The Wisdom Tradition
By Julian’s time there already existed a long and varied tradition of monks, scholastics, nuns, and visionary laywomen who referred to Wisdom, God, and Christ as generative and self-sacrificing, unconditionally loving, and spiritually nourishing. And this was described in maternal, though clearly metaphorical, terms. However, to define Jesus Christ as being truly our Mother, as fully as God is our Father; to make God’s Motherhood an indispensable cornerstone of her trinitarian theology; and to convey this theology directly to uneducated evencristens (fellow Christians) in the vernacular . . . these were Julian’s unique contributions to the tradition.
We do not know whether Julian ever read or heard sermons preached on the Wisdom literature, or if she even knew about the Latin tradition of monastic, scholastic, and continental writings that imaged God as a Mother. It seems highly unlikely. We do know that, in the course of writing her Revelations, she came to realize that since the Second Person of the Trinity gives birth to the entire creation (“for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him” Col 1:16), then Christ must be our essential and truest Mother. Julian centers her maternal theology entirely within the Trinity, in the ongoing act of creation, and in the divine process of oneing:
And thus in our creation God almighty is our natural father, and God all wisdom is our natural mother, with the love and the goodness of the holy ghost, who is all one God, one lord. And in the knitting and in the oneing he is our very true spouse, and we are his beloved wife and his fair maiden, with which wife he was never displeased. For he says: “I love thee and thou lovest me, and our love shall never be separated in two.”
A Mother's Service
Julian shows her easy familiarity with the role of mothering, and how Christ’s own maternal care is the paradigm for all earthly mothers, nurturers, and caregivers:
The mother’s service is nearest, rediest, and sekerest: nearest, for it is most natural; rediest, for it is most loving; and sekerest, for it is truest. This office might not nor could ever be performed to the fullest except by him [Christ] alone.
Again, in trinitarian fashion, Julian considers a mother’s service as most natural because it begins at the moment of conception and continues on long after birth; most accessible, for it is the continual presence of loving care and devotion; and (using one of her favorite words) sekerest because it is the most reliable, stable, and unconditional.
It should be noted here that the maternal role of nurturing children in medieval times was sharply distinguished from the paternal role of disciplining and punishing them (and, in the case of sons, training them for governance and the waging of war, or for a life of commerce or hard manual labor). In our post-modern era, the roles of mothering and fathering often overlap, collaborate, intertwine, and sometimes reverse. “Mothering” may be the work of either a mother or father or both. And, by extension, maternal care may be given by those who are not immediate biological mothers at all: grandparents, step-parents, foster parents, sisters, brothers, teachers, friends, mentors, counselors, spiritual directors . . . the list goes on. Therefore, when we hear Julian speak of motherhood, we should assume she is referring to all the noblest qualities and aspects of nurturing, teaching, guiding, healing, and inspiring (regardless of who provides them) that are necessary to raise a healthy, happy, productive, and responsible human being. And according to Julian, whoever is such a caregiver is doing the work of Christ.
Christ Our Mother
At another point, Julian envisions Christ as an earthly mother, large with child, carrying us in his womb during his life. And then, at the time of his passion and death on the cross, he goes into excruciating physical labor and suffers birth pangs more terrible than any woman could ever undergo. And then he dies in childbirth. Yet how many women whom Julian had known had also died in childbirth, while giving life to their children? It is an analogy that tears at her heart. Then she adds that even when Christ had completed the labor of the crucifixion, he wanted to do still more for his children.
Our Father wills, our Mother works, our good lord the Holy Ghost strengthens. And therefore it belongs to us to love our God in whom we have our being, reverently thanking and praising him for our creation, mightily praying to our mother for mercy and pity, and to our lord the Holy Ghost for help and grace. . . And from this sweet, beautiful working he shall never cease nor stop, until all his dearworthy children are born and brought forth. And that he showed when he gave the understanding of the ghostly thirst: that is, the love-longing that shall last till domesday.
Let us read and ponder Julian’s sublime teachings on the Motherhood of God during this 600th Anniversary year of her death. And with Julian’s guidance, may we all come to experience more and more of the unconditional love and mercy of Christ our Mother. Happy Mother's Day!
PLEASE NOTE: Quotations above are from Julian's Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013), Copyright © 2013 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. This article may not be copied or reprinted without the written permission of the author.