renounce that over which one had control.
So men gave up power and wealth.
Women gave up their bodies, often by way of fasting. (See Rudolf Bell, Holy Anorexia, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985, for a remarkable peek into the connection between women religious and eating disorders).
Despite a long line of well-known female ascetics and mystics who renounced food–even to the point of vomiting before the acceptance of Holy Communion–Julian had no need for that. While it’s probably true that as a religious anchorite she was aware of and even lived by customary expectations of moderate eating habits, she saw our bodies as a gift from God, and believed they should be treated with respect. She even has an entry about bowel movements signifying God’s abundant grace and concern:
For the goodness of God is the highest prayer and it comes down to us to meet our very least need…..So it is that a man walks erect; he eats the food for his body that is then hidden away within as it were in a fine purse. And when it is the time of his necessity, the purse is opened and shut again–modestly and without show. And that all this is God’s doing is shown by his words when he tells us that he comes down to the lowest part of our need. For he never despises that which he himself has made. Neither is he reluctant to serve our simplest office that belongs to our body in kind, because he loves our soul that he made in his own likeness. (First Showing)
Never thought about it like that before.
On to the mother imagery in Julian.
Julian thought of Jesus as Mother. The eloquent backdrop for this notion is here:
This fair word ‘mother’ is so sweet and so kind in itself that it cannot truly be said of anyone or two anyone except of him and to him who is the true Mother of life and of all things. To the property of motherhood belong nature, love, wisdom and knowledge, and this is God. (14th Reflection)
Now there’s something that we Christian feminists can embrace. This is no glorified Zeus-Omnigod. This is a God of compassionate, tender creativity and wisdom.
And the maternal Jesus meets us tangibly in Holy Communion:
The mother can give her child to suck of her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and does, most courteously and most tenderly, withthe blessed sacrament, which is the precious food of true life….That is to say [Christ says]: All the health and the life of the sacraments, all the power and the grace of my word, all the goodness which is ordained in Holy Church for you, I am he.
(As a geeky cool aside, in my poking around as a medieval woman mystic fiend, I discovered this explanation of breastfeeding from a medieval physician. “The pregnant woman has a vein coming out of the liver, called the ‘quilin’. It divides into two: one branch carries the blood to the breasts, and because of its new location transforms it into milk: the other branch goes to the womb.” That understanding of blood being transformed into milk makes the whole idea of a mother nursing a child/Christ nurturing his followers with his blood awfully, well, let’s leave it at symbolic.)
I have said often, including here on this blog, that the Greek word soteria is translated into English as ‘salvation,’ but the sense of it, the intended meaning of it is health, healing, and wholeness.
And Julian got it. Nature, love, wisdom, knowledge, health, life, power, grace, goodness.
We got ourselves some soteria going on here.
Julian’s notion of God is not harsh–quite remarkable for her time–and was maternal–quite remarkable even for our time.
Her most famous quote is found in the following passage, a passage that concerns the “end times,” an occasion that inspired as much fear in the hearts of some then as now.
But she broaches–and perhaps even crosses into–universalism with this revelation:
“It appears to me that there is a deed that the Holy Trinity shall do on the last day, and when that deed shall be done and how it shall be done is unknown to all creatures under Christ, and shall be until it has been done. — This is the great deed ordained by our Lord God from eternity, treasured up and hidden in his blessed breast, only known to himself, and by this deed he shall make all things well; for just as the Holy Trinity made all things from nothing, so the Holy Trinity shall make all well that is not well.
“And I wondered greatly at this revelation, and considered our faith, wondering as follows: our faith is grounded in God’s word, and it is part of our faith that we should believe that God’s word will be kept in all things; and one point of our faith is that many shall be damned, — And given all this, I thought it impossible that all manner of things should be well, as our Lord revealed at this time.~ And I received no other answer in showing from our Lord God but this: “What is impossible to you is not impossible to me. I shall keep my word in all things and I shall make all things well.”
(Add challenger to Church dogma to her list. No wonder I like her! But even during a time of death to heretics [many women religious were dragged to their death right outside her cell] Julian is not afraid to say, “You have heard it said, but now I say unto you…..”)
If “making all things well” is not what mamas do, then I’m not only not a mystic, I’m also not a mama.
There’s no indication that Julian was a mother.
But she knew a mother when she saw him.