Julian of Norwich is Herself and Not Another

Today* many will be celebrating Julian of Norwich (c. 1342 – c. 1416), but I wonder which Julian they will be celebrating: the theologian and mystic, firmly grounded in the reality of late medieval England, or the construct of more modern times, the feminist avant la lettre with some eminently quotable things to say about the motherhood of God which can be (mis)used to undermine the patriarchy as part of a secularist agenda? I must confess to a personal interest because my community of profession played an important role along with the Bridgettines in the transmission of the so-called Long Text, and Julian’s Revelations were among the works that Fr Baker recommended the Cambrai nuns should study, as they and their descendants have done to this day.

For most of us, the world in which Julian lived is unfamiliar. The sights, sounds, smells, the way people wore their clothes, the way they spoke, the way they thought about authority and obedience and the differing roles of men and women, their very understanding of the earth they trod, was different fom ours. For a Catholic, there is the enormous advantage of sharing the same theological understanding of the sacraments and an awareness of the kind of devotional artefacts that were part of Julian’s everyday life — the crucifix, for example, that the priest held before her eyes.  But the differences are important. We have to make an effort to enter her world and understand what she was about.

I think Denys Turner is spot on when he says that Julian’s central concern is the problem of sin, which she called ‘behovely’ or expedient — in the sense that the Exsultet proclaims it ‘necessary’ on Easter Night, or as a scholastic theologian might call it conveniens or ‘fitting’. Too many people seem to assume that Julian was soft on sin. Nothing could be further from the truth. ‘And to me was shown no harder hell than sin. For a kind soul has no hell but sin.’ No hell but sin, it is worth thinking about that. How very different from our own tendency to excuse or play down the sinfulness of our lives!

This concern with sin is not at odds with what many find Julian’s most exciting idea, her emphasis on God as both mother and father. The idea is not unique to Julian, although she expressed it more memorably than most. Earlier in the twelfth century St Bernard and others had advanced the notion in characteristically inventive ways (see the excellent Caroline Walker Bynum,Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Age). It is here that the temptation to see Julian in purely contemporary terms most frequently arises. I think that is to do an injustice to the subtlety of her thought and to make the mistake of reading backwards into the past the preoccupations of our own day. Ultimately, the Revelations are not a manifesto, they are a meditation on the Passion, to be prayed over, thought over, savoured. Her vivid sense of God’s mercy and tenderness is one we all need to cultivate. We are not sinless, we are forgiven; and God waits for us to grow in grace so that sin and evil will no longer hinder us. In the meantime we have the promise of God’s infinite love and care: ‘Here I was taught by the grace of God that I should steadfastly keep me in the faith . . . and  at the same time I should take my stand on and earnestly believe in what our Lord shewed in this time — that all manner [of] thing shall be well.’

*Anglicans tend to celebrate Julian today, 8 May, while Catholics usually commemorate her on 13 May. I won’t be blogging on 13 May so I’ve followed the good old Catholic custom of anticipating.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Morning After #GE2015

There are advantages to being a nun when General Elections are held. One goes to bed at the usual hour then awakes to a world a-buzz with comment. Twitter this morning is awash with tweets containing a degree of infallibility that might surprise even the pope. For some, we face disaster; for others, a golden era beckons. Both are wrong. What we face is largely unknown. We know there will be some very important decisions to be made — about our place in Europe and the shape of the Union, for example — but the predictable is often blown out of the sky by the unforeseen. We are not just a small group of islands able to live wholly self-sufficiently. What happens in Washington, Beijing or Moscow, in the boardrooms of multi-nationals or on the streets of Syria or Iran, can have a huge effect on what happens here. Even the actions of a single rogue trader, manipulating stock markets, or someone anonymously hacking the IT systems of a nation state, can have immense consequences for us.

Today brings us not only the General Election results but also a reminder of VE Day, the seventieth anniversary, in fact. World War II may seem a distant event to many, but we live with its consequences, both good and bad, even today. As we remember those who gave their lives for the freedoms we now enjoy, and reflect sadly that the world is still at war in many places, we can also reflect on both the fragility and strength of our democratic processes. We need to pray for H.M. Government, H.M. Opposition, the Civil Service and all who have a role to play in the business of government and the implementation of policy. We may like or dislike individual parties and their policies, but the important thing is surely to try to do the best we can for everyone — to put into action what we, as Christians, often claim to have: a sense of moral purpose, a commitment to the common good, a desire to be of service to others. These are not small things, but they can be hard to achieve.

Many today will also be quietly celebrating Julian of Norwich and her wise and generous vision of a world in which all shall be well, because it is held fast by the hand of God. That hope and vision are a comfort and inspiration, but they require our co-operation to be realized. The General Election is the end of one process and the beginning of another, just as much as VE Day marked the end of the war in Europe and the beginning of the building of the peace. The one thing we can safely predict is that it isn’t going to be easy.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich is a good example of how we read texts selectively, imposing on them our own interests and preoccupations. To some she is a feminist theologian, defying male authority with her delicate understanding of the motherhood of God and her optimistic view of human nature. To others, she is the great seer of the Passion, whose lively imagination and homely turn of phrase brings Calvary before our eyes in painful detail. To others still, she is one of those gifted women who transcend conventional categories but whose prayerful quest for understanding has produced a theology of great subtlety and beauty. I would not myself call Julian a feminist, any more than I would call her a mystic (a term used in its current sense only since the seventeenth century). I think she is something much more interesting than that. She is a unique and challenging voice from the Middle Ages. Her Revelations of Divine Love are not meant to be merely read or commented on; they are meant to be engaged with, taken to heart, lived. We are not to be mere spectators of the Passion; we are to feel the drops of blood falling from Christ’s head, the drying wind that blew across Calvary; we are to meet him in his ‘stained and dirty kirtle’ and know him for our Saviour. Julian is much more systematic in her writing than might at first appear, and it is only gradually that her purpose unfolds. She is worth taking time and trouble over because her theme is Life itself.

Note: if you do not yet know this book by Professor Turner, I thoroughly recommend it:

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Exaltation of the Cross

The feast of the Exaltation of the Cross is a reminder of something many good and generous people try to forget: that our salvation was wrought on the wood of the Cross. Sometimes we are so keen to race ahead to the Resurrection that we do not allow Christ’s death to register with us as it should. The terrible drying wind that blew over Calvary was the greatest torment, according to Julian of Norwich, who saw the parching of Christ’s skin and the great drops of blood falling from his brow, like raindrops from the roof-thatch after a shower of rain. For years I ate my meals beneath a large crucifix which bore the single word, Sitio, I thirst; and somehow, in my mind’s eye, the agonizing thirst for our love and the cruel dessication of Christ’s flesh became one. Only with the Resurrection would the thirst be ended, the flesh become supple again; but first there was a death to undergo, as violent and painful as any.

This year the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross coincides with Yom Kippur. There is much in that we could reflect on, but perhaps what we most need to be reminded of today is that death and dying are not meaningless nor is sin ultimately triumphant. Death comes to each of us, but none of us knows how we shall approach our last moments. I hope — I pray — for the grace of a good death, one that is a sharing in his death; but I do not presume upon it. For the rest, nothing is lost; nothing is gone for ever. Even our moments of apparent defeat can be transformed by grace into victories.  Today our processional cross will be adorned with bay leaves as a sign of Christ’s victory, a victory won for all time on the wood of the Cross. In a world where there is so much violence and death is all too common, it is good to remember that.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Wind

The wind is blowing through the garden, making the apple trees rustle and sigh, tugging at the tomato plants and sending a shiver through the beans as they cling to their canes. One can see why wind is used as an image of God. It is powerful, mysterious, uncontrollable. We see its effects, but cannot trace its source. It shifts and changes according to its own inner dynamic, not our preferences. Perhaps that is why so many people are afraid of God. He is the ultimate mystery: powerful, unpredictable, inescapable.

Friday is a good day for reminding ourselves of the human face of God. Jesus Christ, with arms nailed to the Cross in an everlasting embrace, is surely not a terrifying vision; and yet, as Julian of Norwich mentioned in her Revelations, there is still that wind: the dry wind that passed over Calvary and parched the skin of Christ as he hung dying. If we think we have got God ‘taped’, if we think we understand, we are very much mistaken.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Mothering Sunday 2013

Mothering Sunday is an opportunity to think about what we mean when we speak of the Church as ‘Mother’. I suspect many no longer think or speak in those terms at all, or do so, more often than not, with self-conscious embarrassment. The Church is such a male-dominated organization, it is difficult to think of any very feminine characteristics. In English we can call the Church ‘it’ and avoid all the consequences of having to think of the Church and motherhood together. If we do, I think we lose something important.

First of all, there is that sense of personal connectedness. Sometimes people rage and rant about ‘the Church’ as though they had no part in her. The Church is then always something other, something to be resented, objectified, frankly treated with a kind of contempt. I can understand a secularist wanting to do that, but not a Christian. That stubborn female pronoun, that awkward designation as mother, is no mere accident of language. It reminds us that we are reborn in the waters of baptism which the Church administers, are nourished by the Word and Sacraments of which she is dispenser and guardian, and are finally led into the Kingdom through her prayers. Our salvation is personal. God doesn’t redeem abstractions— he redeems us.

The essential characteristic of the Church is that she is always feminine in relation to God. Every one of us, male or female, is feminine before God, a fact we often ignore because of our very human concerns about power and authority. Ultimately, each one of us will stand before God, utterly unable to help ourselves and reliant on grace mediated through the Church. Julian of Norwich saw in that moment the necessity of God’s being our Mother, as he is also our Father; and the connection between them is itself to be found in the Church*. That is not at all the same as some of the gendered theological reflection of recent decades, which has sometimes stretched orthodoxy to breaking-point. It is precisely because the Church is the locus in which we encounter God and experience grace that our thinking about her matters so much and needs to remain true to Christian tradition. It is also, incidentally, the reason why we celebrate the Church with such love and joy today — a love and joy which has spilled over into a celebration of all our mothers, living and dead.

Let us give thanks for this gift of motherhood, both natural and divine.

* I wrote about this more fully last year, here.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Mothering Sunday 2012

There are times when it can be very hard indeed to see the Church as our mother. The abuse scandals, the apparent harshness of some of her judgements, the inadequacy or incompetence of some her members, all conspire to make it difficult. But the lyricism of today’s liturgy reflects a profound truth. As Christians, born again of water and the Holy Spirit, the Church is truly our mother, nourishing us, nurturing us, setting us on the way to salvation. Teilhard de Chardin once remarked of the Church that it was like a mist surrounding the light, both revealing and concealing. There is only one way to reach the light itself, and that is by going through the mist.

Julian of Norwich wrote beautifully of the motherhood of God:

In our creation God Almighty is our natural father, and God all-wisdom is our natural mother, with the love and goodness of the Holy Spirit. These are all one God, one Lord. . . . The Second Person of the Trinity is our mother in nature, in our substantial making. In him we are grounded and rooted, and he is our mother by mercy in our sensuality, by taking flesh. Thus our mother, Christ, in whom our parts are kept unseparated, works in us in various ways. For in our mother, Christ, we profit and increase, and in mercy he reforms and restores us, and by virtue of his passion, death, and resurrection joins us to our substance. This is how our mother, Christ, works in mercy in all his beloved children who are submissive and obedient to him . . .

Christ our Lord is so ‘oned’ to the Church that his motherhood is now hers, just as his mother Mary is now ours also. That is a heartening thought, and hopefully an encouragement to all mothers* for whom this is not just Mothering Sunday but Mother’s Day as well.

*Our Facebook page contains our prayer intention for today which embraces all mothers, living and dead, and those who grieve because the gift of motherhood is not theirs.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Emmaus Moments

We read the Emmaus gospel twice during Eastertide, once during the Octave and again today, the third Sunday of Easter, but life is full of Emmaus moments: times when the veil is lifted and we see, as if for the first time, something that has been there all along but of which we had previously been unaware. These mini-revelations can become epiphanies, revelations of God himself.

Yesterday I went into the greenhouse to check on my seedlings and looked up to see the raindrops falling from the roof — beautiful iridescent drops of water, falling as thickly as those Julian of Norwich saw falling from the eaves of her house so many centuries ago. She likened them, if you remember, to herring scale, but what she was referring to were the drops of blood that fell from Christ’s head as he hung on the Cross. If you look, even here, on a rainy day in a quiet English village, you can can ‘see his blood upon the rose/and in the stars the glory of his eyes’. Emmaus moments are many.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail