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Julian of Norwich's Theology of Eros

Gillian T. W. Ahlgren
Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality, Volume 5, Number 1, Spring
2005, pp. 37-53 (Article)
Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press
DOI: 10.1353/scs.2005.0001
For additional information about this article
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Ahlgren | Julian of Norwichs Theology of Eros
Julian of Norwichs Theology of Eros
Gillian T. W. Ahlgren
Spiritus 5 (2005): 3753 2005 by The Johns Hopkins University Press
ecent studies have elucidated Julian of Norwichs systematic theology,
probing her thought in many of the traditional areas such as theology, anthro-
pology, Christology, and soteriology.
Yet it seems to me that there is still a
great deal more that we can learn from Julian, at both the theoretical and
practical level. For in Julian we see one of the fullest medieval expressions of a
theology of eros, one that provides context and nuance for all of her theologi-
cal assertions. It does not go too far, I believe, to suggest that eros is the
grounding principle of Julians spirituality and systematic theology. Yet this is
not instantly apparent in her works, because she makes no significant reference
to the Song of Songs or to other texts and metaphors that the Christian mystics
have traditionally used to describe the human-divine relationship in erotic
terms. In this essay I shall highlight some of Julians contributions to the
Christian understanding of eros. Most notably, I will argue that her
incarnational theology enables us to approach and appreciate eros as the
foundational unitive principleof God and humanity, of body and soul, and
of human persons bound up in the mystical body of Christ.
The term eros has many levels of meaning, and, as will become clear,
Julians operative understanding of eros functions at all such levels, serving as
a way to draw together our many experiences of relationality: the desire to live
a meaningful life; to be present to one another; to integrate mind, body, and
spirit; and to create communities that embody the loving message of Christ,
making it more tangible in our day-to-day living. Our passion for beauty,
peace, harmony, and, above all, the urge to express care, compassion, tender-
ness, and support are intrinsic to eros, a love that, in reaching outside itself
toward another, expresses a relational bond that is part and parcel of the
reality created by the God who is Love. Thus when I use the term eros I refer
to the deeply human urge to form connections, to merge lives, to create and
delight in beauty, to work together, to reach beyond oneself and dissolve
boundaries of selfhood, to bind up wounds and restore life, to move from
fragmentation toward wholeness, to generate and nurture new life. Eros is at
the heart of all curiosity and desire, all creative activity, all commitments to
sustain and enhance life, all attempts to share who we are with others, all
community building, and, ultimately, any human evolution toward goodness.
In Julians thought, the desire for union, eros, characterizes both God and
humanity. Gods being is love; God is known through the outpouring of Gods
own being in loving activity. In and through Christ all creation is invited into a
unitive bond of love that infuses life into all that is. Eros is the force, in
humanity, which stirs us to seek Godan echo of Gods movement toward
humanity in Christ. None of these ideas is entirely original to Julian. But
Julians extensive reflection on Gods outpouring of love expressed in the
passion of Christ provides us with a critical theological point to contemplate as
we explore what it is to imitate Christ. Incarnating Gods erotic love for
humanity is part and parcel of the Christian life: as we learn to stretch our-
selves eroticallythat is, to pour ourselves out, in lovetoward others, we
make more manifest the body of Christ in our own time and space. Although I
want to focus here specifically on the unique contributions Julian makes to a
Christian theology and spirituality of eros, it is important to recognize that her
understanding of eros is consistent with the deepest of theological reflections
on eros in the Christian tradition, even as she adopts and develops a much
more incarnational view of the erotic, indicative of the late medieval milieu in
which she lived and wrote.
A good starting place, as we explore Julians systematic theology of eros, is her
ontology, presented at the outset of her Showings, a text written shortly after a
serious illness experience which, Julian tells us, she actually desired. Her
willingness to suffer bodily pains was not an expression of masochism, but
rather a desire for experiential knowledge of Christ; she writes that she wished
to have more knowledge of our saviors bodily pains in order, ultimately, to
fathom the love that lay behind such suffering.
The revelations she experi-
enced in that dense moment of bodily illness were so profound that Julian was
dissatisfied with her first attempt to write about the nature of Gods love, and
she rewrote the work some twenty years later. It is the second text, the Long
Text, that contains Julians more fully integrated theological vision. At the
outset of that text, Julian tries to characterize Gods love. It is a familiar and
binding lovethat is, an intimate love, of the type shared between family
members and intimate companions:
God is to us everything which is good and comforting for our help. He is our
clothing, who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces us and shelters us, sur-
rounds us for his love, which is so tender that he may never desert us.
Julians language conveys an understanding of Gods love as the fabric of the
cosmos and points to its ontological power: Gods love makes things real even
Ahlgren | Julian of Norwichs Theology of Eros
as it sustains their ultimate reality. In other words, all existence is predicated
upon the prior ontological reality of Gods love.
To demonstrate further the delicate and intricate relationship between God
and all of created reality, Julian writes that God showed her an image of
something small, no bigger than a hazelnut resting gently in the palm of her
own hand. As she contemplated it, she was amazed that it could last, for I
thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into noth-
ing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because
God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God.
Julians God is the Creator and the protector and the lover, whose love
brings all things into being and sustains their very existence.
These passages
give us a sense of God as loving creator, gracefully endowing the universe with
the gift of Gods own goodness. They are beautiful and moving, if generic,
expressions of Gods love, in line with what the Christian tradition would
identify as charitycaritasagape, a universal, unconditional offering of
grace that originates in God and extends throughout the Christian community
as it aspires to imitate the love of God revealed to us in Christ. This love is
epitomized in 1 John 4:16b: God is love and those who abide in love abide in
God, and God in them.
However, Julian is not content, at this point, with her characterization of
Gods familiar or abiding love, for this love does not completely capture the
extent, depth, or particularity of Gods love for each individual element of
creation. Thus she adds an even fuller statement of its intimacy and its insis-
tent, beckoning invitation to ever-greater depth:
For as the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the bones in the
flesh, and the heart in the trunk, so are we, soul and body, clad and enclosed in the
goodness of God. Yes, and more closely, for all these vanish and waste away; the
goodness of God is always complete, and closer to us, beyond any comparison. For
truly our lover desires the soul to adhere to him with all its power, and us always
to adhere to his goodness[T]herefore we may with reverence ask from our lover
all that we will, for our natural will is to have God, and Gods good will is to have
us, and we can never stop willing or loving until we possess him in the fullness of joy.
In this much more clearly erotic expression of Gods love, Julian introduces a
basic theological principle: the revelation of Gods love can and must be
expressed in both erotic and agapic terms; anything less than the full union of
all that both dimensions of love convey is less than God. By extension, the
Christian community, as a whole and through each of its members, as it seeks
to participate authentically in the body of Christ known throughout time and
space, must strive for consistency between its expressions of charity and
goodness (agape) and its expressions of connectivity, intimacy and embodied
love (eros).
While this theological turn may seem bold, it is thoroughly consistent with
a major theme of the Christian mystical tradition, beginning with Origen (d.
254), that, in Christ, humans learn the erotic-agapic reality of divine love.
Origens Commentary on the Song of Songs is an extensive explanation of how
the erotic-agapic connection between God and humanity grounds the creative
process and the path of humanity, redeemed by the Word, back into full
restoration in God. As Bernard McGinn has shown, one of the foundational
hermeneutical principles in Origens treatise is that, in God, eros is inseparable
from agape.
For Origen, eros was an integral part of the image of God
implanted in humanity and should be developed, nurtured and cultivated as
part of humanitys essential connection with God.
Indeed, for Origen, movement
toward God is predicated upon the enkindling of the soul that eros facilitates.
The deepest longings of the inner person, therefore, are always expressions of
the movement that is eros. Origen describes the souls return to God:
The soul is moved by heavenly love and longing when, having clearly beheld the
beauty and the fairness of the Word of God, it falls deeply in love with His
loveliness and receives from the Word Himself a certain dart and wound of love.
For this Word is the image and splendor of the invisible God, in whom were all
things created that are in heaven and on earth. If, then, a person can extend his
thinking so as to ponder and consider the beauty and the grace of all things that
have been created in the Word, the very charm of them will so smite him, the
grandeur of their brightness will so pierce him as with a chosen dart that he will
suffer from the dart Himself a saving wound, and will be kindled with the blessed
fire of His love.
Origen is suggesting that as we take in the beauty and grandeur of creation, we
fall in love with its Creator. This loving urge is nurtured by Christ (the Word)
who in effect pierces us with a deeper knowledge of Gods love for us, and
through that wound of love we are fueled with a longing for union with
God. Because Origen is quite insistent that, in God, grace (or agape) is inter-
changeable with Gods passionate love (or eros), he lays the foundation for
later thinkers to conceptualize an eros that contributes to the greater good of
the soul.
Origen offers a way for Christianity to affirm the goodness of eros
in humanity by asserting that, in God, eros is always an expression of grace,
and, as such, eros is given to us by Gods kindness.
There are clear and direct parallels in Julians thought with the ideas of
Origen, although it is unlikely that Julian knew of his thought directly. For
Julian, too, eros and agape are also the same urge in God, both emerging from
Gods ultimate goodness:
For as truly as there is in God a quality of pity and compassion, so truly is there in
God a quality of thirst and longing; and the power of this longing in Christ enables
Ahlgren | Julian of Norwichs Theology of Eros
us to respond to his longing, and without this no soul comes to heaven. And this
quality of longing and thirst comes from Gods everlasting goodness, just as the
quality of pity comes from his everlasting goodness. And though he may have both
longing and pity, they are different qualities, as I see them; and this is the character-
istic of spiritual thirst, which will persist in him so long as we are in need, and will
draw us up into his bliss.
Here, the quality of pity and compassion seems to signify traditional
Christian understandings of gracethat is, they are the qualities of Gods
redemptive love expressed as God reaches out to draw humanity back into
more intimate relationship with God. Longing and thirst then become
signifiers of eros and, interestingly, Julian explicitly connects eros with Gods
everlasting goodness. This would place her directly within the neo-Platonic
tradition, which developed Platos original assertion that eros is, ultimately, the
desire for the good to belong to oneself always, a desire that is expressed
most fully in the immortal process of giving birth in beauty both in body
and soul.
In this passage, then, Julian argues, as do her precursors, that
although agape and eros are differentiable terms in theory, they are interrelated
aspects of a unitive love in God, the expression of divine goodness. Further, as
she develops this line of thought, through Christ, humanity is characterized by
the same kind of longing, a longing that opens up the possibility of redemption
and deepest freedom in God.
In Julians Showings, Origens notion of eros as an expression of Gods
kindness is developed even more fully, until eros becomes an expression of
Gods own radical tenderness, the revelation of a love for humanity that simply
cannot bear the exclusion of anyone in its all-encompassing outpouring.
Repeatedly, in Julians work, we hear the refrain, all will be well; as many
contemporary commentators have observed,
this is an affirmation of redemp-
tion understood as the gradual restoration of all things back into God. It is
also an affirmation of a radically self-exposed God, whose self-disclosure
reveals to us the folly and extravagance of divine love, a love which unself-
consciously rushes to embrace humanity as in the parable of the return of the
prodigal son.
The implications are clear. First, longing and desire are, according to
Julian, inherently good; that is, Gods longings are an expression of goodness,
an expression of grace. Second, longing and compassion stem from the same
root, which suggests that they are compatible forces, growing out of the
everlasting goodness of God. Third, and perhaps most important, Julians
discussion of the qualities of longing and compassion and the tenor of the
passage above highlight an immense tenderness, even vulnerability, about God.
Interestingly, this tenderness appears to be a characteristic of eros in God,
known all the more deeply in and through the incarnation. This insight
represents a major development in the theology of eros, made possible by
intense reflection on Christs passion in the later medieval period. Julians applica-
tion of this tenderness to Gods erotic desire for the restoration of humanity
bequeaths a whole new dimension to the Christian definition of eros. And it is
here that I would like to focus my attention.
Tenderness is not always the first quality that we associate with eros, yet
understanding the relationship between eros and tender care is integral to our
imitation of Christ. Consideration of the many ways that we are graced, in and
through our bodies, to make real the erotic love of God to one another should
give us deep pause to consider whether or not our human interactions, particu-
larly those in the most intimate spheres of our lives, are reflective of all that we
have to come to know about the love of God. Further, as we recognize how the
union of the spiritual and the sexual has been ruptured, repeatedly, in our own
experiences, in the lives of those we love, and pervasively and repeatedly
within our culture, we can consider human brokenness in an entirely new
way and set about the task of healing humanitys wounds and embodying the
very tenderness of God in all our loving actions.
For Julian, tenderness and purity characterize the body of Christ; they are the
major attributes of the incarnation. When Julian contemplates the humanity
Interpenetrating Realities. Andy Ilachinski.
Ahlgren | Julian of Norwichs Theology of Eros
and divinity of Christ, she writes that what was brought to her mind was the
exaltedness and nobility of the glorious divinity, and at the same time the
preciousness and tenderness of his blessed body united with it. In Christ, we
see how the ultimate tenderness and purity of God is made manifest in and
through the human person, perhaps most obviously in the flesh of the body,
but also, just as surely, in such human attributes as sorrow, compassion and
love. Julians Christ is most tender and most pure, even as he is most strong
and powerful to suffer.
From Christs tenderness and purity comes the very
same desire to reach into the depths of human suffering in order to lead
humanity into a deeper fullness of life in love.
In the ninth revelation of her Showings, Julian describes Christ saying to
her: It is a joy, a bliss, an endless delight to me that ever I suffered my Passion
for you; and if I could suffer more, I should suffer more.
As Julian contem-
plates this message, she concludes first that Christs willing intention to suffer
is a reflection of the immense outpouring of divine love for humanity, but also
that this love conditions the very experience of the act of sufferingthat is,
that Christ takes joy from labor insofar as it creates new life and relational
possibility. Indeed, this labor of Christs love is the spiritual bringing to
birth of humanity that she will discuss later in the treatise. In the ninth
revelation, however, Julian focuses on the qualities of Christ as lover, and what
humanity can learn from them:
And in this he brought to my mind the qualities of a cheerful giver. Always a
cheerful giver pays only little attention to the thing which he is giving, but all his
desire and all his intention is to please and comfort the one to whom he is giving.
And if the receiver accept the gift gladly and gratefully, then the courteous giver
counts as nothing all his expense and his labor, because of the joy and the delight
that he has pleased and comforted the one whom he loves.
What Julian learns from the revelation is how the purity and extravagance of
Christs intention to love provides humanity with its own model for holiness in
and through the imitation of Christs love.
All of Julians insights into the nature of Christs lovethat is, all of the
revelations contained in the Showingsappear to be a direct result of a prayer
she offered up to God, that she would, by the grace of God, have a greater
empathic and embodied understanding of Christs passion. As Julian describes
it, she desired to receive three wounds in my life, that is, the wound of true
contrition, the wound of loving compassion and the wound of longing with my
will for God.
Thus, without perhaps naming her longing as the wound of
love mentioned in the Song of Songs and developed by Origen and others,
Julian places herself in a long line of Christian mystics for whom Christs
woundedness was the point of entry into the unitive life, a life permeated by a
consciousness of the presence of God, riddled mysteriously into the human
experience. It is important to note here that Julians reflections on Christs
passion and suffering do not lead her toward earlier medieval expressions of
atonement theorythat we are saved in and through the suffering of Christ, a
suffering either willed or allowed, and certainly received as an offeringby
God as part of the divine plan. Nor does she develop, in her Christology, a
notion of the kenotic-self-emptying of Christ. Thus the spiritual model she
offers leads us not to reject our human nature, embracing the divine in Christ
as a principle radically foreign to our humanity, but rather to develop, in and
with Christ, the goodness of our own humanity. Further, with respect to the
imitation of Christ, we are encouraged not toward the self-depletion that can
accompany a kenotic model, but rather toward an exploration of how to
sustain the abundance of goodness that deepest partnership with God offers us
as human persons.
In her story of the Lord and the Servant,
Julians re-telling of the story of
the Fall, one of the important and surprising elements is the elimination of the
traditional Augustinian emphasis on human disobedience. Most Christian
authors, following Augustine, cast Adam and Eves decision to eat from the
tree of the knowledge of good and evil as an act of the will, a deliberate choice
to disobey the command of God. Thus human intentionality is understood,
even in the best of circumstances (i.e., in paradise) as inclining away from
compatibility with God. Julians portrayal of humanity and human nature is
informed by the critical insight, given to her after much contemplation, that
the fall and the incarnation should be approached not only as sequential,
chronological events in human history, but also as indicative of the ways that
the second person of the Trinity works eternally in, with, and through human-
ity. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word
was God.
As Julian reflects on the nature of the Logos, her understanding of
Christ as the imago dei present through the creative process leads her to see the
story of the Lord and servant as both a story of Adam (and all humanity) and
of Christ.
In her analysis of this story, Julian helps us understand our capacity as
humans, in and through Christthat is, as members of the body of Christto
participate in the passion and resurrection of Christ, in our falling and rising
again. Thus, when Julian speaks of the servants falling, we are given an
image for understanding how humanity separates itself from God as a direct
result of willingly and joyfully following the command of the Lord:
The servant stands before his lord, respectfully, ready to do his lords will. The lord
looks on his servant very lovingly and sweetly and mildly. He sends him to a
Ahlgren | Julian of Norwichs Theology of Eros
certain place to do his will. Not only does the servant go, but he dashes off and
runs at great speed, loving to do his lords will.
Julians anthropology, then, mirrors her Christology: in the model of the
servant one sees the same cheerful giver that one sees in Christ. So eager is
he to please the lord that the servant literally trips over himself in his own
haste, causing a tragic loss of humanitys capacity as servants of God. She
continues: And soon he falls into a dell and is greatly injured; and then he
groans and moans and tosses about and writhes, but he cannot rise or help
himself in any way.
So absorbed are we in our human pain, helplessness,
and suffering that we have no other lens through which to view reality, and
this makes humanity vulnerable to all kinds of despair and even self-destruc-
tive behavior.
The lords desire to help the servant, upon whom he looks most tenderly . . .
very meekly and mildly, with great compassion and pity would lead us to
expect that help, in the form of deliverance from such suffering, would come
immediately. We anticipate the next element of the story: redemption in the
form of a superhuman savior who dives into the pit that traps the servant
and keeps him from seeing the loving lord who awaits his return. However, the
drama of humanitys heroic rescue by a savior completely external to itself is
entirely absent in Julians account. Instead, slowly, gradually, the servant comes
to understand the eternal presence of God in humanity, through Christ, and is
empowered to see how, even in the pit, the soul is Gods own dwelling place,
which is the most pleasing to him of all his works.
The image of salvation
Julian offers, then, emphasizes redemption through the knowledge of Gods
loving, indwelling presence in humanity, revealed to us in and through compas-
sion for all human suffering. Such an image helps us see Christs ongoing
suffering in all manifestations of human cruelty and rejection of the divine in
Julians Christology reminds us of our own capacity, as persons created in
the image of God, to participate in the goodness of the Word made flesh, and
so we are encouraged to imitate Christ not through self-emptying but through
probing our connections with one another in the body of Christ. Conscious of
Christs promise that where two or more are gathered in My name, I will be
with you, we explore an ever-deepening solidarity with one another, in a free-
flowing giving-and-receiving in love that nurtures, sustains and enables our
ongoing evolution as persons. Indeed, in recognizing that God dwells within us
and makes us who we most deeply are, we are empowered to work in and with
the divine in us. For Julian, Christian faith is nothing more than right under-
standing with true belief and certain trust in our being, that we are in God and
God in us, which we do not see. The right understanding of human nature
given to us in this form of faith, is a power which God has ordained for us,
and it works great things in us; for Christ is mercifully working in us, and we
are by grace according with him, through the gift and the power of the Holy
Spirit. This working makes it so that we are Christs children and live Christian
The right understanding of God, for Julian, takes the form of a piercing
knowledge of Christs love for us; for the soul thus wounded by this love, all
emotive and affective capacities become ordered by the deepest desire to work
and live in and with this love:
Again and again our Lord said: I am he, I am he, I am he who is highest. I am he
whom you love. I am he in whom you delight. I am he whom you seek. I am he for
whom you long. I am he whom you desire. I am he whom you intend. I am he who
is all.
The desire to be one with Christ begins to order all human desire, so that our
soul will never have rest till it comes into him, acknowledging that he is full of
joy, familiar and courteous and blissful and true life.
But for Julian, this
coming to rest in Christ does not convey a sense of moving disinterestedly
through human existence until we experience the fruition of union with Christ
after death. Rather, it consists in exploring and developing, with others, our
capacity for love, for I saw that every natural compassion which one has for
ones fellow Christians in love is Christ in us.
Thus, in extending ourselves
to one another in love, we are participating in Gods erotic desire for us and
already resting joyfully and peacefully in Christ incarnate.
Gods tenderness toward humanity and, more particularly, toward each
human person is expressed, for Julian, through the human senses, which feel
and see and know the divine in the extraordinary tenderness of the human
heart. The cultivation of what the tradition has called the spiritual senses
leading to the gradual acquisition of purity of heart is, perhaps, a form of
participation in the tenderness of God:
And so we shall by his sweet grace in our own meek continual prayer come into
him now in this life by many secret touchings of sweet spiritual sights and feelings,
measured out to us as our simplicity may bear it. And this is done and will be done
by the grace of the Holy Spirit, until the day that we die, still longing for love. And
then we shall all come into our Lord, knowing ourselves clearly and wholly
possessing God, and we shall all be endlessly hidden in God, truly seeing and
wholly feeling, and hearing him spiritually and delectably smelling him and sweetly
tasting him. And there we shall see God face to face, familiarly and wholly.
The tenderness that is an integral part of Gods eros for humanity awakens in
us a greater sense of our own capacity for affectivity, implanted in us as
creatures made in the image of God.
Ahlgren | Julian of Norwichs Theology of Eros
Julians accent on the sensual experience of God reminds us of the inherent
union of body and soul and the importance of maintaining and expressing that
unity in all of our human interconnections, particularly those that touch us
most deeply. Indeed, our well-being is enhanced through soulful exchanges
with others, made more real through simple expressions of kindness and
concern: the gentle touch of fingertips, joyful hugs, and consoling embraces.
Conversely, of course, our well-being can be threatened, most obviously by
physical violence, but also, and importantly, by neglect and the cognitive
dissonance of intimate lives that lack reverence and impede the full flourishing
of self and other. Being well thus connotes an integration of body and soul
facilitated by the interpenetration of all senses and perceptions.
Julian is quite clear that human sensualitya life informed by all the
human sensesis not only a great gift bestowed upon us by God but it is also
a (perhaps the) critical conduit for the divine. She writes:
So I understood that our sensuality is founded in nature, in mercy and in grace,
and this foundation enables us to receive gifts which lead us to endless life. For I
saw very surely that our substance is in God, and I also saw that God is in our
sensuality, for in the same instant and place exists the city of God, ordained for
him from without beginning. He comes into this city and will never depart from it,
for God is never out of the soul, in which he will dwell blessedly without end.
Because God is in our sensuality, Julian gives us reason to believe that when
the union of body and soul is shared with another we make a new and unique
space for Gods indwelling. The reality of the divine presence in that space is
reinforced by the timeless dimensions that sensual experiences can open up for
us, so that in the same instance and place that human touch communicates
the desire for the deepest well-being of anotherthat is, in the intimate
moments of bathing a child or an elderly person, in the accompaniment of a
woman in labor, in soulful lovemaking, in the manual labor of kitchen,
gardens, and farmsGod is present. And so Julian prays, Let either of them
[body or soul] take help from the other, until we have grown to full stature as
creative nature brings about.
Although Julian does not discuss the practice of tenderness, or the ways in
which the human person can cultivate deeper tenderheartedness, her notion of
Gods loving tenderness is hardly abstract and can be placed easily in conversa-
tion with earlier Christian treatises discussing purity of heart, a state of being
which might be encapsulated by the creation of an internal space for Gods
John Cassian, for example, writes of the spiritual importance of
nakedness, by which he means the deliberate stripping of material wealth
and social standing as well as intentional building up of all of the qualities of
love expressed in Pauls first letter to the Corinthians.
This, for him, consti-
tutes, purity of heart, as he writes:
Perfection, then, is clearly not achieved simply by being naked, by the lack of
wealth or by the rejection of honors, unless there is also that love, whose ingredi-
ents the apostle described and which is to be found solely in purity of heart. Not to
be jealous, not to be puffed up, not to act heedlessly, not to seek what does not
belong to one, not to rejoice over some injustice, not to plan evilwhat is this and
its like if not the continuous offering to God of a heart that is perfect and truly
pure . . . ?
Loving-kindness, as it is expressed to others with longing for their deepest
well-being, constitutes, perhaps, that union of eros and agape in God, and
learning it is the discipline of the Christian life.
For Julian, full communication of the tender loving-kindness of God
necessitates an understanding of what she calls the property of the father-
hood, and the property of the motherhood, and the property of the lordship in
one God. Through Gods motherhood in Christ, humans are perfected in
knowledge and wisdom through human sensuality. Julian expresses this,
saying, In the second person, in knowledge and wisdom we have our perfec-
tion, as regards our sensuality, our restoration and our salvation, for he is our
release. Tamie Marie Harkins.
Ahlgren | Julian of Norwichs Theology of Eros
Mother, brother and savior.
Motherhood, for Julian, emphasizes Gods mild,
ever-gentle demeanor toward humanity, and so she sees motherhood as
indicative of the very capacity to love. Maternal love is evidenced most fully,
for Julian, by nourishing others in, with, and through tenderness, and so she
describes how Christ and mothers feed us with their very selves, most
courteously and most tenderly, sustaining us in tender love and gently teach-
ing us wisdom directly through the body. Thus, she concludes, To the prop-
erty of motherhood belong nature, love, wisdom and knowledge, and this is
For Julian the qualities of fatherhood and motherhood add dimension-
ality to our understanding of God, communicating, individually and jointly,
Gods loving nature, the fullness of which we could not comprehend without
the qualities of Gods being that each expresses.
In and through the knowl-
edge of this union of motherhood and fatherhood in God, humanity experi-
ences our spiritual bringing to birth, a process which requires a sacred
tenderness. In bringing us to birth spirituallythat is, in helping us to see our
own deepest nature as Gods belovedChrist uses an incomparable tenderness
to kindle our understanding, prepare our ways, ease our conscience, comfort
our soul, and illumine our heart with a loving embrace and a gracious
In this work, Julian concludes, Christ exercises the true office of a
kind nurse, who has nothing else to do but attend to the safety of her child.
What Julian has demonstrated, in and through the example of Christ, is how
we have the capacity, through our bodies, to be caretakers of others, body and
soul. It is in and through this tender compassion and nurturance that we begin
to experience, with and in Christ, the ongoing movement of saving and
sanctifying grace within human life.
For Julian, the point of communication that allows agape and eros to
function together, in God and in the human person, lies in the mystery of the
incarnation, which communicates an ontological vulnerability expressed in the
qualities of tenderness, compassion, pity and longingin short, all that moves
God and us to reach out and extend the self to the other. This impulse toward
self-diffusion, of finding and knowing and defining personhood in and through
intersubjectivity, is, by its nature, erotic. This concept was developed explicitly
by neo-platonic Christian thinkers before Julian,
but it was not until after the
Franciscan revolution and later medieval exploration of the passion that
anyone would articulate a fully-developed theology of erotic incarnation.
Twelfth and thirteenth-century developments in the understanding of the
incarnation enabled Julian to merge a notion of Christs outstretched arms
with a notion of Christ as the outpouring of divine love in order to explore the
function of the human person in the extension of eros in and through the
cosmos. What Julians theological reflections convey to us, in a new way, is the
stunning generosity of Gods self-bestowal, a generosity made all the more real,
concrete, tangible and sensual in the naked self-exposure and loving tenderness
of Christ. While deeply affective, Julians theology is also sharply prophetic,
challenging us to enter into the reality of incarnation as participation.
Julians theology of eros, which binds together all of the elements in her
systematic theology, enables us to understand erotic love as a reality in which
we are graced to live, an eros that brings us greater fullness of life. To live in
that eros is to live in and with the movement of the divine as it gives life and
being to all things. This eros grounds and connects us so that we are pre-
served in love and invited into deeper forms of personhood. Recall that, for
Julian, the foundational ontological principle is that everything has being
through the love of God.
The reality that God is the Creator and the
protector and the lover is, then, a reality in which humanity can participate as
we cultivate our capacity to love and, specifically, our capacity to communicate
eros in ways that enhance our own and others well-being. For Julian, well-
being is a simple concept. To experience well-being is to be touched and
illumined by grace, with true certainty of endless joy. Although she portrays
this as a form of experience, she is not suggesting that our well-being hinges
upon what we are feeling in a given moment, nor how certainly we feel our
connection with God, nor even how touched we are by experiences of divine
presence. Rather, she wants us to reflect upon those moments as manifestations
of a deeper reality, the reality of Gods everpresent, everlasting love, which,
given our human limitations, we do not always perceive as abiding continually
within us. Indeed, the transience of our consciousness of the divine presence is
the woe we experience as human persons. She continues: The experience of
woe comes as a temptation, through the heaviness and weariness of our mortal
life, but this experience is alleviated, as well, through the spiritual under-
standing that we are preserved in love by the goodness of God just as truly in
woe as in well-being.
I believe this is Julians particular way of expressing the motif of the lovers
presence and absence that runs through both the Song of Songs and
subsequent Christian reflection on the nature of the human-divine relationship.
The play of repeated separation and return that merely heightens the lovers
appetite for one another is a powerful and important manifestation of eros,
but it is not eros itself. Instead, it is revelatory of true eros, the deeper and
more absolute connection that binds lover and beloved, a relationship that so
cherishes the well-being of the other that nothing can ultimately impede their
Julian sees the experience of presence and absence as a kind of testing-
ground for the soul, giving it the opportunity to develop its own soulful strength.
If we were to characterize this strength as faith, we might well trivialize it,
unless we understand that faith, or fidelity, is our sustained commitment to
affirm and incarnate, in and through Christ, Gods real presence on earth.
Ahlgren | Julian of Norwichs Theology of Eros
Our understanding of God is incomplete, even inadequate, until we know the
deeply erotic dimensions of Gods love for us.
God wants us in all things to have our contemplation and our delight in love. And
it is about this knowledge that we are most blind, for some of us believe that God
is almighty and may do everything, and that God is all wisdom and can do
everything, but that God is all love and wishes to do everything; there we fail. And
it is this ignorance which most hinders Gods lovers
. . . 45
If Julian is correct and God truly wants us in all things to have our contem-
plation and our delight in love, until we incorporate the ongoing revelations
of Gods erotic love into our own lives as erotic persons, our imitation of
Christ as members of the Christian community will be equally inadequate.
Julian of Norwichs theological systemher theology, her Christology, her
anthropology, and her soteriologymakes clear how essential eros is to the
process of salvation. In her thought, eros is both the root of the force that
draws all things into Godself, and the corresponding root of our urge
toward union with God and others. The salvific, whole-making dimension of
eros is well-encapsulated in Julians observation that Christ, seeing that
humanity lives in love-longing for union with God, draws us into unity with
one another in and through Christ, and thereby back into the goodness of
Glad and merry and sweet is the blessed and lovely demeanour of our Lord
towards our souls, for he saw us always living in love-longing, and he wants our
souls to be gladly disposed towards him, to repay him his reward. And so I hope
that by his grace he lifts up and will draw our outer disposition to the inward, and
will make us all at unity with him, and each of us with others in the true, lasting
joy which is Jesus.
Julians insights about God, Christ and humanity are completely lost to us if
we do not recognize Christs eternal presence in humanity. The christocentric
character of her theology reminds us of our own deepest nature as human
persons, a knowledge that we are connected, in our being, both to God and to
one another. The eros, or love-longing in which we live, is the soil which
enables us to cultivate our connections with one another so that they might
communicate the ongoing incarnation of God in human life.
1. Denise Nowakoswki Baker, Julian of Norwichs Showings: From Vision to Book
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994); Grace Jantzen, Julian of Norwich:
Mystic and Theologian (New York: Paulist Press, 1988); Joan Nuth, Wisdoms
Daughter: The Theology of Julian of Norwich (New York: Crossroad, 1991). Much of
this scholarship was facilitated by the appearance of Edmund Colledge and James
Walshs translation of their critical edition of her Showings (New York: Paulist Press,
1978), the edition I will be citing. All citations to the Long Text will hereafter be
referred to as LT.
2. LT 2, 178.
3. LT 5, 183.
4. LT 5, 183.
5. LT 5, 183.
6. See also 1 John 4:78.
7. LT 6, 186.
8. See Bernard McGinn, Foundations of Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1991), 4448.
9. For Origen, knowledge of ourselves as erotic beings is an important first step in the
awakening of the soul toward its divine origins. Thus, he asserts as a point of departure,
it is part of our nature as humans to feel eros; Origen, Commentary on the Song of
Songs, trans. R. P. Lawson (Westminster: Newman, 1957), 36: We ought to under-
stand that it is impossible for human nature not to be always feeling the passion of love
for something.
10. Origen, Commentary on the Song of Songs, 2930.
11. See Origen, Commentary on the Song of Songs, 345: So you must take whatever
Scripture says about charity [agape] as if it had been said with reference to passionate
love [eros], taking no note of the difference of terms; for the same meaning is conveyed
by both. . . . So it makes no difference whether we speak of having a passion for God,
or of loving Him; and I do not think one could be blamed if one called God passionate
Love, just as John calls him Charity. For further reflection, see Bernard McGinn, God
as Eros: Metaphysical Foundations of Christian Mysticism, in New Perspectives on
Historical Theology: Essays in Memory of John Meyendorff, ed. Bradley Nassif, (Grand
Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 189209.
12. LT 32, 231.
13. See Plato, Symposium 206a1112, 206b, 206c.
14. See, for example, Nuth, Wisdoms Daughter, 1629.
15. For Julian the tenderness of God is known most fully through the second person of the
Trinity, Christ, who, as many scholars have discussed, is explicitly maternal. The
maternal nature of Christ is developed in LT 5863, 293305. For Julian, redemption is
accomplished because we are brought back by the motherhood of mercy and grace
into our natural place, in which we were created by the motherhood of love, a mothers
love which never leaves us. (LT 60, 297) As I read this passage, Julian is highlighting
the warmly pastoral dimension of a life lived in God, encouraging us in our imitation of
Christ to embrace tender caretaking not as a feminine activity but as a human, life-
giving activity, germane to all who claim to know and love Christ.
16. LT 20, 213.
17. LT 22, 216.
18. LT 23, 219.
19. LT 3, 179.
20. LT 51, 267278.
21. John 1:1.
22. Julian describes the evolution of her interpretation of the Lord and servant revelation in
LT 51, 270275. Specifically, she tells us that an inward instruction she received for
twenty years after the time of the revelation encouraged her to see that In the servant
is comprehended the second person of the Trinity, and in the servant is comprehended
Adam, that is to say all men. . . . The strength and the goodness what we have is from
Jesus Christ, the weakness and blindness that we have is from Adam, which two were
shown in the servant. (275)
Ahlgren | Julian of Norwichs Theology of Eros
23. LT 51, 267.
24. LT 51, 272.
25. LT 54, 286. Note that Julians reflections on this empowerment follow as a corollary to
her insight, in the preceding note, that Gods indwelling is one of substance and
therefore it makes us what we are.
26. LT 26, 233.
27. LT 26, 223.
28. LT 28, 227.
29. LT 43, 255.
30. LT 55, 287.
31. LT 55, 287.
32. This internal space can be located both within the individual human person and
within the spheres of intentional Christian community, enabling those who are pure in
heart to be bearers of the Holy Spirit. See Harriet A. Luckman, Basil of Caesarea and
Purity of Heart, in Purity of Heart in Early Ascetic and Monastic Literature: Essays in
Honor of Juana Raasch, O.S.B. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999), 89106, esp.
9495 and 97103. For contemporary reflection on this theme see Stephanie Paulsell,
Honoring the Body: Meditations on a Christian Practice (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass,
33. See 1 Corinthians 13.
34. John Cassian, Conferences, trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), 41.
35. Teresa of Avila identifies the cultivation of the heart as a stage of mystical growth and
spends some time describing the expansion of the heart in the fourth dwelling places
of her Interior Castle. For commentary, see Gillian T. W. Ahlgren, Entering Teresa of
Avilas Interior Castle (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005).
36. LT 58, 293.
37. LT 60, 299.
38. LT 59, 2256.
39. This is a summary of LT 61, 299300.
40. LT 61, 302.
41. See, for example, discussion of Pseudo-Dionysius in Mark McIntosh, Mystical Theology
(Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 4456.
42. Charlene E. Burns, Divine Becoming: Rethinking Jesus and Incarnation (Minneapolis:
Fortress Press, 2002), 145.
43. LT 5, 183.
44. LT 1, 176.
45. LT 73, 323.
46. LT 71, 31819.