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Julian of Norwich and the Suffering Motherhood of God

August 19, 2021


The first time I read Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, I was in college. My takeaway was that instead of providing this medieval English anchoress with pen and paper, her contemporaries should have gotten her psychiatric care. I found her theology strange, unsettling, disturbing, and even a little disgusting. She seemed obsessed with and craving suffering. She was also (grotesquely, I thought at the time) engrossed by the suffering of Jesus Christ on the cross. In her mystical visions, Jesus did not only willingly endure in the Passion for sinners, he desired to suffer even more for us. She explains, “He very affectionately said these words, ‘If I could suffer more, I would suffer more.’ . . . For if he could suffer more, he would, even if it were not necessary.” My copy of Revelations of Divine Love stayed on my shelf for over a decade. But when I returned to it, my experience was very different—because in the meantime, I had become a mother.

My fourth pregnancy was something else—endless morning sickness and a debilitating anemia that left me lightheaded while trying to care for the rest of my children. We won’t talk about having to flip her position; I’m sparing you the details, but it was an exceedingly difficult time, topped off by the fact that our new addition seemed uninterested in actually being born. We watched her due date come and go as the temperature hit 114℉ in Texas in July. 

I’m not telling you this just to complain. I do have a point, so bear with me.

When it was finally time to give birth, the hospital staff was unconvinced that I was really and truly in labor. While explaining between contractions that this wasn’t my first rodeo and that I needed to be moved to a delivery room on the double, an unimpressed triage nurse wondered whether I should even be there. She sent me home, suggesting that I might go into labor in a couple of days. An hour later we parked at the hospital again and almost didn’t make it through the doors. My husband was bracing himself to deliver our daughter in the parking lot. “I was looking around for a grassy spot!” he told me later. When, by the grace of God, we made it inside, I held on to a water fountain for support and screamed. No wheelchairs could be found, so a nurse showed up with a rolling office chair and raced me down the hall to a bed as I shrieked the Hail Mary. In a matter of seconds, I delivered a baby directly at the nurse who had told me I wasn’t in labor while yelling, “I told you not to send me home!” It was one of the most vindicating moments of my life, to be honest. I never said I was a saint. 

But then, she was there. My baby, my beautiful baby. Cherubic cheeks, strawberry blonde hair, rosebud lips, completely and utterly magical. Waves of euphoria overwhelmed me as I smelled her newborn head. “I would have done that a thousand times just to meet you for a moment,” I whispered to her. And I wasn’t exaggerating. The suffering of the previous nine months and the trauma of labor was nothing in comparison to my love for her. I’m no fan of suffering, but as I held my newborn, I didn’t wish the suffering away. I wished she could know the whole story so that she could understand the smallest fraction of my love for her. Because all of it—the suffering and the joy​​—was love. My suffering was transformed from pain to joy—it became a gift of love.

And suddenly Julian of Norwich’s notion of being willing to endure any amount of suffering for the sake of love made sense to me. She no longer seemed mad, just full of wisdom.

Julian meditated on Jesus’ role as a mother—something that (though we do find maternal imagery for God in Scripture) might make us uncomfortable. Christ’s pangs of agony on the cross, endured to bring us to new life, are like labor pains; God’s daily sustaining of our souls is like that of a nursing mother feeding her children, and this love is as all-encompassing as a mother’s love. Julian’s reflections on the strange joy Christ takes in his suffering for us (and even desire for more suffering!) clicked for me. It is like the suffering a woman experiences in pregnancy and labor that is remembered with joy because of love for her child. I look back on the very real pain that I suffered to bring my baby into the world, and it bizarrely fills my heart with happiness that I could do that for love of her. I would have suffered even more for her sake. And Christ would have suffered even more for ours.

My daughter is three years old now, but my powerful love for her has only grown and permeates the daily suffering and inconveniences of parenthood. The lost sleep of newborn days, her need to be held in my arms when there are other things to be done, caring for her through illnesses, calming her tantrums, changing her diapers—all these things hurt in some way. But they become unlikely joys as well. We cannot help but be enchanted by our children. For them, we take on  tasks that we would have found disgusting before becoming parents. It doesn’t mean that we always do them cheerfully—we’re human, after all. Unlike our Lord, we struggle to lay down our lives. At times, we are so weary and exhausted that we wonder if we can go on. 

But when the challenges of parenthood are met by derision—“Thank God I don’t have kids!” we might hear a friend say. “The diapers, and the expense, and the loss of freedom! Giving birth? Sleepless nights? No, thank you!”—we struggle to communicate what parenthood is really like.  Yes, it’s all those things, but oh, it is more! How can I explain? Parenthood doesn’t come with a list of benefits; it is pouring myself out. Love is the only benefit—and not just the sweet, simple love my children have to offer back (on a good day, that is); it’s the love I get to experience for them that surpasses description. And breaks the heart.

At its heart, Julian of Norwich’s writing explores that love—God’s for us. By immersing herself in Jesus’ Passion, Julian is not exhibiting a pathological obsession with pain, she is more deeply understanding the love he has for us. Suffering and love, love and suffering—how much of wisdom is understanding that these are inseparable? By reflecting on God as father and as mother—familiar roles that we can identify with—Julian of Norwich explains God’s love in images we can grasp. “Our true mother, Jesus, he who is all love, bears us into joy and eternal life. . . . He sustains us within himself in love and was in labour for the full time until he suffered the sharpest pangs and the most grievous suffering that ever were or shall be, and at the last he died. . . . Even this could not fully satisfy his marvelous love; and that he showed in these high surpassing words of love, ‘If I could suffer more, I would suffer more.’”

I remember when holding my firstborn, I was struck dumb by the thought that this was how my mother must look at me. Could it be possible? Could she really love me this much? How can one person even survive this much love? And then another thought hit me: God loves you even more—more than your mother loves you, more than you love your baby. But now—now you can understand, just a little bit, how he looks at you, his beloved child. 


Read Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love with the Word on Fire book club (Club 451)! Join in by joining the Word on Fire Institute!