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May 8th, 2011:

Victoria Duntemann and Lady Julian

VictoriaDrumMajoretteCropped1940.pngToday is Mother’s Day, and I celebrate it in eternal memory of Victoria Albina Pryes Duntemann 1924-2000. But today is also something else: May 8, the feast day of Lady Julian of Norwich, denied sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church for daring to suggest that God would triumph over Hell. Lady Julian is my personal patron saint, and I have declared her the Patron Saint of Gonzo Optimism: All manner of thing will be well. All. No exceptions. It don’t get much more gonzo than that.

Lady Julian was very careful of what she said, and had to be, lest she be burnt at the stake by her mass-murdering psychopath of a bishop, Henry Despenser, who ordered the Lollard Pits to be dug near Norwich and then gleefully filled them. The message of Lady Julian’s visions, which she hid well and could barely believe herself, was as simple as it was audacious: God will not settle for anything less than the salvation of everyone and everything.

It’s one of those painful ironies that I heard of Lady Julian only a couple of years before my mother’s death. Victoria Duntemann’s religion was an insane Polish peasant amplification of the fringes of Triumphal Catholicism, and basically consisted of Hell plus debris. That said, she took it only a little farther than the grim priests of my childhood parish, who gripped Hell to their hearts like an infernal teddy bear. Whether they understood it that way or not (and I think some did) they defined Catholicism as what you had to do to stay out of Hell, which ultimately cooked down to obeying them without question and having as little to do with sex as possible. My mother and countless other goodhearted and sensitive people swallowed this blasphemy whole, and in far too many cases (my mother’s included) it crushed all hope from them.

Hell haunted my mother her entire life. I was at her bedside when she died, and I am convinced that she died of despair, fearing that sins either wholly imagined or minor and long forgiven would land her in unending torment. (Right: She who was a nurse all her life, comforting countless people and tending to both of her parents and later her husband in their final years, and giving ceaselessly of her time and money to the church that had taken such pains to terrify her–Hell-fodder, of course.) Managing my consequent anger has become one of the great challenges of my life.

Hell has got to go. It no longer frightens the evil, and causes only suffering among the good. It is an emblem of either a sadistic or a defeated God. Do we have the guts to imagine a better God, one who will out-stubborn the worst of us and bring the whole shebang back into divine wholeness before the curtain falls?

LadyJulianCat.pngAlready done: “And so our good Lord answered to all the questions and doubts which I could raise, saying most comfortingly: I may make all things well, and I can make all things well, and I shall make all things well, and I will make all things well; and you will see yourself that every kind of thing will be well.” Julian of Norwich, Showings, Chapter XXXI.

I may. I can. I shall. I will. What does He have to do, hit us over the head with a #7 frying pan?

I’m convinced. Given a few more years, I might have persuaded my mother. She understood me poorly, but she listened to me, and she took me seriously, as all good mothers must of the children they bring into the world. I built telescopes on her front lawn, and she was always willing to give me a dollar for one more damned pipe fitting to twist into the declination axis. She read and approved of “Our Lady of the Endless Sky,” which was my first published story, written in some respects for her. She didn’t read the pile of my computer books that she kept in a corner of the livingroom, but I think they got the message across that her only son was neither crazy nor stupid. Perhaps more significant than any of that, I think she saw something of herself in me, and recognized the ache for God that she herself felt and had tried to instill in her children. She was ready to hear me out long before I knew enough to begin speaking, but I didn’t begin speaking until she could no longer listen.

I managed to avoid the trap she fell into, and maybe that’s triumph enough. Mothers want the best for their children, and what I got was what she should have had: a religion that celebrates the fundamental goodness of all creation, and the inescapable love of God. She knows the truth now. Could Lady Julian have told her? (Better late than never!)

If not, then what are patron saints for?