Julian of Norwich 1342-1416
One of the most interesting things about Julian is how little we know about her. I often think that however insightful her writings her life is also the most extraordinary witness to something of the nature of God. It is paradoxical in the extreme. She was well known in her time as an anchoress and spiritual director. Anchorites, recluses and hermits had a high status in the Middle Ages. It was an acknowledged and valued spiritual vocation. It did not necessarily mean that they were completely cut off from the world and people or lived lives of extreme poverty and ascetism. She was spiritual adviser to Marjory Kempe, a woman about whom we know a good deal. Yet we know almost nothing of Julian as a person or her life.
“From the time when these things were first revealed I had often wanted to know what was our Lord’s meaning. It was more than fifteen years after that I was answered in my spirit’s understanding. ‘You would know our Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well. Love was his meaning’
She was part of a great flowering of English mysticism prayer and spirituality in the fourteenth century. She sits alongside the anonymous author of ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’, Richard Rolle – ‘The Fire of Love’ and Walter Hilton – ‘Ladder of Perfection’. It has been called the ‘Golden Age of the English Recluse’. So, if part of her calling was to solitude and the contemplative life, she ‘walked the talk’, resisting the pressures of fame, which were no doubt just as seductive and pressing then as they are today. The only personal references in her book are there to set the context for her visions and her subsequent meditations and writings, and they are the minimum required for this purpose. Like the Gospels and their authors, it is all about God and Jesus, not about her.
“And so our customary practice of prayer was brought to mind: how through our ignorance and inexperience in the ways of love we spend so much time on petition. I saw that it is more worthy of God and more truly pleasing to him that through his goodness we should pray with full confidence, and by his grace cling to him with real understanding and unshakeable love, than that we should go on making as many petitions as our souls are capable of. For however numerous our petitions they still come short of being wholly worthy of him. For in his goodness is included all one can want, without exception.”
It was unusual for a woman to write a book. She was the first woman to write a religious book in the native English language. She is at pains to profess herself as ‘simple’, ‘unlettered’, ‘uneducated’. She mentions her intellectual and other shortcomings and disadvantages as a woman and her loyalty to the Church. Some have speculated that she might have been fearful that her writings would be considered unorthodox or heretical by the Church authorities and that she would be punished. The Church has always been cautious about visions and revelations, always requiring a serious process of discernment of spirits before declaring them authentic. Clifton Wolters writes “The theologians do not thrill when the prophet cries, ‘Thus saith the Lord!’. They first examine his credentials.” This is of course necessary. She does come close to suggesting a doctrine of universalism when trying to reconcile God’s love for the sinner with the Church's doctrines of hell and eternal damnation. Whatever your views on universalism it is not the official doctrine of the Church. At least, not then. She uses imagery of God and Jesus as our Mother extensively. ‘Our heavenly mother Jesus’. ‘This fair lovely word Mother, it is so sweet….that it may not verily be said of none but him.’ ‘Our Mother in nature and grace.’
“In my foolish way I had often wondered why the foreseeing wisdom of God could not have prevented the beginning of sin, for then, thought I, all would have been well. But Jesus,….answered, ‘Sin was necessary – but it is going to be all right; it is all going to be all right; everything is going to be all right.” Her writings were not exactly ignored for several centuries; rather forgotten, enjoying a revival of interest during the last century. Now there is quite a Julian revival with her cell becoming a shrine and place of pilgrimage with a ‘Julian Appreciation’ society and even a religious order in the Episcopal Church of America. She is honoured by both Catholic and Protestant Churches.
She was born around the middle of the 14th Century in a time of social, political and religious upheaval. The only thing we know with any certainty is that at the age of 31 she lived in Norwich and on the night of the 8th May 1373 while ill had a series of visions or revelations concerning the crucifixion and other spiritual revelations about the nature of God and of the Trinity, of God’s purpose in creating the world and humanity, of sin and the Fall and of prayer. She had been extremely ill and had received the last rites. She did not expect to survive. “Our good Lord comforts us at once and sweetly, as if to say, ‘It is true that sin is the cause of all this pain; but it is going to be all right; it is all going to be all right; everything is going to be all right.” As a younger woman she had asked for three gifts from God; • “To understand his passion. • To suffer physically while still a young woman of thirty. • To have as God’s gift three wounds. With regard to the first,…..I wanted to be actually there with Mary Magdalene and the others who loved him.” Revelations of Divine Love Tr by Clifton Wolters (all quotes here are from this book).
After she recovered she spent the next twenty years meditating on these revelations and writing about the revelations and the fruits of her meditations. “And he showed me more, a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, on the palm of my hand, round like a ball. I looked at it thoughtfully and wondered, ‘What is this?’ And the answer came, ‘It is all that is made’. I marvelled that it continued to exist and did not suddenly disintegrate; it was so small. And again my mind supplied the answer, ‘It exists, both now and for ever, because God loves it.’ In short, everything owes its existence to the love of God. In this ‘little thing’ I saw three truths. The first is that God made it; the second is that God loves it; and the third is that God sustains it.”
She died aged 73. And that’s about it. Everything else is largely speculation. We don’t know if she was a laywoman or a professed religious, or if she was an Anchorite before her revelations. “Pray inwardly, even if you do not enjoy it. It does good, though you feel nothing. Yes, even though you think you are doing nothing.” I feel inadequate to the task of doing her writings justice. I have put some links at the end which are good sources for further information and analysis. You can read her book online for free. “In my foolish way I had often wondered why the foreseeing wisdom of God could not have prevented the beginning of sin, for then, thought I, all would have been well. But Jesus,….answered, ‘Sin was necessary – but it is going to be all right; it is all going to be all right; everything is going to be all right.”
There are lots of daily reader type materials and books about her and about her book, and and meditations on her writing. These of course have their value. My personal preference is to read her undiluted. Undistracted and unmediated by other’s responses. I commend the undiluted, unadulterated Julian to you as the starting point. I think translation by Clifton Wolters is a good one. Easy to read while keeping the authentic flavour of the old English style. A translation, not a paraphrase. There is also a good introduction with background information on the historical context, the manuscripts, Julian herself, theology and mysticism. Clifton Walters himself says that she can be a little ‘involved and obscure’. He says that although there are the ‘golden nuggets’, ‘in the process of isolating them a lot of very rich minerals are sieved away. It is more profitable to treat her as a coal mine and work the seams. The yield is greater and more rewarding’.
“Our beginning was when we were made, but the love in which he made us never had beginning. In it we have our beginning.”
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