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Genderless Humanity: Christ as Mother in Julian of Norwich

Genderless Humanity: Christ as Mother in Julian of Norwich

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Laura Moncion. Originally submitted for Christian Spirituality at McGill University, with lecturer Joshua Hollmann in the category of Philosophical Studies & Theology
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Laura Moncion. Originally submitted for Christian Spirituality at McGill University, with lecturer Joshua Hollmann in the category of Philosophical Studies & Theology

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
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Genderless Humanity
: Christ as Mother in Julian of NorwichWestern Christianity hinges on the essential concept of Jesus Christ assimultaneously human and divine. After the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon,orthodox doctrine asserted that Christ was “truly God and truly man… consubstantialwith the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to theManhood.”
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Christ’s humanity was—and continues to be—at least as important toChristian faith as his divinity; yet there is a tension between the two, the classicphilosophical tension between the body and soul, the need to reconcile physicalrequirements with spiritual striving. This tension becomes especially important for mysticwriters, who endeavour to elevate the spirit while enclosed within the body. This effortcould lead to radical debasement of the body, to which many stories of self-flagellation,drinking the pus of lepers, and “holy anorexia” can attest
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 —but not all mystics necessarilyconsidered humanity as something to be overcome. Among the most powerful images of Christ are those which fully embrace his humanity as well as his divinity, and speak to thedivine in humanity. One such image is that of Christ as mother, both in the human senseof bodily bleeding and suffering in order to give life, and spiritual in that the life whichChrist delivers is of the soul, eternal and heavenly. This conception of Christ is elaboratedand expanded in the
 Revelations of Divine Love
by Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth-centuryEnglish anchoress and theologian. The image of Christ as mother is central to Julian’stheology, especially since the concept of mother’s love undergirds her thoughts on
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1
Council of Chalcedon, “Creed of Chalcedon (451)” in Mediaeval Sourcebook: Council of Chalcedon, ed. Paul Hasall (1996) http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/chalcedon.asp
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Christine the Astonishing, Mary of Oignies, Elizabeth of Spaalbeek—all in
 Mediaeval Writings on Female Spirituality
(New York, London, &c.: Penguin Books, 2002)
 
 
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salvation. Additionally, Christ as mother demonstrates the fusion of male and female inone person, in order to speak of a God who is beyond these manmade categories. Thus,the mystic not only can but must transcend the categories of gender in order to fullyachieve the goal of union with this genderless God.Although Julian’s version allows us to relate both male and female Christ’s twonatures and to the greater glory of the Godhead, the image of Christ as mother wasoriginally conceived under somewhat different circumstances, and with differentimplications. Only some aspects of motherhood were ascribed to Christ, and only inparticular circumstances. The likes of St Anselm (c.1033-1109), William of St Thierry(c.1075-1148), and St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) used maternal imagery to speak of the nurturing qualities of Christ, especially in connection to breasts. Bernard’s famoussermons on the Song of Songs treat the verse “For your breasts are better than wine,smelling sweet of the best ointments” (Song 1:1-2) as an image of spiritual suckling:“When she [the Bride] said, then, ‘Your breasts are better than wine,’ she meant:‘The richness of the grace that flows from your breasts contributes far more tomy spiritual progress than the biting reprimands of my superiors.’”
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 The ideas of gentleness and femininity applied to Christ generally stop here in terms of Cistercian theology, but go on to play an active role in the life of the Cisterciancommunity. Interestingly, monks—including Bernard himself 
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 —will refer to themselvesas women and wives in order to express their total dependence on God, and abbots speak 
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Bernard of Clairvaux, “Sermon 9 On the Song of Songs,” quoted in Caroline Walker Bynum,
 Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages
(Berkeley, Los Angeles, London:University of California Press, 1982)
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Bynum, p.128 suggests Sermon 12, wherein Bernard refers to himself a woman to demonstratehis weakness and constant need for contemplation
 
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of themselves as mothers in order to line the harshness of monastery discipline and “biting reprimands” with the gentler idea of maternal love.
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  Julian extends the idea of a mother’s unconditional love beyond the relationshipof abbot to monk, ascribing it instead to the relationship between God and the world. Shesees the world as “a little thing, the size of a hazelnut… [which] lasts and will last foreverbecause God loves it; and in the same way everything exists through the love of God.”
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 Since everything is dependent on God’s love, it follows that this love must be eternal,unconditional, all-encompassing—and for Julian, it is. God’s love is the very cornerstoneof her theology, and she couches it in maternal language: “we are redeemed by themotherhood of mercy and grace and brought back into our natural dwelling where wewere made by natural love; a natural love which never leaves us.”
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The one who makesthis love tangible is Jesus, to whom she ascribes“this fair, lovely word ‘mother,’ so sweet and so tender in itself that it cannottruly be said of any but of him… to the nature of motherhood belong tenderlove, wisdom, and knowledge, and it is good, for although the birth of our bodyis only low, humble, and modest compared with the birth of our soul, yet it ishe who does it in the beings by whom it is done.”
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  Julian goes well beyond the Cistercian concept of Christ’s motherhood—rather thansimply breastfeeding, Christ “can familiarly lead us
into
his blessed breast through hissweet open side.”
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She reframes the Passion in terms of childbirth, portraying Christ “inlabour for the full time until he suffered the sharpest pangs and the most grievoussufferings… And when it was finished… he had born us into bliss.”
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The vivid
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5
Bynum, p.166
6
Julian of Norwich, “Revelations of Divine Love” in
 Mediaeval Writings on Female Spirituality
, ed.Elizabeth Spearing (New York, London, &c.: Penguin Books, 2002) p.179
 
7
Julian, p.201
8
Julian, p.203
9
Julian, p.202 (emphasis mine)
10
Julian, p.202

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