If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love. —Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love
“My job is to keep you safe.”
This is a common refrain at my house. I say it while grabbing my curious daughter from toddling toward the hot oven, while stepping between kids whose verbal arguments are about to turn physical, over my shoulder in the car when the kids are being loud enough to distract the driver. My job is to keep you safe.
There are days I despair of being able to do this job well. The news is full of war and pandemic and climate chaos; the world my kids are growing into is not a safe one. I can baby-proof the kitchen and drive the speed limit, but the rest of it keeps me up at night. What kind of mother am I if I can’t keep them safe?
This year, Saint Julian’s feast day coincides with Mother’s Day. Julian is well known for being a theological optimist—her most famous saying might make a good Mother’s Day card. What mother doesn’t want to hear that “all shall be well… and all manner of things shall be well”?
But as many of us know, the positive messages of Mother’s Day don’t always transfer to support. Too often, our world likes to sing mothers’ praises and cheer mothers up more than it seeks to support them in the hard work they’ve been given. It’s easy to say “All shall be well” but it’s not always so easy to believe.
Of course, the world Julian was writing in was not a safe one either. She lived through two waves of plague, and the violence and unrest that followed. She survived a paralyzing illness that nearly killed her. And yet even still, her writings are full of confident hope. She doesn’t even mention the chaos of her context; instead she focuses on her connection to Christ.
Julian is known as a voice of hope — and also as a proclaimer of the Motherhood of God. In Julian’s visions, Christ appears as “the true Mother of life and of all.” From laboring to bring us into the world, to feeding us with his body in the sacrament of communion, Julian notes all the ways in which Christ does the work of motherhood. And how his work makes our work possible: “The kind, loving mother who is aware and knows the need of her child protects the child most tenderly as the nature and state of motherhood wills….This nurturing of the child with all that is fair and good, our Lord does in the mothers by whom it is done.”
If Jesus is our true Mother, then he truly understands my job. Jesus knows what it is to seek keeping beloved children safe.
With my focus on Christ our Mother, I read Julian’s words again—not as a dismissal of my fears, but a way to sit with them the way mothers try to sit with children’s questions. Why can’t we go back to school today? Will the kids in Ukraine be ok? I don’t know, baby, but let me tell you what I do know…
When my toddler falls and bumps her knee, she comes running to my arms. When I kiss her knee better, am I telling her a lie? Or am I giving her what she needs in that moment: the assurance that she is held and loved?
When she was smaller, just a baby, she had no words for her needs. She’d cry out and I’d reach for her, rocking her through the night until her cries became snuffles became snores. This was what she needed, as surely as she needed dry diapers or warm pajamas. I was loving her. I was doing my job.
This is what motherhood has shown me: my work is to love my children in the falling and the rising. It’s a great matter, a work too hard for me. But Christ who has gone about this labor before me, Christ who bears me for joy and endless life, Christ makes this work possible in me. Maybe I can’t keep my baby safe. I can only hope to hold her in the precious love that in turn holds me.
[Author’s Note: All quotes from the 2011 translation of Revelations of Divine Love, by Fr. John-Julian, OJN – except the epigraph, which I copied down in my journal at least ten years ago and have long since lost the translator’s information.]