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Julian of Norwich: A Feminist or Mainstream Theology of God?

A fully referenced version of this paper is available upon request.


Evelyn Underhill, in considering Julian of Norwich’s theology, rightly remarks that Julian ‘stands out with peculiar distinctiveness… an attractive and also astonishing figure.’ In her mediaeval contextual use of societal pain and spiritual metaphor, including the use of female images for the divine, Julian’s spirituality at a surface level, appears mainstream. However, unlike other writers from the medieval period who seek to use these images as a rhetorical means for invoking a spiritual and emotional response, Julian uses the contextual feminine motif of motherhood to reimagine the very nature of God; the feminine in this way becomes the key to understanding Christian Doctrine. This paper proposes that Julian’s development of the feminine is so extensive and so significant that whilst Julian’s spirituality, in her context, can be considered both concurrently mainstream and feminist, Julian’s theology is in fact fundamentally feminist.


Julian was born in Norwich around 1342, in a context of significant social turmoil, religious change, war and perhaps most significantly plague, killing as much of half of Norwich’s’ population during Julian’s life time. Julian lived for approximately 80 years and spent a significant proportion of this time as an anchoress, confined within a cell attached to St Julian’s Church in Norwich. During a near death experience, sought by Julian in order to gain closer union with Christ, Julian was given 16 ‘showings’ or divine revelations. In what would become the first book in English written by a woman, Julian recorded her visionary experiences in a ‘short text’ and following 20 years of reflection in a ‘long text’ where she sought to explain the theology of her experience.


Julian’s spirituality reflects mainstream theology and devotion in that it reflects the chaos and many tragedies of the mediaeval period. The 14th century for England was a time of war, uncertainty and devastating plague and in this context Christ’s suffering on the cross was seen as a powerful act of solidarity and therefore a source of strength and hope. Julian’s focus on the cross and her message of ‘all shall be well’ becomes intensely powerful in this context of grief, loss, poverty and insecurity. Such uncertainty is understood to have supported an increasingly individualistic understanding of society and religious experience and this is reflected in the English mystical tradition at this time where spiritual devotion became increasingly personal, reflective and vernacular. Julian’s showings like mainstream texts from this period such as Margery Kempe’s ‘The Book of Margery Kempe’, Walter Hilton’s ‘Scale of Perfection’, ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ and the works of Richard Rolle all reflect this personal and vernacular spirituality.


The focus on a personal encounter with God saw a decreased emphasis on Christ’s glorification and an increased emphasis on Christ’s humanity; it was through understanding Christ’s incarnation and most specifically his passion that unity with God could be achieved. Julian, along with other 14th century mystics such as Marguerite d’Oingt and Margery Kempe, can therefore be seen to represent the mainstream spirituality with their focus on Christ’s incarnation and critically an emphasis on his passion where Christ’s wounds became understood as agents of blessing. Through encounter with Christ’s bloodied brokenness it was understood that Christians could experience God, become infused with divine love and ultimately become reunited with God. The process of closer union with God, through Christ’s passion, became particularly closely associated with women mystics who sought ever deeper union with Christ’s passion by sharing physical suffering, for example through extreme asceticism (St Claire of Assisi), flagellation (St Catherine of Siena) and illness (Julian). The Ancrene Riwle, a guide to anchoresses written in the 13th century, supports this process as giving honour and support to the soul in its search for God. Julian and her spirituality in this context can be seen as fundamentally mainstream as her revelations are understood through her prayer, desire and ultimate fulfilment of three gifts: identification with Christ suffering on the cross, physical sickness to the point of death in order to become close to Christ and the reception of three wounds.


As part of this spirituality, in the later mediaeval period, the understanding of God and specifically of Jesus as feminine became increasingly mainstream and this is reflected strongly in Julian’s long text. The metaphor for the feminine divine during the medieval period was perceived through the prevailing Aristotelian physiological theory which understood the physical body (including bodily liquids) as coming from women and spirit coming from man. In seeking to understand Christ’s humanity therefore the church and the active laity increasingly understood the incarnate Jesus through the ‘feminine’. God’s feminine nature was specifically understood through ‘feminine’ biological characteristics defined by stereotyped ideas of motherhood which can be summarised as generative, sacrificial, loving, tender and nurturing. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) in his guidance for good ordering of Cistercian communities through motherly qualities and St Anselm's (1093-1109) Prayer of St Paul affirming Christ’s motherly care are examples of this movement. Spiritually these qualities and attributes could be displayed, seen and experienced through the feminine metaphors of blood, milk and other bodily secretions. This imagery became potently mixed with images of Christ, his bloodied passion and the Eucharist where Jesus can be seen for example in devotional works of art as feeding and nurturing believers from his breast or wounds with blood as if his blood were milk. In this way, Jesus, his bloody sacrificial actions and associated sacraments became intertwined with the feminine and specifically with positive images of motherhood (love, comfort and nourishment).


Julian’s showings closely reflect this mainstream spirituality and her texts are rich with images of Christ’s blood (Ch 3 and 4) which are for example potentially analogous with the purging action of menstrual bleeding. In Chapter 59 Christ shares our humanity through the ‘motherly’ qualities of kindness and care including his generative agency for humanities salvation. In Chapter 60 Jesus’s life sustaining agency as mother is described through the metaphor of feeding humanity through the wound on his side (his ‘blessed’ breast) and in Chapter 24 this wound is likened to the womb where we are formed and nurtured in faith and feed by blood and water. Whilst Julian’s and the wider church’s use of feminine language could be seen as a feminist re-appropriation of the divine, Bledsoe and Ruether argue that this physiological mystical tradition is mainstream and not feminist because it fails to challenge the fundamentally patriarchal doctrine of Christianity and it actively perpetuates the subordination of women through its binary and traditional concepts of feminine.


This paper suggests that whilst Julian is influenced by the trauma of her context and her texts appear mainstream with their extensive use of the prevailing spiritual metaphors of her time, the theology underlying Julian’s text is radically counter cultural and feminist. Unlike other mystics and writers of her time, Julian is not using the understanding of God as mother as a rhetorical image to specifically invoke an emotional response or to simply engage with the humanity of Jesus. Rather Julian is using the divine feminine as the means by which humanity can better understand the very nature and purpose of God and the economy of the trinity; Julian is creating a radically new doctrinal understanding of Christianity. Julian’s approach is fundamentally feminist through its consistently positive affirmation of the feminine with no implication of differentiated strength, priority or value associated between gendered characteristics. God is either identified as feminine and/or given consistent feminine actions or characteristics throughout her entire text. For Julian salvation is the agency and character of the feminine which is stereotyped in her context as motherhood. Christ as mother has unique abilities to achieve salvation (Ch 60) where Christ is seen to take on suffering for her offspring, die on the cross, provide sustenance like a mother does for her child and give birth to a new spiritual life (Ch 59). Julian’s theological assertion of motherhood and feminine into the Trinitarian doctrine is both daring and extraordinary and the following three key areas will be explored in order to fully appreciate her feminist audacity: imminence, unconditional love and mercy.


Mediaeval theology was dominated by a number of powerful gendered theological images including the dominance of God’s transcendence being a masculine function and God’s imminence being a feminine function. The masculine transcendence of God can be seen as dominant in many of Julian’s contemporaries for example Rolle and Hilton see God as high up and separate from the earth. Julian on the other hand understands God as the feminine imminent, as the God of all and any direction but perhaps especially the ground, as God is the foundation and the earth in which our faith is rooted. The ground, as part of creation, in its blessing, is filled with the presence of the divine (Ch 59) and Julian in stating this contradicts mainstream mediaeval thinking concerning contemptus mundi, the idea of the fallen and inherently sinful and corrupted nature of creation and humanity. For example The Cloud text describes humanity as a ‘foul stinking lump’ which must be ‘hated and despised and for sake of if he shall be God’s perfect disciple.’ For Mary Daly this understanding of contemptus mundi has perpetuated ‘a negative attitude toward sexuality, matter, and ‘the world’ and perpetuated patriarchy by ensuring women personified “all those aspects of reality which they believed should be feared, fled from, denied, despised.”


Julian’s extraordinary deviation from this understanding can be best seen in Chapter 6 where she describes how God attends to us in our times of need and trial because ‘he does not despise what he has made, nor does he disdain to serve us in the simplest functions that belong to body by nature.’ Julian’s feminist understanding of God’s imminence and as part of this the goodness of creation goes on to develop a radically different understanding of sin from mainstream contemporaries. Whilst sin is present it is not dominant or uncontrollably powerful instead, as a product of humanity, it is unable to corrupt, damage or somehow reduce the essential blessing and goodness of humanity and all creation. Sin is seen as being blinded, in falling and of something of darkness. For Fox, Julian’s spirituality is an antidote to Augustinian views on comtemptus mundi and salvation where Julian can be understood as rejecting the theology of ‘cleansing from sin’ and embracing a theology of awakening to divine potential, divine beauty’. In Julian’s theology we are not destroyed, chastised and cleansed but instead invited to grow and awaken to the reality and blessing of the divine who is imminent and present in everything. For McNamer this spirituality is fundamentally feminist because Julian’s understanding of sin and salvation is based on the maternal image of God, not the judging patriarchal image of her contemporaries.

Julian writes of God’s love as ‘strong and marvellous’ and something that ‘may not nor will not be broken by our offences’ and in this way can be seen as the unconditional love of the mother (Ch 61). Hilton, Rolle and The Cloud author for example develop ideas of conditional love often utilising urgent rhetorical language connected with haste, challenge and ascent. In radical contrast Julian rejects competition and is instead concerned with nurture and growth using the metaphor of a child for spiritual growth and Christian transformation (Ch 63). Julian in supporting this maternal perspective rejects combative and competitive language and instead uses a rich array of passive constructs to highlight the unconditional nature of God’s love which does not have to be won. Julian’s theology can therefore be seen as radically challenging mainstream patriarchal and juridical concepts of atonement and the purpose of the crucifixion that have led many feminists to reject the traditional ‘phallocentric cross’ and its requirements for payment and action.


Tuve describes the mediaeval understanding of mercy and justice as highly gendered with justice being closely related to God the Father and mercy being understood as feminine and associated with the Mary, the Mother of God. Julian in her Parable of a Lord and Servant, in contrast to mainstream mediaeval thinking, does not subordinate mercy for justice. Julian’s understanding of the fall and redemption seen in this parable verges on the subversive spiritual understanding of universal salvation and Wolters response is to identify it as heretical: ‘such a view is very comforting, but is not the Catholic faith, and it is surprising in one who otherwise is scriptural in her teaching’. Indeed, Julian in Chapter 32, reflects on the mainstream understanding of the church which is of judgement and damnation and is troubled by the revelation of love and compassion that makes all things well and where there is no place for judgement and damnation. In Julian’s parable, the presiding virtue and action of God is not justice and it is also not forgiveness. Instead of forgiveness with its implication of systematised rules, regulations and consequences it is God’s compassion which can be seen in the compassionate regard and care by God for the suffering servant.


McName asserts that this spirituality is fundamentally counter cultural and feminist. Whilst the Lord in the parable is described as male the characteristics assigned to the Lord are those that Julian explicitly assigns to those of the feminine most specifically mercy, care and nearness. Finally Julian’s specific description of the Lord’s cloak in the parable is unusual and directly analogous to a very significant representation of the Mother of God as the ‘Virgin of the Mantle’ - a representation that is understood to represent the ’feminine element in the Trinity.’ In describing the Lord wearing a blue cloak Julian establishes the action of the Lord as feminine and this action as central to the parable and therefore God’s action within the world. Julian re-appropriates mercy and compassion from the Virgin Mary and places it appropriately and centrally to God’s loving and saving action within the world.


In conclusion, within a context where women were subordinated and not able to speak, Julian’s texts and her proposed theology automatically establish her as a feminist. Julian’s development of the feminine is so extensive and so significant that whilst Julian’s spirituality, in her context, can be considered both concurrently mainstream and feminist, Julian’s theology is in fact fundamentally feminist. Despite her repeated claims of limited capacity (Ch 2) and her ongoing deference to the established church, Julian uses mainstream spiritual metaphors and motifs skilfully to develop a spirituality that is radically counter cultural. Her doctrine of motherhood is feminist in the sense that it is not proposing a matriarchy but a radical new fraternity based on the understanding that God as both mother and father are complementary to one another and are equal. Julian, in taking the subordinate role of mother and reinterpreting the motherly traits of the mediaeval period as positive, active and divinely powerful, she creates a spirituality that turns mediaeval understanding of God, gender and therefore potentially society on its head. In wanting to share these revelations with all people and in a context where church and society are effectively one, Julian’s spirituality can be seen as the product of an active ‘feminist consciousness’ - an awareness and understanding that her theology’s application could lead to ‘an alternative vision of societal organisation in which women as well as men can enjoy autonomy and self-determination’. Today the mediaeval metaphors of Julian’s revelations have left them, at first glance at least, inaccessible and potentially irrelevant. Julian’s feminist theology underlying these metaphors however continues to have a very important and significant impact on the church. Whilst Julian’s understanding of gender is very much limited by her context, the ongoing patriarchal nature of the church means this gift of divine love, after nearly 700 years, remains essentially relevant and therefore powerfully pertinent, provocative and prophetic.





Bibliography

References to Julian’s Showings are taken from: Julian of Norwich, Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love, ed. by E Spearing (London: Penguin, 1998).

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