Jesus Our Mother: Julian of Norwich and the Monastic Tradition

Overlaid image is Fra Lippo Lippi’s Madonna of Palazzo Medici-Riccardi

Today we are encountering Jesus Our Mother, episode five in the Lent series, “The Many Faces of Jesus.” Each week I’ve been considering a medieval “version” of Jesus—a representation in literature, art, or theology popular before the Reformation. If you have missed them, be sure to check out Jesus the Judge, Jesus our Lover, Jesus the Knight, and Jesus of the University (or listen to the podcast). These versions of Jesus may be strange, silly, scary, or inspiring to us today; above all they challenge us to consider the versions of Jesus we encounter in our culture. Many of them capture important aspects of Jesus and the church that we overlook. None of these episodes comprehensively present these images; think of them like little introductions that you can dive further into on your own. I hope that as we draw closer to Easter, their aesthetic beauty gives joy too. 

If there is a version of Jesus I have obsessively tracked in my professional scholarship, it is this one. Because I am a scholar and student of Julian of Norwich, who has developed this image in the most interesting and beautiful ways, I have spent a lot of time with Jesus our Mother. As a mother myself, this image impacts me on a deeply personal level. You certainly do not have to be a mother to appreciate the beauty and truth of Jesus our Mother, but it punches you in the gut when you have a baby attached to you and a large toddler clinging to your ankles and a big kid yelling to get your attention!

But the image of Jesus as a mother does not stem from Julian, the first woman writer in English. Though Wisdom is portrayed in biblical literature as having mothering qualities, the only representation of Jesus as a Mother in the gospels comes from his comparison of himself to a mother hen longing to draw Jerusalem, his chicks, under his wings (Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34). Perhaps surprisingly, male monastic writers in the twelfth century really initiated the popularity of this representation of Christ in the Middle Ages. Anselm of Canterbury writes of Jesus and Paul:

Both of you [Paul and Jesus] are therefore mothers…For you accomplished, one through the other, and one through himself, that we, born to die, may be reborn to life. Fathers you are then by result, mothers by affection; fathers by authority, mothers by kindness; fathers by protection, mothers by compassion…Christ, mother, who gathers under your wings your little ones, your dead chick seeks refuge under your wings. For by your gentleness, those who are hurt are comforted; by your perfume, the despairing are reformed. Your warmth resuscitates the dead; your touch justifies sinners…Console your chicken, resuscitate your dead one, justify your sinner. 

Anselm, Prayer 10 to St. Paul, from Caroline Walker Bynum’s Jesus as Mother

Let’s pull out a few things from this delightful prayer of Anselm’s. First, we cannot ignore “console your chicken.” I want to start using that in my personal prayers on my bad days. Console your chicken, Jesus! Secondly, notice how Anselm distinguishes “traditional” fathering roles from mothering. Though Christ inhabits both, we can see how Anselm particularly associates the comforting, affectionate, compassionate role with Jesus’s motherhood. The divine, authoritative distance of God the Father is brought closer and made accessible with the tenderness of God the mother. This version of Jesus as Mother heavily draws upon feminine stereotypes of being more loving, more forgiving, gentler and closer than masculine, fathering love.

Unsurprisingly, then, the male monastic theologians often used this image to explore compassionate and tender authority. Abbots used it to describe their pastoral role towards their fellow monks. On his deathbed, Aelred of Rievaulx told the monks under his spiritual care that he loved them as a mother loves her children. Bernard of Clairvaux describes himself as a mother frequently and uses more physical imagery, like breastfeeding. Caroline Walker Bynum, whose wonderful book Jesus as Mother really probes the history and use of this imagery among the monks, reminds us how “breasts, to Bernard, are a symbol of the pouring out towards others of affectivity or of instruction” (115). There are even multiple manuscripts that show Bernard drinking milk from the breasts of the Virgin Mary, because he loved using this comparison (see below).

Bernard drinking milk from the Virgin’s breasts. I was unable to find the original manuscript source, but see here.

As with Jesus the Lover we find, perhaps with surprise, that medieval writers are generally more comfortable than we are with assigning stereotypically male or female characteristics to another gender (especially, as I hardly need to add, assigning feminine characteristics to a man). Can you imagine a male pastor from the pulpit telling his flock that he loves them like a mother and welcoming them to drink at the breast of his tender and compassionate instruction? Imagine the bodies shifting uncomfortably in the pews!

As men and women kept using this image to understand aspects of Jesus, the emphasis began to change. Bynum shows us how the monks loved to think through the soul’s dependence on Mother Jesus’s milk and his gentle authority, especially as a model for themselves. As we approach Julian of Norwich and other later medieval writers, this note does not go away, but a new emphasis centers the image: the strange blend of new life, willing suffering, and risk of death where childbirth and the crucifixion intersect. Unsurprisingly, it is women writers, perhaps with visions of childbirths they have witnessed or with their own children’s births in the back of their mind, who particularly focus on these aspects of Jesus the Mother.

Marguerite of Oingt, a prioress of the later twelfth century, writes:

Ah! Sweet Lord Jesus Christ, who ever saw a mother suffer such a birth! For when the hour of your delivery came you were placed on the hard bed of the cross…and all your nerves and all your veins were broken. And truly it is no surprise that your veins burst when in one day you gave birth to the whole world.

quoted from Bynum, 153

A new note on the physicality of redemption enters the picture. Birth is a bloody, dangerous business. Even in the safest and most successful births, a mother’s blood flows on behalf of her babies. And my favorite, Julian of Norwich, is the thinker who goes the furthest in developing both the spirituality and embodiedness of Jesus our Mother. Julian of Norwich was a fourteenth-century contemplative writer. At the age of thirty, she received a series of what she called “showings,” sights and sounds from God that led her to become an anchorite, walled into the side of a medieval church. She would meditate and write on these showings for the rest of her life. And Julian moves beyond simple parallels between the risky, painful experience of birth and Christ’s passion. She writes in chapter 60 of the Long Text of her Showings:

Our great God, the supreme wisdom of all things, arrayed and prepared himself in this humble place [Mary’s womb], all ready in our poor flesh, himself to do the service and the office of motherhood in everything. 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.

Chapter 60 of Julian of Norwich’s Showings, translated by Edmund Colledge, O.S.A., and James Walsh, S.J.

I like that Julian has this moment of envisaging the moment of the incarnation and redemption as a womb within a womb. Mary carries Christ, who carries the world as the ultimate mother. Christ’s motherhood is specifically tied to the Incarnation. As he takes on flesh, he takes on the office of motherhood, an office, Julian says, that only he could do to the full. So it is not that motherhood on earth, our own mothers that we can immediately call into our minds, are models to help us understand Christ’s mothering. For Julian, the motherhood of Christ is not a metaphor. It is that Christ’s mothering is the original and only truly full mothering, childbearing and child raising, that good moms on earth provide a very small and distant echo of, the true “office” of mothering, the office truly closest, most secure, most natural. 

It can be helpful, especially if you resent the implication that fathers don’t love their children as much as mothers do, to consider the historical roles of fathering and mothering. In the fourteenth century, fathers certainly were associated with paternal love and especially with protecting their children, but not with the day-to-day tasks of caring intimately for a child’s physical and emotional needs. Though I’m sure there were occasional exceptions to the rule, fathers did not change diapers, dress their children, feed them, or carry them about as they did household tasks. It was the mothers who were suffering the pangs of breastfeeding, elbow-deep in excrement as they washed filthy swaddling clothes, wiping the spit-up off from the few garments most people owned. Think also of the incredibly high mortality rate of childbirth: giving birth was risking one’s life to bring in a new life (as it still is for some today). To be a mother was to be significantly materially altered by the presence of this new person. Motherhood entailed and still entails biological, physical demands on women, who are the ones giving birth and doing the arduous labor of breastfeeding. If you were the mother, your very presence was the sole lifeblood of your child (unless you were wealthy enough to hire a wet nurse). Fathers can come and go for days at a time, and did often; and I’m not talking about skipping out, I’m talking about very loving fathers going about the daily business of life. Mothers could not.

Julian writes of our Mother Jesus:

But our true Mother Jesus, he alone bears us for joy and for endless love, blessed may he be. So he carries us within him in love and travail, until the full time when he wanted to suffer the sharpest thorns and most cruel pains that ever were or will be, and at the last he died. And when he had finished, and had borne us so for bliss, still all this could not satisfy his wonderful love. And he revealed this in these great surpassing words of love: If I could suffer more, I would suffer more. He could not die any more, but he did not want to cease working; therefore he must needs nourish us, for the precious love of motherhood has made him our debtor.

Chapter 60, Julian of Norwich’s Showings, trans. Colledge and Walsh

This last phrase is particularly striking: it is necessary, fitting, natural, for him to feed us, for the dear love of motherhood has made him debtor to us. This strong language—Christ being debtor to us—might initially make us uncomfortable or confused. We are more familiar with the language of the Lord’s Prayer, asking God to forgive us our debts. But here Julian draws upon the biology and physicality of motherhood in order to express something essential about who Jesus is and how he loves his children. Humans are not the kinds of animals who give birth and then let their offspring raise themselves. We are hardwired to raise our children ourselves, even to raise other people’s biological children, who have needed it in varying circumstances. We become debtors to our children, desiring and obligated to raise them both by our often surprisingly overwhelming love for these new and helpless little creatures, our bringing them into the world, as well as biologically. 

Scientifically we now talk about bonding and know about the chemicals and hormones that allow, especially after childbirth, to build foundations of human connection that last long after infancy. Mothers are awash in hormones after birth, causing their milk to come in and their fierce love for their baby to kickstart a life filled with new deprivations, like waking in the middle of the night many times or patiently soothing fussy babies time after time. Julian had no clue about what we know about hormones. But Julian recognizes the relationship between mother and baby as one based on the baby’s bodily dependence, a dependence treasured and acknowledged fully by the mother and embedded in the mother’s very body. This dependence may make human mothers (I am one of them) chafe and worry. After the births of my children, I never felt like myself. Being metaphorically chained to my child through my hormones and the baby’s bodily requirements felt oppressive and depressing even though I loved my babies. But Christ tells Julian that if he might suffer more for his child, he would. If it was needed, he would do it all. He does.

Understanding Christ’s love through this prism of the office of motherhood enables us to recognize an inherent, essential attribute of Jesus. Christ’s love for his children constitutes his very being. It is his nature. It is hardwired. This Jesus feeds his children with his very own flesh, which Julian compares to breastfeeding. This parallel would have been even stronger in the fourteenth century. The foremost medieval scientific theory about breastfeeding postulated that the woman’s breasts transformed her very blood into milk for her infant. In effect, the mother was sacrificing her blood for the baby’s health and wellbeing. Here is my blood, poured out for you. Here is my body, broken for you. Take it, and eat. 

Jesus in labor on the cross, birthing the Church. The Birth of Ecclesiafol. 2v (detail), ONB Han. Cod. 2554, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna. Made in Paris, 1225–49. See a wonderful article by Victoria Emily Jones on this manuscript artwork.

I hope it’s already clear what we can glean from these visions of Christ our Mother. But if it’s not: bring your mess to Jesus. Bring your scraped knees and your anxiety and your mistakes and your tragic failures and self-destruction and your starving, insatiable desires to your mom. Embrace your littleness and need. He is ready, capable, and yearning to fulfill his office of motherhood. 

This week, as part of your Lenten practice, spend time with Mother Jesus and take the weaknesses and failures in your life to her loving embrace. Where do you need to embrace your dependence? If you want, do this practice in a warm, cozy place, like a bed or couch with a blanket, to really lean into your childhood and Jesus’s motherhood as you identify and confess these places of limitation and error. If you are a parent or a grandparent, hold your child close and really taste and feel in your bones your love for them. Consider how that love you feel is dwarfed by the immense love that Mother Jesus carries for you. And of course, Anselm has graciously provided us with a prayer for this week: Console your chicken, Jesus!

Thank you for learning with me today. If you enjoyed it, please share this blog with a friend or two. As always, I love to hear from you if you have questions or thoughts.

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