Julian of Norwich
Brief biographical data:
century - English anchorite and mystic; revelations
based on 16 "showings", related to the Passion of Christ,
received at the age of 30; long text of the revelations
compiled twenty years following the revelations shares the
spiritual knowledge she developed as their outcome. The
showings, which occurred when Julian genuinely believed she
was about to die, were an answer to her prayer to develop
true contrition (perfect love - intimacy with God.)
Commemorated as a saint by the Church of England in 1980.
It can be
most tempting to be selective, when we read the works of
medieval mysticism. Julian's
message can elude us if viewed through a 21st century
haze. Since the current trend is to evaluate the needs
and popular thought of society, then mould our religious
practise to the "acceptable", we may remove Julian's writings
from their context. We may enjoy "all shall be well", and the
idea that sin is not "real", yet ignore the essential
Christian faith which is the essence of her message.
of any era, are both products of their time and holy despite
the prevalent conditions. Sanctity has never been in vogue,
and the holy fulfilled needs that were neglected rather than
conformed to a popular standard. Julian affirms eternal truth
with an approach that is in marked contrast to the popular
piety of the late Middle Ages. She describes herself as
"unlettered", yet her theological sophistication
testifies to the validity of her religious experience,
and to her being a woman of burning love for her Creator.
True contemplatives do not seek
unusual experiences, much less personal power. Their
consuming goal is intimacy with God. Apparently, the singular
incident of the 16 showings
provided the insight which influenced Julian's entire
spirituality. It is telling that her "long text", which
amplified the awareness she had received from these
revelations, was composed 20 years later (when she'd reached
what was, for the era, the "advanced" age of 50). Given that
an anchoress lacked neither time nor motivation for recording
such reflections, it is a fair assumption that her
understanding of the full scope of her revelations developed
over many years. In the era of the microwave and T-1 carrier,
we must recall that quick mega-doses of the divine grace are
not likely to come from the Master's hands … even if the
process can be completed in eternity!
Christian mysticism is based on
grace: the indwelling of the Trinity in the souls of mankind,
and a divine call to holiness. Julian emphasises this, and
various other points of doctrine, with an exquisite joy,
focussing on bliss and glory rather than the idea of earth's
being a battleground for good and evil. During the Middle
Ages, the latter was the prevalent view - Satan sought to trip
and trap us, and heaven was a promise difficult to hope for.
Julian stresses the life of striving for virtue, but not in
the highly negative manner common in her day, wherein rigid
penance was the means to "atonement" for one's sin.
In her Revelations, Julian shows
great charm in the childlike, tender quality of her
expression. She sees God as one who delights in his creation -
and who is thankful to us for our happiness in heaven.
Though our medieval friends (no holier than mankind has been
before or since!) were far more aware of God and of eternity
than we could imagine, it was hardly characteristic of the
time that "the king" would delight in the servant.
Julian's attitude that "all shall
be well" largely depends on acceptance of the limitations of
our own vision ,and the knowledge that the vastness of divine
providence is mysterious. (Theologians of the Middle Ages
would not have denied this, but nonetheless attempted to
explain the inexplicable with scientific accuracy!) Hers is
not an optimism (such as that which briefly flourished in the
late nineteenth century) which denies the malice of either the
evil one or the individual! Rather, it is an awareness that
divine love can bring good from any circumstance.
Recalling that Julian's era was that of the Black Death, great
corruption amongst the Church hierarchy, the peasant's revolt,
and other assorted tribulations, we see that hers is no naive
idealism, but a trust divinely inspired and responded to with
There are areas in which Julian
was quite untypical:
Twenty-first century hazards to
understanding Julian's essential messages
- The fourteenth century was a
period when the Inquisition was at full force, and the
emphases of many theologians and religious Orders was the
refutation of heresy. (Heretics were thought to be in league
with the devil.) Julian is entirely positive - focussing on
divine grace and not on the errors of his creatures.
- Julian saw the suffering of
the world not as a punishment (the common approach
during the time of the Plague!) but as a channel through
which God could draw us closer to Himself. The idea of
purification of sin was hardly new, but her seeing rejoicing
in it is quite in contrast to the "fire" which one would pay
the Pardoner to avoid. (One wishes a meeting between Julian
and contemporary Dante could have been recorded.) This is a
joyous purification - not the lash.
- Julian expresses both that
the pain was the consequence of sin and that there is a
mystery (not a clear cut cause and effect) which made this
offering glorious. Theologians of the period (who tended to
see the world as having belonged to Satan since the time
when Adam fell), though they would have muttered "felix
culpa", were at their wit's end to define exactly how
the world was lost and "re-purchased". Julian glories in
redemption, but shows unusual insight in admitting we cannot
know precisely how this was accomplished.
- Julian interestingly does
not emphasise "using intercessors", but is keenly aware of
the rejoicing of saints in heaven. Her kinship with the
saints is profound, but she advocates approaching God
directly as what best pleases Him. The "direct approach" to
the King is hardly typical of the predominantly feudal
society, with its "necessity" of intercessors. (This
was the time when the saints were so stressed that
pilgrimages during which one could view such curious relics
as the head of the child John the Baptist or the palace of
Dives were in much demand.)
- Her references to the
mystical nature of the Eucharist, during her revelations
about "Christ our mother", show
unusual depth. The common approaches to the Eucharist
ranged from the superstitious to the scientific (and the
faithful attended, but rarely participated in, the banquet.)
- Julian gives us a picture of
the devil as eternally frustrated. Sin was not "real" for
Julian in that it was neither created nor eternal - she
never denied sin, its pains, or the need for repentance and
purification. The images of the sinner's redemption as
leading to greater joy in heaven (and virtue on earth) makes
even the evil one an unwilling co-operator with divine
providence. All of creation serves its purpose in the divine
will's being fulfilled.
- The idea of the Church as a
vehicle of divine revelation is essential to understanding
Julian. Her supposed deference to holy Church is not a
fearsome obedience (very understandable during the
Inquisition period, even if England was not under fire at
the moment) but a thankful awareness for a divine gift (and
of our own eternal capacity for self-deception). It is
stronger because it does not assume that the hierarchy
exceeded anyone else in personal holiness, nor that any role
in the Church (whether shoemaker, gatekeeper, or just
penitent) was less vital to its members as a whole.
- Julian's concept of "God as Mother" has a richness which
is lost if we ignore its elements:
- The Trinity - perfect love
and delight in creation, expressed in a family
- The Incarnation - with a
strong medieval tradition of life's beginning with the
father "providing" the soul and the mother the physical
essence, Jesus' human nature (a part of the divine plan
from the beginning, not demanded by mankind's rejection of
God) makes his contribution as mother far more vivid and
- The Eucharist - her
reference to Jesus as feeding his children with himself
- Julian, while
acknowledging the generosity of divine grace in
revelation, repeatedly stresses that there is much we
cannot understand in this life. Our "age of reason"
inclination is to shrink from what we cannot understand -
even an infinite and perfect God.
- Julian sees the
incomprehensible greatness of God as a reason for trust
and for anticipation of a (blissful) understanding in
heaven. Today, we are too conscious that promises of
heaven often were used to content the oppressed with their
lot on earth - and, with our erroneous assumption that
there can be total bliss on earth, we'll pursue that
futile search while concurrently clinging to notions of
our own immortality.
- We tend to confuse
spiritual growth with achievement. Julian's stress on
divine providence is difficult to grasp. (Not that the
idea of achievement in this context is new - in fact, it
is rather typically English - as Pelagius illustrated many
centuries before Julian!) The contribution each of
us could make to the Church at large (which usually is
unknown to us, let alone a matter of recognised
accomplishment!) could drown in the "healthy psychology"
wherein only fruitful personal relationships are pursued;
guilt (however real) is to be eliminated at all costs; sin
is an oppressive concept illustrating poor self-esteem;
religion is basically healthy and useful to society but
whether there is an objective God is in question.
- The Church
- Julian's references to
"turning to holy Church" and to the sacraments is
especially effective, considering her era was unequalled
for corruption amongst the clergy, and she clearly is
referring to the divine establishment of the Church as a
continuance of Jesus' own ministry. With the excesses of
the Reformation leaving us both with a disliking for
"mediation" and a contrary view which tends to be highly
judicial and authoritative, we are more likely to see the
Church as a hindrance to personal spiritual growth. (If
"we are the Church" is a popular statement - and a true
one - it more often is a statement of independence from
- We are uneasy with the
idea of objective truth, and would be hard put to see how
God would reveal this through his Church (though we may
have an idea that we ourselves grasp a variety of truth.)
- This being a time when the
popular view is that "health" or "maturity" depend on
having neither a sense of responsibility for others nor
any dependence on anyone else, Julian's stress on the
Mystical Body will be quite foreign.
- The consecrated life, such
as that of the anchoress, is easily misunderstood today as
"selfish" - focussing only on the individual's
relationship with God. In truth, such a vocation has no
meaning without its being a contribution to the Church.
Julian, dependent totally on others for her upkeep, had at
least as strong an element of humble aspects as that of
being the wise advisor. No contribution was greater or
less than the other, because all are connected with the
role the Church plays in leading us closer to God. This
beautiful idea of vocation is easily lost now.
- Remembering the stake and
block can lead to love for diversity and tolerance,
but equally can foster indifference - as if believing
there is an objective and revealed truth oppresses those
who have a different concept of what this truth is.
- The idea of failings today
leading to greater glory in heaven is hard to grasp. This
being an age where death is a "failure" (…avoidable with
sufficient jogging), we cannot comprehend that there is
anything beyond what we accomplish here.
- We are not comfortable
with the idea of "here" being the preparation for "there",
because we tend to confuse religion with fellowship and
the needs of society, not with genuine worship.
- The delightful picture of
the saints rejoicing is hard to grasp in a time when
heaven is reduced to an intellectual abstraction.
- Sin and
- Julian believes that "all
shall be well" because divine providence brings good even
from sin. Our tendency to reduce sin to "bad self-esteem"
- again, coupled with a vagueness about whether we can
know what is sinful or not! - can make us shy from this
important aspect of her revelations.
- We are not likely to face
the limitation of our own perception and vision. Julian
sees our weakness as a point where God's grace leads to
purification, and our essential "blindness" as being
removed in the next life.
- The trust in God which
Julian stresses is rooted in our awareness of our
limitations. We undoubtedly would fear this as a lack of
God is Truth, and truth eternal.
It remains for those who love Him best to stimulate our own,
weary minds and hearts to seek that same Truth, in love. The
question remains: how do we incorporate the richness of
Julian's message into our own lives?
Julian's near contemporary and
near neighbour, the Franciscan John Duns Scotus, saw love as
sanctifying grace, that is, the indwelling of the Trinity in
our own souls. Love for God was the return of this wonderful
and free gift of His, and love of neighbour a cherishing of
another whom God created, and for whom His Son acquired
Redemption. Thus, all love reflects that joy and delight of
the Trinity, which Julian so eloquently described.
To paraphrase another theologian
of the late Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas, the gift comes
according to the manner of the recipient. The "accidental" of
Julian's message - how God reveals Himself through His Church,
for example - may be puzzling, but the essence we can embrace
in faith, while asking that our own revelation of God's will
(one likely to be much less dramatic, but no less affective),
lead us as well to a loving response.
Essay © 2000 by Elizabeth G. Melillo,
quotations - property of their authors/publishers. No
infringement of copyright is intended.