on Mother Julian: the power of silence, gender fluidity, and the womb of renewal
Taken seriously, Christian spirituality really is extraordinarily queer. This is hidden by widespread modernist narratives and assumptions, both secularist and Christian 'mainstream', and also, still more, biblicist and fundamentalist, Sadly, such restrictive approaches try to squeeze the tremendous historical diversity of scripture, tradition and religious experience into various Procrustean beds of ordered, ideological, understanding. Yet the control of spiritual bodies, like queer bodies, always proves elusive, even to the most subtle and determined of subduers and butchers. History is indeed full of horrendous tortures and amputations inflicted upon such bodies. Ultimately however they can not be wholly suppressed. They break through in ways which are life-giving and surprising, if sometimes highly ambiguous and constrained. Certainly this is true of medieval bodies, not least those of female mystics: perhaps above all represented in Julian, or Juliana, of Norwich. For it is not an accident that the 14th century Julian has been 'rediscovered' in recent decades by those seeking fresh perspectives on spirituality, gender, God, and the renewal of being. In her we are drawn from our tombs of suffering and despair into subversive possibilities of new creation.. Not for nothing is she thus perhaps the greatest of all English spiritual teachers...
the power of silence
Three aspects of Julian's life and spirituality strike me particularly at this time. The first is the power of silence, such a strong feature of the experience of women, queer, and other marginalised people. Diarmaid MacCulloch (a brilliant historian, gay man, and 'friend of Anglicanism') has written tellingly about this in his book Silence: A Christian History, exploring the ambivalent character of various types of silence (see further, for example, The Guardian brief review here), So much, as MacCulloch writes, then and now, is cruel and oppressive. Yet there are other transformative aspects to silence which the Christian, and other great wisdom, traditions, highlight. For no one - no culture, institution, or politico-religious form - can control the depths which 'holy' silence can plumb. Beyond suffering, beyond hope, beyond God in language, there is a 'space' which can never be determined (albeit signified by 'negative theology'), and from which new life, new expressions, new voices, can be found. This is the witness which the contemplative tradition and the 'via negativa' bears. It is embodied in Julian and other anchorites of Christian tradition, stretching back 1800 years, who 'withdrew' from the world of contemporary culture to tend the wells of healing for themselves and others. Julian's life and work, otherwise bound by medieval patriarchy, is thus a powerful inspiration for our own transformation of oppressive silences. To some eyes, bound by the hyper-activism and intense cultural babble of post-modernity, Julian might seem merely imprisoned in her cell she lived in for at least 22 years. Yet, paradoxically, it was from that space that she transformed her own serious suffering, and that of others, into flourishing: and, in doing so, as 'the mother of English prose', gave voice to the earliest surviving book in the English language written by a woman. For, as other great women, queer and marginalised people have also witnessed, in, and out, of 'holy' silence comes a different saving 'Word'. Out of suffering and cruelty comes the vision and truth of a time and space when 'all shall be well'. Marginality becomes fecund liminality. The loneliness of the 'straight' world and its suffocating culture becomes 'queered' by divine re-creativity, born of solitude. For, as Julian expressed it, in her famous reflection on a hazelnut, nothing that is created, however queer, can ever be lost. Since :
I looked at it and thought, ‘What can this be?’ And the answer came to me, ‘It is all that is made.’ I wondered how it could last, for it was so small I thought it might suddenly disappear. And the answer in my mind was, ‘It lasts and will last forever because God loves it; and in the same way everything exists through the love of God’. (Revelations of Divine Love, chapter 5)
A second key aspect of Julian's life and spirituality for us today is her expression of divine love as gender fluid and beyond gender definition. Again. this may still seem surprising to some today, conditioned as so many are by modernist thinking. In reality, in Christian tradition God has never had a fixed gender. Whilst masculine language, not least of Father and Son, has often been regarded as normative, this has never been exclusive. The great theologians and spiritual teachers have also insisted that human words can never do more than point towards God, always risking the truth beyond words in doing so. Julian was thus hardly alone, certainly in her own age, in affirming the feminine and gender fluidity in God. Indeed, the great medieval theologian, monk and Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm was but one, among medieval men as well as women, to affirm God and Jesus as female. His song which begins 'Jesus, like a mother you gather your people to you' is notably included in authorised Anglican liturgies across the world (including in A Prayer Book for Australia and by the Church of England here). It, like Julian, speaks of Jesus as a mother with her children, giving birth through anguish and labour, feeding with milk, sharing compassion, bearing sorrow, and, in love, healing and remaking us. In Julian however, we see this feminine and gender fluid understanding of God taken to greater depth and given spiritual embodiment in her own gendered body. Indeed the late, great, Grace Jantzen (in Julian of Norwich: mystic and theologian) rightly saw in Julian the greatest of the many female medieval mystics because of the way in which her spiritual understanding and language transcended many of the binary confinements of her day and Christian tradition (not least distinctions between nature and God, the body and spirit, sin and creation, suffering and bliss). In an age of growing liberation from the bonds of the gender binary, Julian thus offers continued encouragement on the spiritual journey. For
God is as really our Mother as he is our Father.“ (Revelations of Divine Love Chapter 59)
the womb of renewal
A third powerful re-creative aspect of Julian for the contemporary world is that of the 'womb' of renewal to which she points and embodies. This has been highlighted recently for instance in scholarly investigations of the historical significance of anchorites such as Julian and their relationship to gender difference (see for example Anchorites, Wombs and Tombs: Intersections of Gender and Enclosure in the Middle Ages ed. Liz Herbert McAvoy & Mari Hughes-Edwards). For the significance of the anchorite was a social and sacral one for their community, not simply a personal 'lifestyle' choice as the modern world might view it. Paradoxically, whilst in one sense 'removed' from ordinary life, the anchorite was truly the 'anchor' of the world around them. In addition to providing a range of pastoral and prayerful support, advice, guidance, and healing, they acted as a grounding centre for their community. Although seemingly encased in a stone walled 'tomb', and often entering into anchorhood with rites which resembled funeral ceremonies, they thus offered a communal 'womb' from which divinely human potential could be reborn. In that sense, rather like some queer lives, the anchorite was a symbol of resurrection: died and buried in silence, suffering, and shame; coming alive with a re-creative 'Word', hope and healing (for themselves and their wider communities). May it be so among us too. For in Julian's words, which I have often used at the beginning of funerals to lead us in to the hope of new life:
Jesus did not say, 'thou shall not be tempested, thou shall not be travailed, thou shall not be dis-eased', but he did say 'thou shalt not be overcome.'
for another complementary queer reading of Julian, in relation also to art and Mothers Day, check out Kittredge Cherry's online article Julian of Norwich: Celebrating Mother Jesus)
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Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.