After a long pause, I am resuming my Journey with Julian of Norwich this week. It may be taking me longer than I envisaged when I set out, but I am not giving up. I will persist to the end.
After all these reveleations, the visions faded and Julian was returned to pain and dryness. When a priest visited, she told him she had been raving, seeming to discredit her own visions. She immediately regretted this and felt that she had betrayed Jesus’ exquisite mercy revealed to her. When she fell asleep she was visited by the devil in a terrible apparition; resisisting the devil, she was returned to the consolation of her earlier visions.
Our Lord very humbly revealed words to me, without voice and without opening of lips, just as He had done before, and said very sweetly: Know it well, it was no hallucination which you saw today, but accept and believe it and hold firmly to it, and comfort yourself with it and trust in it, and you will not be overcome…And these words: You will not be overcome, were said very insistently and strongly, for certainty and strength against every tribulation which may come. He did not say, you will not be troubled, you will not be belaboured, you will not be disquieted; but He said: You will not be overcome.
The wisest act for a creature to do is according to the will and the counsels of [its] greatest and supreme friend. This blessed friend is Jesus, and it is His will and counsel that we keep with Him and fasten ourselves closely to Him, in whatever state we may be. For whether we be foul or clean, we are always the same in His love; for well or for woe, He wants us never to flee from Him…And so by knowledge and grace we may see our sin, profitably, without despair…Also at the same time our courteous Lord revealed, most sweetly and most powerfully, the endlessness and the unchangeability of His love, and also His great goodness and His gracious protection of our spirit, so that the love between Him and our souls will never be parted into eternity. And so in fear I have matter for meekness, which saves me from presumption, and in the blessed revelation of love I have matter for true comfort and joy, which saves me from despair.
It has been a while. I had to take a break from my journey to deal with other things going on, but here I am taking up the rest of the journey from here, and looking forward to it.
Out Lord wants us to see our wretchedness and meekly to acknowledge it; but He does not want us to remain there, or to be much occupied in self-accusation, nor does He want us to be too full of our own misery.But He wants us to quickly attend to Him, foe He stands all alone, and He waits for us continually, moaning and mourning until we come. And He hastens to bring us to Him, for we are His joy and His delight, and He is the remedy of our life…For love never allows Him to be without pity; and when we fall into sin, and neglect recollectionof Him and the protection of our own soul, then Christ bears all alone the burden of us. And so He remains, moaning and mourning. Then it is for us in reverence and kindness to turn quickly to our Lord, and not to leave Him alone.
Whatever kinds of fear be suggested to us other than reverent fear, though they may appear disguised as holiness, they are not…; and this is how they can be recognised apart. The fear that makes us hastily to flee from everything that is not good, and to fall onto our Lord’s breast, as the child into the mother’s arms, with all our intention and with all our mind, knowing our feebleness and our great need, knowing His everlasting goodness and His blessed love, seeking only in Him for salvation, cleaving to Him with faithful trust, that fear which leads us in this direction is gentle and gracious and good and true; and all that is opposed to this is either wrong or mixed with wrong. So this is the remedy, to recognise them both and to refuse the wrong; for the natural attribute of fear that we have in this life by the grace-giving operation of the Holy Spirit will be the same in heaven before God, gentle, courteous, most sweet; and thus in love we shall be familiar and close to God, and in fear we shall be gentle and courteous to God, and both…in the same way.
I am now out of retreat and resuming my journey with Julian once more.
And when we fall, quickly He raises us up with His loving embrace and His gracious touch. And when we are srenghtened by His sweet working, then we willingly choose Him by His grace, that we shall be His servants and His lovers, constantly and forever…And our falling is not evidence of divine negligence or lack of love. For we need to fall, and we need to see it; 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…And by the experience of this falling we shall have a great and marvellous knowledge of love in God without end; for enduring and marvellous is that love which cannot and will not be broken because of offences…[Therefore] let us meekly recognise our weakness, knowing that we cannot stand for the twinkling of an eye except with the protection of grace, and let us reverently cling to God, trusting only in Him.
But because of our own inconsistancy, we often fall in to sin. [Then] the prompting of our enemy …and our own folly and blindness…say: You know well that you are a wretch, a sinner and also unfaithful…Often you promise our Lord that you will do better, and then you fall again into the same state, especially into sloth and wasting of time, for that, as I see it, is the beginning of sin. And this makes [us] afraid to appear before our courteous Lord. Thus it is our enemy who wants to retard us with his false suggestions of fear about our wretchedness…For it is his purpose to make us so depressed and sad in this matter that we should forget the blessed contemplation of our everlasting friend…So this is the remedy, that we aknowledge our wretchedness and flee to our Lord; for always, the more abased we are, the more profitable it is for us to touch him.
Often when our falling and our wretchedness are shown to us, we are so…greatly ashamed of ourselves that we scarcely know where we can put ourselves. But then our courteous Mother does not wish us to flee away, for nothing would be less pleasing to Him; but He then wants us to behave like a child. For when it is distressed and frightened, it runs quickly to its mother; and if it can do no more, it calls to its mother for help with all its might. So He wants us [to cry out]: My kind Mother, my gracious Mother , my beloved Mother, have mercy on me. I have made myself filthy and unlike you, and I may not and cannot make it right except with your help and grace…For the flood of mercy which is His dear blood and precious water is plentiful to make us fair and clean…The sweet gracious hands of our Mother are ready and diligent about us….It is His office to save us, it is His glory to do it, and it is His will that we know it; for He wants us to love Him sweetly and trust in Him meekly and greatly.
Having had an unplanned rest from blogging to allow me to focus on getting school ready for a complete return in September, here I am again, carrying on with my journey with Julian and picking up my usual routine once more.
The mother can give her child to suck of her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with Himself, and does, most courteously and most tenderly, with the blessed sacrament, which is the precious food of true life; and with all the sweet sacraments He sustains us most mercifully and graciously…[And He says]: All the health and life of the sacraments, all the power and the grace of my Word, all the goodness which is ordained in the Holy Church for you, I am He…The mother can lay her child tenderly to her breast, but our tender Mother Jesus can lead us easily into His blessed breast through His sweet open side, and show us there a part of the Godhead and of the joys of heaven, with inner ceratinty of endless bliss. And that He revealed [in saying]: “See how I love you!” This fair lovely word “mother” is so sweet and so kind in itself that it cannot truly be said of anyone or to anyone except of Him and to Him who is the true Mother of life and of all things.
I have been challenged in my prayer recently, with the 40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich, together with the scripture from Pray As You Go this week (Thursday 9 July), to contemplate the image of God as Mother, rather than as Father. I do not have any rational objection to the idea, quite the contrary: any time I have encountered the image I have been in favour of it. I just have some trouble getting into it. It might be argued that my upbringing has conditioned me to view God as male, with Father as the predominant image. Certainly, whenever I appear as a child in my imaginative contemplation, the image of God as Father is around at times, but even more so there is the sense of God being as a big brother, or cousin, or grown up friend, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, certainly as a friends, regardless of what age I am in the particular prayer. I am also very much at home with the imagery from the Song of Songs, where God appears as the lover of the soul and given my heterosexuality, it is quite natural for me to experience God as male in that context. There may also be a contributing factor that Mary, the mother of Jesus, is held up as the mother image in the church I belong to, and the patriarchal representation of her womanhood and motherhood, the motherhood of sons rather than daughters, is problematic for me. So while I do not object to Mother imagery of God in a purely rational sense, it is not an image that has penetrated very deeply into my pysche. Until now, when I find myself pondering it in prayer.
Loving, giving, nurturing, protecting – all of these attributes can be given to fathers as well as mothers. I am not well versed in gender studies; I am aware of the nature versus nurture arguments, predominantly from my scientific background, and while I do not want to reduce the argument purely to reproductive biology, I think that there is a key to unlocking my understanding and engagement with the image of God as Mother in the science of human reproduction and my role as a woman within that.
If I were to sum up the essence of the difference between nurturing fatherhood and motherhood, it would be visceral, literally in the blood and guts and gore of motherhood. My purpose in exploring this aspect of the image is not to exclude everything else about motherhood, or to deny everything else as motherhood if it is without the actual childbirth. That would be to imply that step mums and adoptive mums, and those who suffer the desire of the screaming womb and bear the pain of not being able to have children of their own are not real mothers. I do not stand there, and I do not think that, nor would I say it, or even have it construed from my words. I would never dream of distributing hurt from my words in that way, and would be sincerely regretful if I did. My own experience of screaming womb, of not being pregnant when I wanted to be is very brief, and I can and did only imagine living with it all my life. I am sure the sorrow and pain I imagined does not even scratch the surface of the experienced anguish. Scripture contains its own stories of women who understand this pain: Sarah, Rachel, Elizabeth, to name a few. And as for the pregnancy that ends in miscarriage, I know this pain and it is impossible to forget. My own mum still grieves and mentions those little ones she lost, and she is ninety. I get where she is coming from. I explore the images of pregnancy, childbirth and of nursing a child here, as a subset of everything else, to draw out the more from using the image of Mother specifically, as opposed to Father, or Parent. Julian says:
We know that all our mothers bear us for pain and for death….but our true Mother Jesus…alone bears us for joy and for endless life, 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 cruel pains…
To be carried within, to bear, to suffer cruel pains and a sudden flow of blood and water – these are images associated with childbirth, and while we all have been born, to literally bear a child is the experience of biological mothers, of pregnancy and childbirth. In my own experience of labour, I remember a moment, when I was so exhausted, and the pain of the contractions were so excruciating that I just wanted it to stop, and the only price I was not prepared to pay for that was harm to my yet unborn baby. I would have sold my granny, and risked myself, just to make it stop.
In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius encourages us to bring our prayer experience into the body through The Application of the Senses and he describes the process at the beginning of the contemplations in the Second week, one of which is the nativity itself. To use the memory and the imagination in our prayer grounds our prayer in our reality, it makes God corporeal. Bringing my experience of childbirth into my prayer this week has deepened my understanding of this image of God as Mother, but it is not just childbirth itself. In the reading from Hosea used in Pray As You Go, it says:
The use of the word “cord” as a “tie”, again, is reminiscent of pregnancy and childbirth by way of the umbilical cord, but the bending down to feed extends the image to that of suckling a child. Again, it is not my intention to dismiss or disparage bottle feeding in any way, there are numerous positives and areas of overlap with breast feeding, and anyone can do it, meaning that parents who are not biological mothers are included in nourishing and nurturing children. As with the image of pregnancy and childbirth itself, I am looking for the more in the image of God as mother, and I am drawing and reflecting on my own experience as a biological mother. As one who breast fed and has experience of bottle feeding, I feel qualified to comment on the worst kept secret of breast feeding mothers. It is this: once you get past the stress and the pain of latching on and the cracked and sore nipples, breast feeding your baby is blissful. I remember reading a long time ago something about a biological positive feedback loop and the reality is, it is blissful when it goes right, for both the mother and child. You experience your replete child calm and quieted, as the soul is described in Psalm 131:
But I have calmed and quietened myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.
And the feeling is reciprocated in the mother who has fed her child. The tension of full breasts is soothed and the mother relaxed. There is a warm bond of intimacy and contentment between the mother and her baby. It is a feeling of everything being right with the world. In the first months of the baby’s life, she is completely dependant on this source of nourishment and trusting of the source. The mother who breast feeds is, for a short time, the absolute centre of that child’s world, without reservation. That might seem like a huge responsibility, but there is a ferocious strength that comes with it. I remember feeling that I could tear apart a lion with my bare hands should it so much as look at my child as if she were dinner. We were at the zoo at the time, let me just place that image in its proper context.
What am I left with? When we are as dependent on God as a baby on the mother who feeds her; when our world revolves around Him in absolute, unquestioning trust; when we drink fully of the nourishment and protection He gives freely and generously, we become blissed out in Him. My contemplations on the Motherhood of God has distilled into this one idea. In spite of all the suffering and gore that goes creation:
God is blissed out by our bliss in Him.
At the moment it is a shocking and awesome idea that is located in my rational, thinking brain. It has yet to penetrate more deeply, to meet with the same knowledge in the heart of my soul. And Julian herself has said:
And when He had finished, and had so borne us for bliss, still all this could not satisfy His wonderful love…
Jesus Christ, who opposes good to evil is our true Mother. We have our being from Him, where the foundation of motherhood begins….We know that all our mothers bear us for pain and for death….but our true Mother Jesus…alone bears us for joy and for endless life. 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 cruel pains…and at the last He died. And when He had finished, and had so borne us for bliss, still all this could not satisfy His wonderful love…To the property of motherhood belong nature, love, wisdom and knowledge, and this is God. For though it may be that our bodily bringing to birth is only little, humble and simple in comparison with our spiritual bringing to birth, still it is He who does it in the creatures by whom it is done…And in our spiritual bringing to birth He uses more tenderness, without any comparison, in protecting us…And from this sweet and gentle operation He will neither cease or desist, until all His beloved children are born and brought to birth.