The Christian hermit is a well-known medieval image: a person who sought solitude and prayerful contemplation beyond even what the monastic life could offer. In the early centuries of the church, hermits, both male and female, often lived in complete seclusion in the desert, near other hermits for protection but entirely away from civilization. In fact, female ascetics who lived this way outnumbered males by a ratio of two to one.
Desert asceticism declined as Christianity pushed northwards. While male hermits often chose caves or huts in the forest, female hermits, for their own safety, inclined more towards solitary rooms attached to cathedrals or churches, where the ascetic could have complete privacy but also the protection of the religious community. Women who lived in this way were called “anchoresses.”
Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) was an anchoress who lived in a small cell built into the wall of St. Julian’s church at Norwich, England. She took the name of the church as her own; her real name is unknown. Very little is known about her life. When she was thirty she became ill to the point of death-- the last rites were even said over her. But on her deathbed she began experiencing a series of visions focused on the Passion of the Christ and the love of God for humanity. She recovered and wrote a book about her visions, her experiences in prayer, and her theology. Revelations of Divine Love is considered to be the first book in English written by a woman.
Julian became well-known as a counselor, and many came to hear her wisdom and receive her advice. Though she called herself “a simple, unlettered creature,” she was actually familiar with the writings of theologians and was more learned than she was prepared to admit. Like many women of her time, she found it was not acceptable for a woman to claim learning for herself or any basis from which to teach-- but she countered those who criticized her writings, because as a woman she was not allowed to preach, by saying that she was not preaching, but only being a witness to the light she had received.
Julian is remarkable in that she was possibly the first Roman Catholic writer to conceive of God as both Father and Mother. She wrote:
“As truly as God is our Father, so truly God is our Mother. . . I understood three ways of looking at motherhood in God: the first is the creating of our human nature; the second is His taking of our human nature (and there commences the motherhood of grace); the third is motherhood of action (and in that is a great reaching outward, by the same grace, of length and breadth and of height and of depth without end) and all is one love. (Ch. 59)
The mother can give her child such from her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with Himself; and He does it most graciously and most tenderly with the Blessed Sacrament which is the Precious Food of true life. And with all the sweet Sacraments He supports us most mercifully and graciously. . . This fair lovely word ‘mother’ is so sweet and so kind in itself, that it can not truly be said of anyone nor to anyone except of Him and to Him who is true Mother of life and of all. To the quality of motherhood belongs natural love, wisdom, and knowledge — and this is God….The kind, loving mother who is aware and knows the need of her child protects the child most tenderly as the nature and state of motherhood wills. (Ch. 60)”
Julian was not saying that God was female, but like Hildegard of Bingen, whom I wrote about here, Julian elevated womanhood by showing how the nature of God can be seen to include both male and female attributes, supporting the understanding that both male and female are made in God’s image. Jennifer A. Hudson summarizes:
“If women potentially share in the awesome creative and life-sustaining power of the Godhead and, likewise, the Godhead shares in the creative and life-sustaining power of women, then Christ as Mother reflects a gender-balanced nature within the Godhead, as He became a man through His incarnation. Moreover, Julian distinctly refers to Christ as ‘God our Mother,’ yet at the same time employs the use of the pronoun ‘He.’ [Julian’s understanding of] God fully encompasses masculine and feminine qualities.”
Jennifer A. Hudson, Medieval Forum.
Julian was never formally canonized but is commemorated in the Catholic Church on May 13 each year. Six centuries after her death, she was proclaimed “the greatest theologian for our time” by respected writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton. If you have ever heard the quote: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” you have heard the words of Julian of Norwich as she entrusted her fears for the world she lived in, to the God of love.
Daughters of the Church: Women and Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present, Tucker and Liefeld, Zondervan Publishing House (1987), p. 152-153.
Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature
Lectionary: Resources of the Episcopal Church
Christian Classics Ethereal Library
Biography by James Kiefer
New World Encyclopedia
Julian’s writings on the “Motherhood of God.”
About Julian of Norwich