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.

Women in Church History, Part 2: Saint Monica, the Prayer Warrior

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In my last post, https://dansalyers.wordpress.com/2014/02/21/women-teachers-in-church-history-part-1-perpetua-and-felicity/, I looked at an account of two powerfully faithful women from North Africa. This post examines another such woman: Saint Monica. One of the most striking accounts of her faith is presented to us in Saint Augustine’s Confessions. Throughout the work, Augustine recounts how Monica, his mother, continuously prayed for him to be delivered from falsehood to the truth of Christianity (Confessions, 6.1). Augustine portrays her as a true prayer warrior: “She poured out her tears and her prayers all the more fervently, begging you to speed your help and give me light in my darkness. She hurried all the more eagerly to church, where she listened with rapt attention” (6.1).

Monica’s prayer for Augustine continued to not be answered as he simply moved away from Manichaeism, not all the way toward Christianity. One thing that jumps out to me is that although Augustine had left the Manichees and was attending Ambrose’s church in Milan, Monica did not yet consider her prayer answered. We see quite the opposite in fact, in the quote above that she prayed “all the more fervently.” It’s clear that Monica sees God moving in her son’s life and finds hope and renewed dedication to her prayer life.

Now, if you haven’t read Confesssions, Monica is a major figure in Augustine’s faith. He remembers her prayer life throughout his own journey to faith, even though it took several years for him to eventually become a Christian. Augustine recounts how Monica reacted to news of his conversion. “For she saw how you had granted her far more than she used to ask in her tearful prayers… you turned her sadness into rejoicing, into joy far fuller than her dearest wish.” (8.12).

Monica’s repeated prayers for Augustine are rewarded after years and years of his defiance and forays into a life of sin. She models for Christians today how to be faithful in prayer, trust God for full and good rewards, and how to be persistent in the life of the person for whom she prays. She follows Augustine to Milan, after all. In praying for someone, it’s easy to simply jot down that prayer request from them and pray it each day so that it becomes routinized, without following up with the person and his or her needs. I think Monica models how to be involved in the life of the person/ persons for whom you are praying.

While I think Monica’s example is important for Christians today, I have also heard her example used in a negative way. I have unfortunately been in churches that greatly restrict women’s roles in the community and essentially give them the example of Monica as a consolation prize. The dialogue goes something like, “You can’t have an active leadership role in our church, but you should remember how Monica was content to pray for her son, and look how he turned out! You have a great responsibility to pray for your kids!” Although I agree that both a FATHER and a mother should pray for their children daily, I think often women are seen as the only ones who are responsible for praying for their children. I do have to say, however, that I have directly benefited from the prayers of some very faithful women in my life: my mother and my grandmothers.

I think Monica’s example of a prayer warrior can speak to both men and women today. Be diligent and faithful in your prayer life. Pray regularly, passionately, and with hope. Suffer in your prayers as she did. Be a part of the lives of those you pray for as much as possible. Above all, trust in God -especially when you don’t see your prayers answered. After all, Monica didn’t see an answer to her prayer for over ten years.