The content of obedience: Julian of Norwich

I’ve alluded several times already, in this blog, to the scriptural narrative structures in which a woman – first Eve, then Mary – appears as the representative of humanity in general. This is a striking choice, which may reflect the general tendency of scripture (like some genres of folk tale) to foreground the excluded or less powerful, the younger, smaller, and poorer, the socially less esteemed.

There is a danger here, however. The relationship between God and humanity is, necessarily and properly, a dramatically asymmetrical one. The proper response of the creature to the creator is one of joyful obedience – although discerning the specific content of that obedience in the real world may involve a great deal of creative and complex work, and is very likely to lead to social and perhaps political disobedience, defiance of the spirits of the age. When a woman stands as the representative human creature, there is a risk that the appropriate deference of creature to creator may become confused with the widespread social expectation that women should behave, should submit to authority in general, that it is somehow natural for women to do so. And because it is apparently unthinkable for many readers that a female body might represent humanity tout court – because the female body is always the marked body, and only the male body is allowed to be unmarked, to be simply human — Mary (for instance) comes to be read not as the human creature in proper relationship with God, but the female creature specifically, behaving in a properly female and submissive way. In fact, the Mary of Luke’s gospel seems to combine, alongside a deep acceptance of God’s will and an alignment of her own desires with that will, a good deal of courage, social defiance, a revolutionary spirit, an unusual capacity for considered thought, and a strength and persistence which will carry her at least to Pentecost – a complicated mixture of qualities stereotypically “feminine” and those more usually considered “masculine.” (And, of course, the Joseph of Matthew’s gospel also demonstrates obedience and submission to God’s will, alongside great human loyalty and devotion).

There is also a risk that we may, in the reasonable desire to think about a God who contains and transcends human gender, simply to put both sides of the human gender binary into our picture of God and call the job done – to see God as having “feminine” aspects because we may see nurturance, self-sacrifice, receptivity, and even, within the Trinitarian dynamic, a kind of mutual submission. We do see all these things; but automatically to think about these as something like a female principle within God mostly serves to entrench our ideas about which characteristics should belong to which bodies in the human world. God is more complicated than that; and while gender is not as complicated as God, it is certainly complicated enough to require more nuanced treatment. We exist as bodies, complex and differentiated bodies which have profound particularized experiences of birth, joy, desire, work, illness, blood, and death, but which are also incorporated into the Body of Christ which extends beyond the possibilities of any individual body. We exist within, around, and against constructions of sex and gender, historically and socially inflected; we may claim or resist the categories given us, or we may find ways to do both at the same time. And in all this, we strive to define the content of our obedience.

One interesting example of a writer playing both with and against established ideas about God and gender, and in the process creating a new social category for herself, was the woman we call Julian of Norwich, a late 14th/early 15th century anchorite, enclosed in rooms attached to the church of St Julian, and one of the first creative vernacular theologians in the English language, at a time when the role of theological authority was not normally available to women. She was able to do this in part because she presented her work as a description of an intense visionary experience which she had, while suffering a serious physical illness, at the age of thirty; but in fact, the experience itself occupies very little of the text compared to her complex and subtle theological interpretations of it.

Julian’s work has suffered considerably from the pull-quote phenomenon, and she is best known for a few vivid sentences torn from their context, and frequently misunderstood. Many people are probably aware that Julian talks about Christ as our mother. This image was, in fact, quite common at the time, despite the fact that Julian is currently held up as if she were the first person ever to think of it. Caroline Walker Bynum has devoted an entire (very good) book to exploring the uses of this imagery in the later medieval period. For the most part, the writers she considers – almost all, except for Julian, men, many of them Cistercian monks, though some were Scholastic theologians — employed very traditional gender categories and simply transposed normal constructs of femininity onto the mother-Christ – tenderness, compassion, nurturance, and so forth. This in itself is surprising to modern readers, and can at least slightly destabilize our thinking about the nature of Christ, but it does not, very much, change what we think “men” and “women” in this world are supposed to be. Julian is doing something different, and something with little or no precedent.

I want to look especially at one intriguing feature of her book (I will refer here mostly to what scholars call the “Long Text”; as this name implies, there is also a “Short Text”, usually thought to be earlier) – Julian’s use of the identification of the Second Person of the Trinity as Wisdom. This identification is also not, in itself, original or even very unusual; there is a long tradition of theological reflection on Wisdom/Sophia, frequently identified with Christ. But Julian will use it in original and unusual ways, drawing Christ as Wisdom together with the image of Christ as our mother, reframing Christology, anthopology, gender and opening a way for her to reframe her understanding of her own self.

There are, of course, Biblical sources for Christ as Wisdom. But it might not have been strictly necessary for Julian to have encountered any of these passages directly (we do not know if she read the Bible herself, in translation or the vernacular) — the identification of Christ as Wisdom also appears in vernacular prayer books and devotionals of her period. In all of these, as in a slightly later morality play from the same region, Wisdom/Christ is clearly male, although the word is grammatically feminine in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Julian, however, uses the image of Christ as Wisdom in a quite specific and clearly gendered way; it is the middle term by which she reaches her particular idea of Christ as mother.

The only other person who seems to have made the triple identification of Wisdom, Christ, and Mother is the German mystic Eckhardt who, close in time to Julian though on another continent, writes: “Wisdom is a name for a mother. The characteristic of a motherly name is passivity, and in God both activity and passivity must be thought. The Father is active, and the Son is passive because of his function as the one being born. For the Son is Wisdom born from eternity in which all things are distinct.” Like Julian, Ekhardt loves paradox; instead of Julian’s image (which we’ll look at later) of our selves being endlessly born/borne in Christ, he evokes the image of a mother-Logos who is constantly both being born and giving birth. Unlike Julian, but in company with most theologians before and after him, Eckhardt falls back on some very traditional gender patterning, seeing femaleness and passivity as naturally related; and again, though it may be startling to see that passivity attributed to Christ, it leaves an imaginary and idealized female principle very much in place. But Julian, whether or not she was ever a mother herself, clearly knew far too much about mothering ever to imagine that “the characteristic of a motherly name is passivity.”

Like Eckhardt, Julian is interested in using Wisdom, and its suggestion of femaleness within God and specifically within the historically male Second Person of the Trinity, to explore the nature of mothering, and what it means to consider Christ as mother. But she takes this in a direction which no other writer had considered. Julian proposes that Wisdom/Logos is naturally considered as our mother in part because wisdom is, inherently, a maternal quality. “To the properte of motherhede longeth kynd, love, wysdom and knowyng, and it is god” In fact, “wysdom” in Julian’s text is not applied first to Christ, but to that exemplary mother Mary, whom Julian sees in the early moments of her visionary experience, able to receive God’s message because she is already characterized by “hyghe wysdom and truth.”

This is quite exceptional. “Wysdom and knowyng” were simply not qualities associated with mothers, or women in general, in medieval discourse. Maternal imagery might be positively associated with mercy and compassion – there is a truly disturbing example of this in Ancrene Wisse, where Jesus, like an abused wife, interposes himself between the wrathful Father and the disobedient child and accepts a death-blow in the child’s place, and rather less troubling uses in writers like Anselm of Canterbury and Bernard of Clairvaux, who give us a Mother-Christ who feeds, nurtures and cherishes us. But nowhere is it supposed that “wysdome and knowyng” are part of a mother’s work.

Julian, however, writing from the social world of women, is quite aware that a mother does not only give birth to a child and nurse it; she is largely responsible for shaping the child as a person, and this requires intelligence. “And evyr as it waxith in age and in stature, she channgyth her werkes, but nott her love … The moder may suffer the chylde to fall some tyme and be dyssesed on dyverse manner, for the one profyte, but she may nevyr suffer that ony manner of perell come to her chylde.”

This, our constant interaction with God as part of our development, is what Julian calls the “moderhed in werkyng” — a motherhood which does not, incidentally, require biological femaleness — and is one of three forms of motherhood which she sees in Christ, the other two being “oure kynde makyng” and “takying of oure kynde … moderhed of grace”. The first two are both roughly analogous to physical childbearing, and pertain respectively to Christ’s role as an agent of creation, which causes us to be one with God in our “substance” from our making, and to the Incarnation, which unites our fallen “sensuality” with our substance. In both, we see the “mutual enclosure” of God and the soul; “[h]yely owe we to enjoye that god dwellyth in oure soule; and more hyly we owe to enjoye that oure soule dwellyth in god”. Or to quote one of Julian’s most unusual images: “The depe wysdom of the trynyte is our moder, in whom we be closed … oure savyoure is oure very moder, in whome we all be endlesly borne and nevyr shall come out of hym.” Julian, obviously, feels no need to simplify gender; while she does not in any way present mother-Christ in a female persona (unlike some male Cistercian mystics, who came extremely close to doing so), it troubles her not at all to give us the picture of a male mother endlessly bearing us.

But in the third kind of motherhood, that of “werkyng,” we are called to imagine something else again, a human person changing, growing and developing in a relationship with God. Biological reproduction, even as an image, is not the whole of motherhood; the male mother who endlessly carries and produces us also forms us, teaches us, in an extended, developmental, even narrative shaping. It is here that we see the male-maternal Christ’s “wysdome” being actively employed – and perhaps not only Christ’s wisdom. Julian writes about an early visionary experience in her own life – but even more than that, Julian narrates for us the much longer story of how she came to understand the meanings contained in that vision. Julian’s interpretive process, her re-reading of the text of her experience, is a central part of the unfolding of revelation. The revelation does not exist as a thing separate from its experiencer and interpreter; it is only fully existent when Julian “reads” it and derives meaning. Julian’s wisdom and reason, then, become central.

As Mary was not only a passive recipient of divine intervention, but had to employ her own wisdom in order to perceive what God was saying and doing in her life, so too Julian, the mother of her own text, is both source and interpreter, and inseparable from it. And in positioning herself this way, she not only aligns herself with Mary, but understands her own interpretive and intellectual activity to be a part of God’s unfolding of knowledge in her life and in the lives of her fellow Christians, part of the ongoing relationship with the teaching mother who is Christ, in whom we are carried, and who is carried within us.

As Julian struggled with her understanding of her visions, she struggled as well with her own position as a woman, a body assigned to particular social roles and spaces, one not expected or normally permitted to be a “techere” or an interpreter of texts. And yet, she clearly understood that she had the authority not only of someone who had received a series of unique revelations, but also of someone who had the intellectual acumen to derive complex meaning from them. It would seem that motherhood, given her knowledge that good mothering requires not only compassion but also cleverness, became an important image, and her equation of Wisdom with motherhood, and thus the incorporation of mothering within the Trinity, turned into, among other things, a guiding metaphor which helped her find her own way. We can see, then, that Julian’s fascination with interpretation, and with her own project of constantly deeper readings of her visionary “text,” is nothing arbitrary or merely personal, but deeply theological, part of her understanding of how we are involved in our own constant process of “onying” with God. We are united with God through our creation and through the Incarnation, through Christ’s sacrifice for us and through our devotion to him; but we are also actively engaged, as interpreting creatures, in the process that is our “onying.”

All of this, of course, deals with only one small feature of Julian’s magisterial work, most of which is not about motherhood or gender at all. And the dilemmas she wrestled with in her time, with the particular restrictions and opportunities available in her social setting, are not the same as ours; for the most part, at least in the Anglican church, women do not need to undertake special theological manoeuvres in order to be recognized as capable of teaching authority. But there are, needless to say, many issues which women and queer people (as well as racialized people, and other marginalized groups) must confront in trying to live out their Christian commitments and particular vocations.

Julian’s perceptions that the body of Christ is impossible to tie down to rigid conceptions of gender, that mothering and the female body need not be entirely co-extensive, and that the production and reproduction of ensouled persons, both at the divine and at the human level, involves a kind of narrative unfolding which is by no means limited by biology, are capable of being usefully engaged in our current dilemmas. But primarily, I have presented this glimpse here in the hope that it might be an example of how theology can both use and subvert socially given gender categories in sometimes unexpected ways, and in that use and subversion take us at least some way towards the realization of our own contexts, eluding social captivity in the work of a deeper obedience to the Word.

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