Is God a Woman? The Visions of Julian of Norwich
Here is a vision shown by the goodness of God to a devout woman, and her name is Julian, who is a recluse at Norwich and still alive, A.D. 1413, in which vision are very many words of comfort, greatly moving for all those who desire to be Christ’s lovers. (Julian of Norwich, Showings)
On the 13th of May 1373, a thirty year old woman from Norwich, known by the name of Julian of Norwich, was struck by a serious illness, as a consequence of which she experienced sixteen illuminative visions of the Passion of Christ and the Virgin Mary. The visions came to her in the moment of, what she believed to be, her death. Allegedly, lying in bed, she all of a sudden began to see, reflected in a crucifix held in front of her face, a series of details from Christ’s Passion. The visions lasted for many hours. Soon after they ended, she is said to have recovered from her illness. Afraid of her fallible memory, she immediately decided to put into writing all that had happened to her. Her recollections are known in two versions: Short Text and Long Text. The latter was eventually published under the title Revelations of Divine Love (or Revelations of Love), believed to be the first published book in the English language written by a woman (the book was written in Middle English).
“Julian is … one of the figures of history whom we feel that we can come to know very well, and yet who simultaneously remains an enigma. Her book recounts in detail the most intimate experience of her life: ‘a revelation of love which Jesus Christ, our endless bliss, made in sixteen showings’. She is forthright in talking about her own thoughts and feelings insofar as they develop that theme of the love of God. She speaks of her prayers, her severe illness and her whole-making, her perplexity and delight, her experiences of wretchedness and joy. Yet she never dwells on the experiences or sensations, unusual as they are, for their own sake: she says nothing about them except what is germane to understanding the central theme of the message of God’s love. Where talking about herself furthers this purpose she is utterly uninhibited. Where it does not, she is silent.” (Grace Jantzen, Julian of Norwich: Mystic and Theologian).
The fact that Julian tells us very little about herself, her life and relationships with other people, simply means that what she does say takes on enormous significance. In her recollections she only mentions a few people: her mother, the priest by her ‘deathbed’ and a boy assisting him, and a person (man or woman) about whose fate she seeks assurances from God. The major focus in her writing is built around her visions, supported, as in the Long Text, by her theological reflections and dialectical reasoning. One of her more interesting thoughts refers to God as our mother. She begins her reasoning from the Virgin Mary saying: “our Lady is our mother in whom we are all enclosed and we are born from her in Christ; for she who is mother of our Saviour is mother of all who will be saved in our Saviour”. After which she adds: “And our Saviour is our true mother in whom we are eternally born and by whom we shall always be enclosed.” (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love). “Julian begins by associating God’s motherhood especially with Christ, the second person of the Trinity, identified with divine wisdom, which was traditionally personified as female (Sapienta): ‘God all wisdom is our mother by nature’ and ‘the great power of the Trinity is our father, and the deep wisdom of the Trinity is our mother, and the great love of the Trinity is our lord’ (chapter 58). She then focuses on two less abstract aspects of motherhood, creation and nourishment. God gave birth to humanity, but he also became human himself, ‘And so Jesus is our true mother by nature, at our first creation, and he is our true mother in grace by taking on our created nature’ (chapter 59). But the agony of the crucifixion was also an act of giving birth, by which human beings, born of their human mothers to pain and death, were reborn through Christ’s ‘pangs and… sufferings’ (chapter 60) to the possibility of heavenly bliss. And the body that dies in its birth-pangs on the cross remains a source of generous maternal nourishment for humanity: ‘So next he had to feed us, for a mother’s dear love has made him our debtor. The mother can give her child her milk to suck, but our dear mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and he does so most generously and most tenderly with the holy sacrament which is the precious food of life itself.” (Revelations…)
This clear emphasis on the feminine aspect of the Divine was revolutionary in the 14th century. It seems that her religious visions empowered Julian of Norwich, who acquired the voice of a groundbreaker. Becoming the first female writer in the English language, and a serious theological theorist at, that makes her one of the first ever European feminists.