My thanks, as ever, to Chalcedon, who has stepped in when illness has, once more, prevented my writing. But on the road to recovery (I hope) I have not only had time to read his excellent opening post, but to collect some of my own thoughts. I want to come at this from a female perspective, not out of some feminist desire to claim Mother Julian as one of us (she wasn’t), but because I think (along with many far better qualified to comment) that her femininity brought a different perspective to our thinking on Christ. It is not one that our Lent Book gives too much space to, but it’s one worth exploring in the context of our reading of it all the same.
Women in the Middle Ages were not part of the formal academic/theological space. They were neither invited to contribute to theological conversations, not expected so to do. As Mother Julian says of herself:
God forbid that you should say or assume I am a teacher, for that is not what I mean, nor did I ever mean in; for I am a woman, ignorant, weak and frail. But I know well that I have received what I say from him who is a supreme teacher … Just because I am a woman, must I therefore believe that I must not tell you about the goodness of God, when I saw at the same time both his goodness and his wish that it should be known?Revelations of Divine Love, Short Text, Chapter 6
She had internalised what St Paul had said about it not being a woman’s place to teach. But she knew what she had seen, and she knew she had to tell others.
Here the fact that she was by the standard of the day “unlettered”, helped. “Unlettered” did not mean illiterate, but it did mean that she was not educated in scholastic methods of debate and of writing. From our point of view this was a bonus. Scholars, and others, still read Aquinas and some of the medieval schoolmen, but it can be a wearisome task. There were set methods of writing and debating, and it makes for dry reading. With Mother Julian we get the woman herself. Whether she wrote herself, or dictated it, we hear her cadences. She does not use Latin, neither does she employ technical terminology or cite authorities. No, what we get here is a woman’s voice – and one which speaks of God as mother.
Unless you happened to be a very important aristocratic woman, women in the Middle Ages seldom strayed outside the domestic sphere. Their space was the domestic space. We see this in the language and images Mother Julian uses. She describes the drops of Christ’s blood dripping down from the crown of thorns as pills, compares them to herring scales or raindrops falling from the eaves of a house. The dead body on the cross resembles a “sagging cloth” left out to dry. Mother Julian’s Christ is one who fits into that domestic sphere, who is one of us. She stresses God’s “homeliness” with us – that is his familiarity, his intimacy, his love – he is, she says in chapter 5, “everything we find good and comforting”.
One interesting development which follows from this is that Mother Julian sees Christ as
“God all wisdom is our mother by nature”, she wrote in chapter 58, and:
Jesus was “our true mother by nature” both because he created us, and then “by grace” for redeeming us. The crucifixion itself, she likened to the travails of child-birth, because through his agonies he opened to us the possibility of heavenly bliss. She sees the sacraments as his feeding us, as a mother does her child – and as the medievals believed that milk was reprocessed blood, the parallel with the consecrated wine and a mother’s milk would have been very real to Mother Julian.
This is a Christ who becomes motherly, welcoming, initimate with us as a mother is with her children – and that image extends to his dealings with us as sinners:
But often when our falling and our wretched sin is shown to us, we are so terrified and so very ashamed that we hardly know where to put ourselves. But then our kind mother does not want us to run from him, there is nothing he wants less. But he wants us to behave like a child; for when it is hurt or frightened it runs to its mother as fast as it can: and he wants us to do the same, like a humble child saying, ‘My kind Mother, my gracious Mother, my dearest Mother, take pity on me. I have made myself dirty and unlike you, and I neither may nor can remedy this without your special help and grace.’Chapter 61
As Our Lord said, we must become like little children to receive him, and here Mother Julian brings a mother’s insight to that saying. In this, she follows Our Lord himself who likens himself to a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings (Matthew 23:37) as well as Isaiah (49:15). What is absent from her revelation is the usual, male, image of God as the angry father.
This, of course, presented her, as a good Catholic who believed in hell and purgatory, with a problem, and it is to that I shall, God willing return.
#lentbookclub is on Twitter as #LentBookClub, Facebook as https://www.facebook.com/groups/LentBookClub, and is using The Way of Julian of Norwich by Sheila Upjohn which can be bought here rather than Amazon. It runs from Ash Wednesday 20210219 to Easter Sunday-ish 20210404 and we are doing a chapter a week, roughly. Folk who are blogging about this are Graham, at https://grahart.wordpress.com/, Andrew at https://www.shutlingsloe.co.uk/, Eric at https://sundrytimes2.wordpress.com/, Soobie at https://soobie64.medium.com/, Ruth at https://becausegodislove.wordpress.com/. Come join the pilgrimage with Julian to Norwich!