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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?


  1. Patty DesRochers says:

    This is what I so appreciate about you, Jeff. You say what I feel.

  2. Kevin Anetsberger says:

    This very topic is hot right now in certain circles because of the recent publication of Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins.

    We all have mothers, and it’s good to think on who they were and how that helped make us who we are.

    For her part, I bet your mom received the ultimate pleasant surprise upon her transformation.

  3. Terry says:

    Really, for God’s sake, hell has gotta go! What a nasty, controlling abusive idea it is.

  4. Carol Pruitt says:

    I was raised in the Methodist Church, where the only saints are the ones in the Bible, so of course I had never heard of Julian of Norwich before. Upon reading the Wikipedia page about her, I was particularly struck by this: “Julian preached that sin should be seen as a part of the learning process of life, not malice that needed forgiveness.” Wow.

    Jeff, do you have any information on the significance of the cat?

    1. I’m not sure that the cat is significant in a theological or a mystical sense. We simply know that she kept a cat in the anchorhold. As with Julian herself, we don’t know its name. I’ve always liked that Robert Lenz icon because Lady Julian is smiling, and because cats are a part of the physical world. Her having a cat meant that she did not intend to give over the physical world utterly, as so many ascetics do, but simply wanted the freedom from distraction to focus on God, which is not the same thing.

  5. Erbo says:

    Karl Denninger has said that “if you believe in Heaven – that is, redemption after death for your soul, then it is illogical to not also believe in Hell, a lack of that redemption.” Perhaps the two are required to complement one another. Or, as Satan, Prince of Darkness, once put it, “But what is evil anyway? Is there reason to the rhyme? Without evil there can be no good, so it must be good to be evil sometime!” (From the song “Up There.” in the South Park movie.)

    I’d prefer to take the Piers Anthony “Incarnations of Immortality” tack here. Your mother may have had a few smidgeons of evil on her soul, but her overall balance was more than sufficient to let her soul be conveyed to Heaven directly; Thanatos did not need to be summoned to collect her soul. He’s busy enough as it is…

    1. If Hell can be seen as a sort of spiritual grad school rather than a pointless torture chamber, it can make sense–but that’s not what 99% of theists mean when they use the term. Key to the idea of Hell is that it’s punishment and it’s without end, which contradict any image of a benevolent God that I can summon.

      Heaven does not require Hell if the path to redemption remains open. Lack of redemption then becomes “not redeemed yet” due to issues of willfulness, and human willfulness has its limits. Arguing that a flawed and finite will can hold out against the will of God to eternity places the human will on a par with the Divine will, which is absurd. We are bad at being good, but we are bad at being bad as well. Nobody, no matter how bad, can hold out forever.

      Salvation is a process, not a state. It requires work (which infuriates conservatives, who spit in the corner and call me a “works Christian,” which I am, and proud of it!) but more than work it requires cooperation with the Divine Will, which happens whether we fully understand what’s going on or not. I’ve met a great many atheists who are cooperating fully and energetically with the Divine Will, deny it though they might, and they are quite likely to reach the Beatific Vision long before I do.

  6. Patti says:

    I adore Blessed Julian. No one can outshine her wonderful optimism and her love for all creatures–she reminds me of another favorite saint, Francis of Assisi. “All shall be well…” is my favorite quote of all time, it gives me such comfort every time I think of it! I know how your mother felt–I was reared Southern Baptist and altho I converted to Roman Catholicism at age 20 (ironic, I know!), I still harbor a terrible fear of Hell. I agree with every single word you have written, and I am sure that your kind mother is now truly at peace with the saints. Maybe even chatting with Julian herself–and petting her cat–I love cats too!! 🙂

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