May 8 and May 13 are the feast days of Lady Julian of Norwich (1342-1416). She was the first woman to write a surviving book in the English language: Revelations of Divine Love.
Julian was an anchorite, an early form of the Christian monastic. She lived in a simple room attached to the local church, receiving meals and participating in church services through different windows. Julian spent most of her time connecting mystically to God. Eventually, she also wrote and gave spiritual guidance to those who came to her.
When she was 30, God healed Julian of a serious illness. At that time she had a series of visions of Jesus on the cross. One writer said that Julian had what we might now describe as a Near-Death Experience, which I thought was an interesting idea. Her visions radically changed her and she spent the rest of her life writing down the things she learned from them.
Julian’s Vision of the Motherhood of God
I spent some time last night reading the most popular articles about Julian on the Internet. They seem to avoid mentioning her use of the metaphor of mother for God. However, this is an important aspect of Julian’s theology. She emphasizes the unconditional love and mercy of God. And she explicitly calls God, Jesus and the Spirit “Mother” as well as “Father.”
She wasn’t the first to do so in her time. Bernard of Clairvaux, the Cistercian reformer and abbot who lived a century before Julian, often used the metaphor of mothering for God and for himself in the tradition of St. Paul. Several of his followers did the same, as did the church fathers before them. (See my recent post on “Jesus as Mother: A Brief History“).
Here are some highlights from Lady Julian’s writings:
“As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother.”
“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 tenderly, with the blessed sacrament, which is the precious food of true life….The mother can lay her child tenderly to her breast, but our tender Mother Jesus can lead us easily into his blessed breast through his sweet open side.”
“So he wants us to act as a meek child, saying: My kind Mother, my gracious Mother, my beloved Mother, have mercy on me. I have made myself filthy and unlike you, and I may not and cannot make it right except with your help and grace.”
“So we see that Jesus is the true Mother of our nature, for he made us. He is our mother, too, by grace, because he took our created nature upon himself. All the lovely deeds and tender services that beloved motherhood implies are appropriate to the Second Person.”
Still Grappling with the Mother Metaphor
Lynn Japinga, author of Feminism and Christianity, writes, “Julian’s work was preserved, but the church has only recently begun to grapple with the implications of her theological insights.” I’m not so sure they’ve even begun. Julian is one of the few women of church history recognized as having written theology, but the church still overlooks her use of the mother metaphor for the members of the Trinity.
Let’s use her feast days (May 8 in the Anglican and Lutheran churches; May 13 in the Catholic) to remember both Julian’s work and the permission we have to call God Mother.