This paper received an A in Berkeley Graduate Theological
Union's PLTS History of Christianity course.
Lover and Mother
Julian of Norwich, in Revelations of Divine Love paints a distinctive portrait of Jesus, focused on Jesus' love considered through the metaphors of lover and mother. Her image of Jesus casts light on the images we use to talk about Christ and offers hints for modern spirituality.
The Central Theme: Jesus' Love
It was at this time that our Lord showed me spiritually how intimately he loves us. I saw that he is everything that we know to be good and helpful. In his love he clothes us, enfolds and embraces us; that tender love completely surrounds us, never to leave us. As I saw it he is everything that is good. (67-8)
Julian's book, as its title indicates, is an exposition of her experience with the love of God as expressed in Jesus. The concreteness of this love, its intense and personal character, its unselfish giving nature, and its willingness to suffer for the loved one are the themes which she emphasizes. These themes find expression through two metaphors: Jesus as lover, and Jesus as mother. The passage above cites neither theme explicitly, but includes both themes implicitly; it can be read both ways.
As a lover, Jesus loves "intimately", "enfolds", "embraces", "surrounds", and "never leaves". Even the act of "clothing" is a lover's act (in that time and place). To someone in love, the lover is, indeed, "everything that is good".
A mother, also, loves "intimately", "clothes", "enfolds", "embraces", "surrounds", "never leaves", and is the entire world to the infant, "everything that is good".
Jesus the Lover
Julian develops a number of themes around Jesus the lover in sensual, earthy, and intense images and rhetoric. One does not fall in love with the fearsome ; a lover is approachable: .
Surely there can be no greater joy-at least as I see it-than that he, the most supreme, mighty, noble, and worthy of all, should also be the most lowly, humble, friendly, and considerate. (73)
The lover is also beautiful to the beloved:
We can say, I think, and believe with every confidence, that never was there a man as fair as he until that time that his beauty was marred by his suffering, his sorrows, his passion, and his death. (78)
A lover is devoted. There is nothing the lover would not do for the sake of the beloved:
And the kind Lord Jesus said, 'If you are satisfied, I am satisfied, too. It gives me great happiness and joy and, indeed, eternal delight ever to have suffered for you. If I could possibly have suffered more, I would have done so.' (96)
The lover longs for the beloved. Julian expresses the mutuality of this attraction:
For just as there is in God the quality of sympathy and pity, so too in him is there that of thirst and longing. And in virtue of this longing which is in Christ we in turn long for him too. (109)
Lovers long for union with each other:
'My beloved,' he says, 'I am glad that you have come to me. In all your trouble I have been with you. Now you can see how I love you. We are made one in blessedness.' (122)
Lovers are blind to the faults and failings of the beloved. Just so does Julian envision Jesus' relation with the sinner:
It is his will and plan that we hang on to him, and hold tight always, in whatever circumstances; for whether we are filthy or clean it is all the same to his love. (198)
A man will reckon some things to be well done, and others to be evil, but our Lord does not see them so. For as all natural things have been made by God, so all that has been done is in some ways God's doing.Ã¢â‚¬Â¦There is no doer but he. (81)
Here I came to understand how the Lord looks at his servant with pity, and not with censure. This passing life does not ask us to live altogether without blame or sin. He loves us eternally-and we sin constantly! (207)
It is in the suffering of Jesus that Julian finds the proof of his personal love:
'Behold and see that I have loved you so much that before I did actually die for you I would have died for you. And now I have died for you, and have willingly suffered all that I could. Now, all my bitter pain and mighty work has turned to my eternal happiness and joy-and to yours.' (100)
The pain he endured for our salvation was more than the whole body of mankind from the beginning to the end of time could experience or imagine. (94)
It is the will of Jesus that we should think carefully of the happiness of the Blessed Trinity over our salvation, so that we too, by his grace, should desire to have equal happiness. I mean, that as far as we can manage it, our delight in our salvation should be like Christ's. (99)
Christ the Mother
Julian is able to look at many of these themes as maternal metaphors as well. She sees the maternal relationship both abstractly
For Christ in his mercy works within us, and we graciously cooperate with him through the gift and power of the Holy Spirit. This makes us Christ's children, and Christian in our living. (158)
and concretely in terms of gestation and birth:
Indeed our savior himself is our Mother for we are for ever being born of him, and shall never be delivered! (164)
In our Mother, Christ, we grow and develop; in his mercy he reforms and restores us; through his passion, death, and resurrection he has united us to our being. (166)
Jesus' suffering is that of a mother giving birth. Julian re-works the image of Jesus "bearing" our sins and "bearing his cross" into a birth image "bearing" us into eternal life:
We know that our own mother's bearing of us was a bearing to pain and death, but what does Jesus, our true Mother, do? Why, he, All-love, bears us to joy and eternal life! Blessings on him! Thus he carries us within himself in love. (169)
Julian is able to image the eucharist and forgiveness in maternal terms:
The human mother will suckle her child with her own milk, but our beloved Mother, Jesus, feeds us with himself, and, with the most tender courtesy, does it by means of the Blessed Sacrament, the precious food of all true life. (170)
But we make our humble complaint to our beloved Mother, and he sprinkles us with his precious blood, and makes our souls pliable and tender, and restores us to our full beauty in course of time. (176)
In essence motherhood means love and kindness, wisdom, knowledge, goodness. (170)
Julian's images of Jesus powerfully enhance her spiritual relationship with him by using her womanhood in an affirmative gender-specific way. Only a woman (and one who has experienced a fulfilling marriage, at that) could comfortably and meaningfully experience the love of Jesus in the image of a lover. While anyone who has had a mother can relate to the images of maternal love which she presents, only a woman who has experienced pregnancy and birth can fully identify with the gestation and parturition imagery of Christ's passion and on-going actions.
This interpretation suggests that Jesus' masculine gender need not be a barrier women's spiritual experiences, but can be a powerful means of enrichment. In using maternal imagery of Jesus, she opens a way for her, by means of her female nature, to identify strongly with Jesus passion.
Julian's path is one which is difficult for a man to walk other than by empathy; it is not an inclusive path. Is there an equivalent way for men to understand, emotionally, God's love in Jesus?
It is noteworthy that Julian does not ever use "she" of Jesus, even when speaking of him as a mother. She does not want to make Jesus female or neuter, but seeks to find the points of contact between her female identity and Jesus' work and being. If she were alive at this time, she would be likely to feel that attempts to avoid using "he" in reference to Jesus attack a wellspring of her spirituality. Should we take this into account as we consider appropriate language within the church?
Why is Mother Julian's approach so little known in modern devotional literature? The monastic image of "bride of Christ" seems a pale and distorted reflection of her picture. Has distrust of the feminine or fear of sexuality suppressed her metaphors, or are they, for most people, useless or irrelevant?
Revelations of Divine Love has not been widely read in our day. Perhaps it is time that it should be.