Women in Church History Part 4: Julian of Norwich and Christ our Mother

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I wanted to post about Julian of Norwich after a suggestion on a comment thread. She has always stood out to me because in my introductory Church History course I learned how she “lived in a small cell built into the wall” of the church (Ruth A. Tucker and Walter A. Liefeld, Daughters of the Church, Zondervan, 1987, 152). Her willingness to live like that struck me the first time I was taught about this period. Going to a Protestant seminary, you often heard many people decrying the monastics for their “removal from every day life.” Frequently someone would ask, “How is it living the Gospel if you remove yourself from society?” That is a different conversation for another time.

Back to Julian. She had 16 visions after an illness and wrote them down in a document later known as Revelations of Divine Love (Tucker, 152). Reading through this text one is struck by some of the more poignant metaphors and descriptions of God, Christ, and the Trinity. For example she writes, “He [Christ] is our Mother, brother, and savior” (Revelations, ch. 58). Calling Christ our mother in the fourteenth century seems to be pretty progressive. She describes that Christ “is our Mother of mercy” (ch. 58).

Julian’s description of Christ as our mother provides readers, especially today, with an expanded understanding of the Trinity. If we have elements of both Father and Mother in our trinitarian thought, then we might be able to see past much of the patriarchal traditions of the church. God is father of creation, God is mother of mercy and love. Putting aside a discussion of parental gender roles, many people see mothers as nurturing and loving. If we parlay these characteristics to God and Christ, we therefore might be able to live out a desirable faith, one that loves and nurtures others instead of one that simply preaches doctrine. The church today needs more of a nurturing and loving character. While some people might immediately dismiss her teaching of Christ as our mother simply because “she can’t say that about Christ,” they might miss the richness and applicability of such thinking.

I want to close by noting a small example of how Julian’s teaching can be applied today. I have been a part of several different church bodies over the last 15 years. I have seen churches royally botch how they treat individuals. One such instance was in a past church in which women were relegated to only being able to teach/ instruct children until they were 13. After that, the only teaching that these kids could receive had to come from men. Unfortunately, some women really struggled with their roles in this church simply because they didn’t feel they were called to ministering to kids (usually one of the only ministry roles afforded them other than singing in the choir). Similarly, every Sunday the sermons would use non-inclusive language (as did many of the songs). I heard a few people speak about how the very language of the sermons and songs made them feel less included as well (Can I apply this to me? Am I allowed? Is he using “men” for all people, or really just for men?). Imagine how the women in that congregation would have felt if one Sunday (OTHER THAN MOTHER’S DAY) the pastor said, “Today I want to talk about how Christ can serve as our mother.” If nothing else, Julian of Norwich teaches us today that language matters. Pastors and teachers need to expand their metaphors, remembering that our language can and does ostracize others.

Do ascetics that wall themselves up live out the gospel and have as big of an impact on the world versus those who don’t? Well, I think it’s pretty clear that Julian of Norwich did and does.

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One thought on “Women in Church History Part 4: Julian of Norwich and Christ our Mother

  1. @ Dan,
    I think you are right, if a Christian expands their view of God to include feminine aspects as Julian did in the Trinity, it can fight patriarchal tendencies. Likewise, the further the view of God is expanded, for example, adding non-Judeo-Christian images, say imagining Buddhist Ta̅ra̅ as part of the Trinity, then Christian exclusiveness can be changed.

    But you see, some would argue that if you want to change the Trinity, you step on to a slippery path. They are right. But heck, if you can surf, a slippery path is fast and fun! 🙂

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