Julian of Norwich: Celebrating Mother Jesus

by Kittredge Cherry | May 8, 2020 (qspirit.net)

Julian of Norwich with cat

Julian of Norwich is a medieval English mystic who celebrated “Mother Jesus.” Her feast day, May 8, always falls near Mother’s Day.

It’s not known if Julian herself was queer, but some of her ideas were. Julian is often listed with LGBTQ saints because of her genderbending visions of Jesus and God. She wrote, “As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother.”

Her discussions of Jesus as a mother sound radical even now, more than 600 years later.  Her omnigendered vision of the Trinity fits with contemporary feminist and queer theology.

Mother’s Day is also a great time to honor mothers whose love for their LGBTQ children helped launch organizations such as Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), founded by Jeanne Manford and Adele Starr.

Julian of Norwich (c.1342-1416) is the first woman to write a book in English. The book, “Revelations of Divine Love,” recounts a series of 16 visions that she experienced from May 8-13, 1373 during a severe illness when she was 30 years old. The book includes Julian’s most famous saying, “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well” — words spoken to her by God in one of Julian’s visions.

She appears with this quote and her cat companion in the icon at the top of this post. It comes from Holy Spirit Art at Etsy and is available for purchase as a wooden icon plaque.

A mug shows Julian with her cat and her best-loved quote: “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” Available from the Drinklings Coffee Mugs Etsy shop.

Later Julian went on to become an anchoress, a type of recluse who lives in a cell attached to a church and does contemplative prayer. Her hermit’s cell was at the Church of St. Julian in Norwich. The cell had two windows, one opening to the church and the other opening to the street. She became known throughout England for the spiritual counseling that she gave there.

The queer side of Julian is explored in the chapter “Queer Touch Between Holy Women: Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Birgitta of Sweden, and the Visitation” by Laura Saetveit Miles of the University of Bergen, Norway, in the 2019 scholarly book “Touching, Devotional Practices, and Visionary Experience in the Late Middle Ages.” It “takes a new approach to the well-known meeting between two late-medieval English visionary women, Margery Kempe and the anchoress Julian of Norwich,” thereby revealing “the full transgressive effect of queer touch between women—or even its unspoken possibility,” according to the chapter summary.

Julian wrote of God as mother

Julian is considered the first Catholic to write at length about God as mother. Her profound ideas speak powerfully today to women and queer people of faith.

Here are a few short quotes from Julian’s extensive writings about “Mother Jesus”:“So Jesus Christ who sets good against evil is our real Mother. We owe our being to him–and this is the essence of motherhood! –and all the delightful, loving protection which ever follows. God is as really our Mother as he is our Father.“ (Chapter 59)“So Jesus is our true Mother by nature at our first creation, and he is our true Mother in grace by taking on our created nature.” (Chapter 59)“A mother can give her child milk to suck, but our dear mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and he does so most courteously and most tenderly with the holy sacrament, which is the precious food of life itself… The mother can lay the child tenderly to her breast, but our tender mother Jesus, he can familiarly lead us to his blessed breast through his sweet open side….” (Chapter 60)

These quotes come from modern English translations of “Revelations of Divine Love” by Elizabeth Spearing and Clifton Wolters.  Other saints who wrote about God as mother include Anselm of Canterbury.

“Dame Julian’s Hazelnut” by Brother Robert Lentz, OFM, Prints available at Amazon or TrinityStores.com

Julian saw God’s love in ordinary life

The sacred feminine is just one of the many revelations that have endeared Julian to the public. She also uses objects from ordinary life to illustrate God’s loving, forgiving nature. For example, in one vision God shows Julian a small object like a hazel-nut in the palm of her hand. Julian writes:“I looked at it and thought, ‘What can this be?’ And the answer came to me, ‘It is all that is made.’ I wondered how it could last, for it was so small I thought it might suddenly disappear. And the answer in my mind was, ‘It lasts and will last forever because God loves it; and in the same way everything exists through the love of God’.” (Chapter 5)

A longstanding legend tells of Julian’s friendship with her cat companion, depicted in the painting at the top of this post. As an anchoress, Julian probably lived alone. It is said that the only other being to share her room was a cat — officially for the practical purpose of keeping it free from rats and mice.

“Julian of Norwich,” a memorial drawing for his cat Betty, by Douglas Blanchard

New York painter Douglas Blanchard shows the saint with the artist’s own cat Betty in a drawing done as a memorial tribute to a beloved feline companion who died in 2013. He includes a favorite quote from Julian:

“He that made all things for love,
by that same love keepeth them,
and shall keep them without end.”

Blanchard is best known for his epic series “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision,” which is now available as a book. He teaches art and art history at the Bronx Community College of the City University of New York.

“Julian of Norwich” by Brother Robert Lentz, OFM,  Prints available at Amazon or TrinityStores.com

Another icon of Julian and her cat was created by Robert Lentz, a Franciscan friar based in New York. Known for his innovative icons, he was rebuked by the church for painting LGBTQ saints and God as female.

“Julian of Norwich” by Tobias Haller

An elderly “Julian of Norwich” was sketched against a lavender background by Tobias Haller, an iconographer, author, composer, and vicar of Saint James Episcopal Church in the Bronx. He is the author of “Reasonable and Holy: Engaging Same-Sexuality.” Haller enjoys expanding the diversity of icons available by creating icons of LGBTQ people and other progressive holy figures as well as traditional saints. He and his spouse were united in a church wedding more than 30 years ago and a civil ceremony after same-sex marriage became legal in New York.

Julian lived a long life. The date of her death is unknown, but records show that she was still alive at age 73 to receive an inheritance. She was never formally canonized, but Julian is considered a saint by popular devotion. The Episcopal and Lutheran Churches keep her feast day on May 8.

Many important writers have been influenced by Julian, including 20th-century British poet T.S. Eliot. He quotes her in his masterpiece “Four Quartets,” which led to him receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948.

Julian of Norwich in song and prayer

Julian of Norwich patch

“Julian of Norwich, pray for gender fluidity” by Avery Smith of Sapphic Stiches

Various prayers related to Julian of Norwich are in circulation, including “Julian of Norwich, pray for gender fluidity.”  The prayer was hand-sewn onto embroidered patch by artist Avery Smith of Louisville, Kentucky.  Smith runs an Etsy shop called Sapphic Stitches that offers a variety of patches on LGBTA+ Christian and other themes.

“LGBTA+ Christians who choose to pray for the intercession of Saints deserve to have patrons whom they trust understand and support them,’ Smith affirms.  “Whatever Saint or paired-Saint couple resonates with you as an LGBTA+ Christian can be made into a customizable patch.”

The prayer is incorporated into Q Spirit’s Litany of Queer Saints.

Julian’s famous words are set to music in the song “All Will Be Well” by Meg Barnhouse, a Texas-based Unitarian minister and singer/songwriter. The moving song comes from her album “Mango Thoughts in a Meatloaf Town” and is available on YouTube.

A longer quotation from Julian, again including “All will be well,” was set to music by 20th-century Welsh composer William Matthias in his piece “As Truly as God is Our Father.”  it is sung on video by Plymouth Choir of First Plymouth Church, Lincoln Nebraska.

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To read this post in Spanish / en español, go to Santos Queer:
Juliana de Norwich: Celebración de la Madre Jesús (Santos Queer)

To read this article in Italian, go to:
Gesù come madre. La vita e il pensiero di Giuliana di Norwich (Gionata.org)

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Related links for Mother’s Day:
Jeanne Manford: PFLAG founder loved her gay son

Adele Starr and others: Patron saints for straight allies of LGBTQ people

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Top image credit:
Julian of Norwich icon from Holy Spirit Art at Etsy. Available for purchase as a wooden icon plaque.

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This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.

This article was originally published on Q Spirit in May 2017 and was updated for accuracy and expanded with new material on May 4,2021.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Qspirit.net presents the Jesus in Love Blog on LGBTQ spirituality.

Kittredge Cherry

FollowKittredge CherryFounder at Q SpiritKittredge Cherry is a lesbian Christian author who writes regularly about LGBTQ spirituality.She holds degrees in religion, journalism and art history.She was ordained by Metropolitan Community Churches and served as its national ecumenical officer, advocating for LGBTQ rights at the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches.

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