Julian of Norwich on Compassion and the Divine Motherhood

Joy and parenting go together in divinity for Julian of Norwich: “God feels great delight to be our Father and God feels great delight to be our Mother.”

Nursing Madonna (Madonna Lactans) by anonymous master of Bruges, 16th century. Museu de Aveiro, Portugal. Wikimedia Commons

What are the characteristics of a mother for Julian? Compassion is one such characteristic.

Compassion is a kind and gentle property that belongs to the Motherhood in tender grace.

What is this tender compassion about?

Compassion protects, increases our sensitivity, gives life and heals.

At the root of compassion lies love in action.

The ground of compassion is love and the working of compassion keeps us in love.

Compassion, then, is love at work. It is an action.

“As Truly as God is Our Father” by William Mathias, from the writings of Julian of Norwich. Performed·by Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford
Provided to YouTube by The Orchard Enterprises

Compassion is a sweet gracious working in love, mingled with abundant kindness; for compassion works at taking care of us and makes all things become good.

Compassion is about putting kindness and caring into action. It is our work.

Often the test of compassion is not when things are going well, but when darkness descends and troubles occur. The dark night of the soul invites compassion and stretches our capacity for compassion—it becomes a school for compassion. Failure happens. As Julian puts it,

Compassion allows us to fail measurably and in as much as we fail, in so much we fall; and in so much as we fall, in so much we die; for we must die if we fail to see and feel God who is our life.

Light penetrating into the depths. Photo by Ivana Cajina on Unsplash.

Julian addresses death and the many deaths we undergo in life, especially during a pandemic. Only after these dyings do we undergo that awakening we know as the “first resurrection.”

Our failing is fearful, our falling is shameful and our dying is sorrowful: but in all this the sweet eye of kindness and love never leaves us, nor does the working of compassion cease.

So compassion sees us through falling and failing, fearing and dying. Compassion persists in the hardest of times. It is strong, it is our strength.

The word compassion in both Hebrew and Arabic comes from the word for womb. A special bond obtains between the mother and the fetus in the womb, one of profound interdependence. Thus, motherhood and compassion are often connected. Indeed, the basis of compassion is interdependence.

Women in community. Image by Bob Dmyt from Pixabay

This is one reason we might expect an explosion of compassion in our postmodern world, for interdependence, rather than rugged independence, is our current understanding of how the world works (and it is an ancient understanding with the mystics of old, Julian included). Might compassion be another word for doing non-dualism, for practicing it?

Julian recognizes the connection between justice and compassion that Eckhart and Aquinas saw.  “God wants to be known and loved through Justice and Compassion now and forever,” she writes. Indeed, “Justice is that thing that is so good that it cannot be better than it is.” Like Eckhart and Aquinas before her, Julian states bluntly that “God is Justice.” And “God creates Justice in all who will be liberated through goodness.”

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic…And Beyond, (due out in mid-October), chapter 4, “The Divine Feminine and the Motherhood of God.”

See also Brendan Doyle, trans., Meditations with Julian of Norwich

Banner Image: Detail of Icon of Julian of Norwich, with her cat. Icon by Br. Robert Lentz OFM.

Hearing Eckhart, Aquinas, Hildegard and now Julian on Compassion and Compassion and Justice, how is this sitting in your heart and in your mind?  Are you recognizing more of both when you pray the news? And when you look at your own intentions and work?

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4 thoughts on “Julian of Norwich on Compassion and the Divine Motherhood”

  1. Richard E Reich

    And hopefully unconditional love is our teacher, and it is also important that teachers themselves have unconditional love for their students…

  2. Avatar

    This meditation is so spot on for my life right now and as I understand my story. It is for me a mystical experience to read it with you having written it and all the interconnections that have taken place to bring it from Julian through to my eyes and heart, and I know to many others as well here, at the same time. What blessing for our beings, our world, our Self.
    Blessings to you, each one.

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