Mother Julian wrote, “These revelations were shewed to a simple creature that knew no letter, the year of our Lord 1373, the 8th day of May.” A contradiction in terms. If she knew no letters, how was she able to write that sentence? In her book The Way of Julian of Norwich, Sheila Upjohn provides a number of possible explanations. Firstly is the idea that Julian wrote in English but knew no Latin. In Fourteenth Century England Latin was the authoritative language of the Church. It would be a further nine years before John Wycliffe completed his translation of the Bible into English, for which, and for arguing that Scripture be the authoritative centre of Christianity, he was posthumously excommunicated and condemned as a heretic. If Julian knew no Latin she would have been regarded as functionally illiterate by the Church.
Another theory is that at the time when Julian received her visions she was illiterate, but later learned to read and write English so that she might put to paper the message she had received. A contemporary of Julian, Margery Kempe, a mystic of the Christian tradition who lived in nearby King’s Lynn, is regarded as being the first woman to write an autobiography in English. However, we know that Kempe was unlettered. Her story was dictated to a scribe. If Julian describes herself as being unlettered, is it not possible that Revelations of Divine Love was also transcribed by dictation?
Be that as it may, Julian was a woman, and in Fourteenth Century England this meant she had little status, regardless of her ability to read and write. Remarkably then for the time, although she is at pains to point out her lowly status, she is also firm in her belief that despite her gender she has the same right as any to speak of the goodness of God. The following is a modern translation from the first draft of Revelations of Divine Love.
God forbid that you should say or take it that I am a teacher, for I do not mean that, nor never meant it. I am an unlettered woman, poor and simple. But I know well that, what I say, I have it from the showing of Him who is a mighty teacher – and I tell it to you for love, for I would to God it were known, and my fellow Christians helped on to greater loathing of sin and a deeper love of God. But because I am a woman, must I therefore believe that I should not tell you of the goodness of God, when I saw at the same time that it was His Will that it should be known?
This brought to my mind some passages from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.1 Corinthians 1:25
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.1 Corinthians 1:27
God’s decision to impart His message to an unlettered woman in Fourteenth Century Norwich would undoubtedly appear as foolishness to the patriarchal hierarchy of the time, which was, ironically, dominated by the Church. This was why Julian and her subsequent followers kept her writings hidden from the authorities. In the same way God’s decision to place into the arms of a young, unmarried Jewish girl, “a Saviour who is Christ the Lord” was regarded as foolishness by the authorities of the time. This is the foolishness of which Paul speaks. It is foolishness as the world perceives it, not as God perceives it.
Similarly, had the church authorities of Fourteenth Century Norwich discovered and read Julian’s writings, they undoubtedly would also have regarded as foolishness, if not outright heresy, her notions on the gender of God.
As truly as God is our father, so, just as truly, God is our mother. And he showed this in everything, especially in those sweet words when he said: ‘It is I.’ That is to say: ‘It is I, the strength and goodness of fatherhood. It is I, the wisdom of motherhood’.
Despite the insistence of much of the Church in clinging to gender exclusive language, gender is not, nor has ever been, something that has coloured my notions of God. I suppose “Parent, Offspring and Holy Entity” doesn’t have quite the poetic ring of “Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” Moreover, I can’t help but feel that rumination on the nature of the Trinity is a particularly ineffective use of time and energy when “capital crimes, chewed, swallowed and digested, before us lie.” Though that may depend on one’s understanding of the role of church. Are we, as Christian’s called to affect social justice or to seek out our own redemption and salvation? Are the two mutually exclusive?
A few years ago a young lesbian couple joined my walking group. With a shared interest in photography we soon became friends. As I have come to know them I have seen how much dedication and devotion they have to each other, certainly way more than I could muster in any of the failed relationships I have left in my wake. They will be moving from Manchester soon and I will miss them. They have brought friendship and joy to my life.
What I take from these passages of Mother Julian’s then, is how important it is for me to be aware of God’s presence in the world around me, the huge high wholeness of God, whether manifest as father, mother, brother, sister, friend, neighbour, colleague, gay, straight, or stranger. Demarcation by gender is, mostly, absent.