Academic journal article Magistra

The Androgynous Mysticism of Julian of Norwich

Academic journal article Magistra

The Androgynous Mysticism of Julian of Norwich

Article excerpt


Bridai mysticism, while not exactly conspicuous by its absence in Julian's Showings, is rare. She occasionally calls Christ a spouse, but she prefers the word "mother." Her focus on maternal imagery, however, is in no way exclusive. She also uses paternal, fraternal, and other images, very often in consecutive sentences, or even in the same sentence:

And thus I saw that god enjoyeth that he is our fader, and god enjoyeth that he is our moder, and god enjoyeth that he is our very spouse, and our soule his lovyd wyfe. And Crist enjoyeth þat he is our broder, and Jhesu enioyeth that he is our savyour. Theyse be v hye joyes, as I vnderstonde, in whych he wylle that we enioye, hym praysyng, (hym) thankyng, hym lovyng, hym endlessly blessyng, alle that shall be savyd (Showings 546).(2)

This article will first examine the fluidity of Julian's imagery, the way in which she combines masculine and feminine symbols to present a God who is both a motherly lord and a lordly mother, and suggest that it implies a relationship to God that is profoundly Trinitarian rather than superficially Christocentric.

The implications of Julian's androgynous God-talk will then be explored for modern attempts to arrive at gender-free God-talk. Julian offers an existential and operational approach which is solidly Biblical and commensurate with process theology, rather than with the Platonic and Aristotelian, essentialist language of traditional theology. Finally, Julian's spirituality inspires a model of the spiritual path other than that of heterosexual union.


Julian's lack of interest in fixed, gender-specific titles begins, perhaps not accidentally, with her own name. Margery Kempe, who would have had no reason to conceal Julian's real name, matter-of-factly calls her Dame Jelyan, and so she has, apparently by her own wish, remained.(3) It is no surprise that she consistently uses the female gender in the case of Mary, calling her "oure moder," but she feels no contradiction in moving instantly to Christ as "oure very moder":

Thus oure lady is oure moder, in whome we be all beclosyd and of hyr borne in Crist, for she that is moder of oure savyoure is mother of all þat ben savyd in our sauyour; and oure savyoure is oure very moder, in whome we be endlesly borne and nevyr shall come out of hym (Showings 580).

Although Christ is often called mother, he is always spoken of as male, even in those passages where the maternal imagery is most thorough:

The moder may geue her chylde sucke hyr mylke, but oure precyous moder Jhesu, he may fede vs wyth hym selfe......The moder may ley hyr chylde tenderly to hyr brest, but oure tender mother Jhesu, he may homely lede vs in to his blessyd brest by his swet opyn syde, and shewe vs there in perty of the godhed...(Showings 596-598).

The ambiguity is especially marked in the parable of the lord and the servant in chapter 51, whose centrality to Julian's understanding of God is made clear when she says that "the pryvytes of the reuelacion be hyd ther in" (Showings 539). The lord of the parable, whom Julian identifies with God the Father, is definitely male, yet his concern for the servant is not that of a stern father, but of a nurturing mother. When the servant falls, the lord has "rewth and pytty" (Showings 524) and does not blame him, but rather "comfortyth and socurryth" (Showings 523). Julian uses the same imagery explicitly of a mother who "may suffer þe chylde to fall some tyme" yet "oure hevynly moder Jhesu may nevyr suffer vs þat be his chyldren to peryssch" (Showings 604). A mother, however, can be stern like a father. She "kepyth [her child] full tenderly" but, when it is old enough, "sufferyth it that it be cha(s)tised in brekyng down of vicis" (Showings 599).

The fluidity of Julian's images of God, which may at first seem chaotic and arbitrary, starts to make sense when it is seen within the dynamic unity of the Trinity. …

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