The following was a college essay written by Lizzie Self. It has been edited and approved by Ariel Hobbs. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.
By Lizzie Self, University of Notre Dame
In Showings, Julian of Norwich writes about how all things are recapitulated, or redefined, in Christ, including motherhood and fatherhood. She does not only explore how we are reborn in Christ because He makes our flesh His own, but that He was our mother at the first creation, and has been the mold for every instance of motherhood since then. This examination of how He is a mother to us helps us understand the gift of the Eucharist, the importance of remembering our sinfulness and how as our mother He corrects it, and the shared motherhood of Mary.
Julian makes a convincing case for the via positiva—cataphatic mysticism, dependent on speech, visions, and light— as she depicts for us the reality of God’s generosity. Of all the gifts that God has given us and that we might enjoy none does He give more enthusiastically and generously than the gift of His flesh and blood. She explains that His blood flows through Heaven, Earth, and Hell more plentifully than the oceans that we so admire. Yet, she says, we can see in Christ’s thirst on the Cross that He desires to give even more to us, to quench His spiritual thirst. The only thing that brings Him any satisfaction in this state of thirst is when we accept the gift of His body as nourishment. He offers it, Julian says, as a mother produces milk for her children; and as a mother offers her breast for the repose of her child, so He lets us rest in Him through the wound in His side. His Passion and death are His hours of labor, and in His Resurrection we are born to eternal life. We can see that His thirst, His motherly concern, continues: “He could not die more, but He did not want to cease working; therefore He must nourish us, for the precious love of motherhood has made Him our debtor” (Showings 60.2). Thus we can understand in a new way the mystery of what it means for Christ to endure life with us; seeing Him as a mother explains the attentiveness with which He attends to us, the responsibility He experiences, and the almost feverish desire He has for us to remain with Him.
Since the Garden we have wandered as if motherless, and in our pride we forget our childlikeness and close ourselves off from His grace and mercy. Grace and mercy are God’s gifts to fill our lacking sensuality, which Julian describes as the perfect joining of our soul to our body that would emanate the great richness and high nobility God intended for mankind (Showings 57.1). Christ wants to restore this part of us by the operation of His grace and mercy; He created our souls in such a manner that they are a suitable space for them to reside. Within us, He plants faith. From this faith “comes all our good, by which we are led and saved” (Showings 57.3). It is, in a sense, a compass from Him that we’ve always had, so that we could find our way back to Him. As His children there is something in us that will always harken back to Him. This connection is two-fold: “Our nature, which is the higher part, is joined to God in its creation, and God is joined to our nature, which is the lower part in taking flesh… For love He made mankind, and for the same love He Himself wanted to become man” (Showings 57.3). Christ, by becoming man, communicates on a level that our sensuality can understand, if we are not too wrapped in sin and blinded by pride to welcome His gift.
Julian argues that we need to fall in order to see our sinfulness and understand our need for nourishment by Christ’s flesh; “for if we did not fall, we should not know how feeble and how wretched we are in ourselves, nor, too, should we know so completely the wonderful love of our Creator” (Showings 61.2). A realization of our sin does not leave us turned inward, fixated on and horrified by our own littleness but opens our eyes to the Creator. Because of our sinfulness, we can imagine what we might be if we lived perfectly as He intended us. Julian says we should be sensitive to “the humility and meekness which we shall obtain by the sight of our fall, for by that we shall be raised high in heaven, to which raising we might never have come without that meekness” (Showings 61.4). Christ does not depend on our suffering, but because He can only make us in love if He makes us free, He makes us capable of seeing our sin so that He can say He “protects us very safely” (Showings 61.9). In this way, He meets our every need and repairs our hearts by grace and mercy:
“Now and ever until the day of judgment, he frees us and fosters us, just as the great supreme lovingness of motherhood wishes, and asthe natural need of childhood asks… For the child does not naturally despair of the mother’s love, the child does not naturally rely upon itself, naturally the child loves the mother and either one the other.”(Showings 63.3)
We get ourselves into trouble when we neglect the gift of faith implanted in us that would remind us of our dependence. In pride, we would otherwise drown.
But we see that His love is so motherly that He sends us help by grace. In Dante’s Inferno, Dante is taken on a journey through Hell so that he might see his sinfulness, and this is accomplished by the goodwill of the heavenly woman Beatrice. Dante ironically goes to Hell through grace because there are two things we need to do as His children: “we ought to understand and know what things He commands, to love them and to keep them. The other is that we ought to know what things He forbids, to hate them and refuse them” (Showings 57.3). Dante’s sensuality is not completely restored until the end of his journey with Virgil, when he finally realizes that because of Christ’s victory on the Cross, his descent into Hell is actually ascent into Heaven. The mercy of God doesn’t make sense until we see that at bottom Hell is frozen over and evil has been conquered. Only when it is obvious that evil is defeated can the weak human heart stop kidding itself, admit its sinfulness, and climb out of error.
Of course, we sometimes refuse God’s mercy. Another character from the Inferno, Count Ugolino, turns down an opportunity to be in communion with his sons and in a sense taste of the Body of Christ. He instead allows his heart to be turned to stone by despair, obviously not understanding that his sensuality has been horribly warped so that he could not see the love of Christ so heart-wrenchingly offered by his own suffering family. Count Ugolino’s sons are a wonderful depiction of children who embrace the motherhood of Christ. There is no safer, holier position to be in than complete dependence on and participation in His communion. Julian says, “I understood no greater stature in this life than childhood, with its feebleness and lack of power and intelligence, until the time that our gracious Mother has brought us up into our Father’s bliss” (Showings 63.4). Because of our contorted sensuality, we are tempted to forget that evil has been defeated, that our suffering is temporary, and that we are never outside of our mother Christ.
Julian of Norwich writes that in the face of temptation God provides her a comfort to overcome it. This comfort is His very own Mother and ours, Mary. God shows Julian Mary’s littleness both of body and spirit. In Mary’s reverent contemplation of her God and His willingness to be borne into the world by her, Julian finds the strength for which Mary is called “greater, more worthy and more fulfilled, than everything else which God has created” (Showings 4.4). She writes that we are enclosed in Mary and born of her in Christ, “in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come” (Showings 57.4). Thus He resides with us His children always, and in His thirst is constantly “working us all into Him. In this working, He wants us to be His helpers, giving all our intention to Him, learning His laws, observing His teaching, desiring everything to be done which He does, truly trusting in Him” (Showings 57.5). This is the language of Marian devotion; in giving yourself totally to our Blessed Mother, you give yourself to our mother Christ and share with Him in everything. The Blessed Mother can lead us to her son by a sure and safe road, and eventually we realize that her motherhood is an outpouring of her son’s. All motherhood mimics that of Jesus Christ, the most perfect love; in all cases “the mother’s service is nearest, readiest, and surest: nearest because it is most natural, readiest because it is most loving, and surest because it is truest. No one ever might or could perform this office fully, except only Him” (Showings 60.2). It’s an incredibly beautiful thing to realize that every experience we have of motherly relationships are experiences of His motherly love.
Through beautiful visions Julian of Norwich reveals to us the mystery of God’s motherly affection as the first Creator, our own intimate mother, and the love possessing all mothers. The Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection take on a new sense when we read them as the sacrifices of a mother, and this new sensibility helps us appreciate the gift of the Eucharist. Dante’s Inferno shows us that if we are not receptive of this gift our sensuality cannot be restored. Then, if we cannot feel our sin acutely and welcome Christ’s correction, even our Blessed Mother’s intercession cannot pull us from the prison we might create for ourselves.
Edited By: Ariel Hobbs