Julian of Norwich (1342 – c.1416)
“Julian of Norwich is the first writer in English who can be identified with certainty as a woman. . . . Apparently at the point of death from a severe illness, for which she had earlier prayed as a means to be ‘purged by he mercy of God and afterwards to live more to God’s glory’ (chapter 2), she received a series of ‘showings’ . . . so compelling and so rich in meaning that Julian understood them to come directly from God and to be messages not just to herself but to all Christians. . . . Julian is manifestly a woman of exceptional intelligence, and she shows not just an understanding of theology, the province learned male clerics, but a capacity for powerful new theological thought; moreover, her prose, while owing much to speech, is distinctive and distinguished. If she emphasizes her ignorance, describing herself as ‘a woman ignorant, weak and frail’ (ST chapter 6), this is likely to have been both out of genuine humility and so as to avoid her contemporaries’ unease with female learning, especially in theological matters.” — A.C. Spearing. “Introduction.” Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Trans. Elizabeth Spearing. London: Penguin Group, 1998, vii-ix.
As Thomas à Kempis (c. 1380 – 1471), Julian of Norwich lived in the midst of the crisis of the late medieval period. Although there had been relative stability and population growth in the High Middle Ages (1000-1299), the Late Middle Ages (1300-1500) began with the challenges brought about by “The Great Famine” (1315-1317). The Great Famine led to crime, disease, and millions dead including parents abandoning children and the older letting themselves die of starvation. “The Black Death” (1348-1350) led to the loss of 75 – 200 million people, about a third of the European population. There were mass burials of plague victims. It took 150 years for Europe’s population to recover.
In the case of Julian of Norwich, The Black Death brought Divine Life, Love, and Light close to her. Although a quarter of the population in Norwich died (1349, 1362, 1369) and Julian was on her death bed in 1373, Julian lived. Not only did she live, but during her three days on death’s doorstep, she received 15 “divine revelations” (or showings) from God. Her friends were astonished by her miraculous healing.
Although Julian made a summary of her revelations after they occurred, she meditated upon them for over 20 years as an anchorite, i.e., secluded nun at the Norwich church. This resulted to a later, longer version of Revelations of Divine Love. The publication and wide distribution of the longer version led to her being considered the first woman theologian. Her visions included a number of strong visual images, e.g., Jesus with his crown of thorns, Jesus’ face changing color during the Passion, God in all things, the scourging of Jesus’ body, Jesus’ cruel dying and how it defeats the devil, Jesus’ love, Jesus’ mother. In the 16th Showing, God reveals Jesus in Julian’s soul and gives her certainty of the earlier showings. Despite being appreciated by many at her time and at present as a spiritual authority, she has not been canonized or beatified. This stems from little being known of her life, even her name. Much speculation has been made regarding her education and family background, even the possibility that she may have been widowed.
When reading Julian, the age of chivalry and the weakening of the Roman Catholic Church seem far away. But one does sense a connection with the writing of Thomas à Kempis (c. 1380 – 1471) and The Cloud of Unknowing (~ 1375). Closer to home, she was no doubt affected by a peasant revolt in 1381, stemming from a labor shortage, scarcity of food, and oppression of the poor. In our day, it is hard to miss her emphasis on the importance of “sin” for a self-knowledge leading to dependence upon God, denial of “the wrath of God”, and view of Christ as mother. I am interested in learning more about the dialogue between the writings of Julian of Norwich and feminist theology. If you have studied this, please let me know.
What does Revelations of Divine Love have to say to us today?
Daily Reflections for the course of the week from which you pick up this post. The material is drawn from drafts I posted on the Emerging Scholars Network Facebook Wall as part of a class on Christian Devotional Classics at Evangelical Seminary. Click here for a free copy of Revelations of Divine Love via the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Please email me if you use the second section to stimulate campus discussion (e.g., brown bag lunch discussion group). I am particularly interested in suggestions on revisions for use in that context.
1. For Deeper Reflection (based upon the quote at the beginning of the post): I confess that I have found myself absorbed by Julian’s “Christocentric,” “affective” and “homley” devotional writing (xiv, xix-xx) as an anchorite, i.e., “a person who had entered into an enclosed solitary life in a fixed place, in order to achieve greater spiritual perfection” (xi). There is no doubt something deeply appealing about a visionary turned theologian (xv) who shares her experience with humility:
“But God forbid that you should say or assume that I am a teacher, for that is not what I mean, nor did I ever mean it; for I am a woman, ignorant, weak and frail. But I know well that I have received what I say from him who is the supreme teacher . . . Just because I am a woman, must I therefore believe that I must not tell you about the goodness of God, when I saw at the same time both his goodness and his wish that it should be known?” (xviii).
How do we receive, even “enter into,” Julian’s humble presentation (i.e., understanding of her place as a woman and her visions in the Church), vivid experience/revelation (especially the strong imagery of the blood of Christ), and “teaching” today? Stay tuned as I wrestle with these questions and more throughout the week. In the mean time, feel free to comment before I get there 🙂
2. “Julian begins by telling of her desire for three gifts from God: imaginative identification with Christ’s suffering on the cross, bodily sickness in youth to the verge of death and three ‘wounds’ of contrition, compassion, and longing for God.” — Spearing, xiv.
For Deeper Reflection:: In the first post of this series I confessed being drawn into Julian’s Christocentric, affective, humble, and homely devotional writing as an anchorite visionary turned theologian. But maybe I only have a “romantic” desire to be likewise engaged in such a life. Maybe if I had a vision of blood trickling down Christ’s face on a crucifix (2nd Revelation, Chapter 10 in the Long Text, 55-57) or His body bleeding abundantly (4th Revelation, Chapter 12 in the Long Text, 59-60), I would recoil and turn my attention to other avenues of faith.
During a recent adult Sunday school class, I engaged in a conversation exploring life and death in relationship to 2 Corinthians 4-5:10. During that time I shared the transformational experiences of losing Elise Faith (my first child, born at 23 weeks), facing my own frailty with cancer and the after effects of treatment (fainting spells, seizures, and side affects of medications to address these previous two concerns), embracing ‘One More Day’ as a gift of God, journeying with our fourth child through a life post brain bleed, wrestling with the reality that the good within me is truly a gift of God (in particular that the fruit of the Spirit are gifts of God and do not have origin in my own strength), and how to pass on the importance of touching/tasting not only life, but also death to those entering the health care professions (e.g., 8th Revelation, Chapter 16 in the Long Text, 54-65). What truly gives hope in the midst of the darkness which surrounds One More Day? Jesus the Christ’s (the Son of God’s) eternal life, human birth (incarnation in the messiness of childbearing/birth), earthly life, interactive teaching/healing ministry, unfathomable death/suffering, awe-inspiring resurrection and defeat of the evil one, spectacular ascension, growing Body (i.e., the Church) connected to Him as the head, and reign over the new heaven/earth.
How could and why did Jesus the Christ, the very Son of God, suffer (even bleed en route to and) on the cross and die? That His people, His very creation may have life, Life abundant before the Father. How may we glimpse that reality in the real world by which we are surrounded? By being real, entering suffering, terrible suffering, even pain and death. May each step of our way today, God grant us the grace to have our eyes open to the opportunity by His grace to extend Life to the brokenness, suffering and death by which we are surrounded . . . confessing and embracing our own need to depend upon Christ alone.
3. “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” — Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1416).
For Deeper Reflection: A quote which came to mind as I was informed that family members were considering a particular day to be stressful. As you begin this day, I encourage you to share prayer requests and praises with the Emerging Scholars Network by clicking here.
4. “And from the time that this was shown, I often longed to know what our Lord meant. And fifteen years and more later my spiritual understanding received an answer, which was this, ‘Do you want to know what your Lord meant? Know well that love was what he meant. Who showed you this? Love. What did he show? Love. Why did he show it to you? For love. Hold fast to this and you will know and understand more of the same, but you will never understand or know from it anything else for all eternity.’ . . . We had our beginning when we were made; but the love in which he made us was in him since before time began; and in this love we have our beginning. And all this shall be seen in God without end, which may Jesus grant us. Amen.” – Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Trans. Elizabeth Spearing. London: Penguin Group, 1998, 179.
For Deeper Reflection: If you have showings/revelations, what better reason for such to be given than by God for the sake of love. If you lack such experience and one interacts/knows God primarily through the intellect, emotions, social action, etc, would it not be best that these were given by God for the sake of love? But is by God for love a good enough reason to accept such showings/revelations and the intrepretations which are offered? Tomorrow I’ll wrestle with responding to revelations such as found in the writings of Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1416), e.g., relating the revelation to the Biblical story, Church teaching, historical context, mental/physical fitness, personality.
5. Carl Trueman’s Why Should Thoughtful Evangelicals Read the Medieval Mystics? (Themelois. Vol. 33, Issue 1. May 2008) provides helpful insights. Note: Trueman is the Paul Woolley Chair of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. Below is Trueman’s final pitch, but be sure not to miss what he shares earlier in the post . . .
When I look at the editions of Hildegard and Julian and Thomas on my bookshelf, I am struck by the publisher’s mark: they are published by Penguin. Now, as far as I know, Penguin does not publish Luther or Calvin or Warfield or Stott or Packer. These latter are published by specialist presses that serve the narrow evangelical community. That’s because few, if anyone, outside of that narrow constituency reads these authors. To be published by Penguin, however, a lot of people must be buying and reading them. In other words, in an age that craves for transcendence and mystery to lift it above the banality of a bankrupt consumerism, these authors seem to have struck a chord. You can bet your life that most who read them do not read them aright: they are looking for precisely the kind of contentless, mystical experientialism that I have argued above they do not actually represent; in other words, the reception of these works in our culture involves a deep subversion of the piety and theology that they originally represented. But that is not the point: these are the books that many read and that shape their spiritual aspirations and provide the grid through which they will critique contemporary church life. If you are doing your job properly, these are the kind of people with whom you will be striking up conversations, inviting to church, talking about spiritual things. An acquaintance with the medieval mystics will not just enhance your knowledge of the Middle Ages; it may also equip you better to reach out to the lost souls of the current generation.
6. How does one interact with the writings of medieval mystics such as Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1416)?
Below’s excerpt from Frederick C. Bauerschmidt’s Will everything really be OK?: the spirituality of Julian of Norwich (Commonweal. 2/27/1998, 13‐14).
“The Jesus of Julian’s revelation is not the Jesus of feel-good religiosity. It is Jesus the Lord of creation brought low to share in the suffering of creatures. The promise that “all shall be well” is not a promise that God is planning to relieve us of pain in this life. It is the paradoxical promise that the union of our sufferings with the suffering of Christ will somehow prove redemptive. This “all shall be well” is not a promise of “recovery” but of survival. “He said not: Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be…afflicted; but He said: Thou shalt not be overcome.” The crucified Jesus thus remains the central icon of Julian’s revelation, and even when she receives revelations about the Resurrection or the triune godhead or the bliss of heaven, these never supplant the image of the Cross. Julian’s own prayer is inextricably bound to the historical humanity of Jesus. She seeks no love except the love of Jesus, a love that led him – and promises to lead her – to the Cross. Thus, Julian’s seemingly comforting message that “all shall be well” turns out to be the disturbing message that we are called to share in the compassion-unto-death of Jesus. And this is good news, since it grows out of the understanding that God views us, and our sinful condition, in the mirror of Jesus and his loving obedience. Our identity, both as individuals and as the human race, are literally “knit” into the saving person of Jesus. . . .”
Confession: Yes, I resonate with Bauerschmidt’s perspective on Julian’s writing and find it a helpful lens for reading it. More in part 7.
7. Responding to Julian of Norwich’s popularity. Frederick C. Bauerschmidt concludes “Will everything really be OK?: the spirituality of Julian of Norwich” (Commonweal. 2/27/1998, 13‐14):
Rather than seeing in Julian’s current popularity another example of the trivialization of the Christian tradition by those who comb the world’s religions for agreeable bits of spirituality, I believe Julian attracts because she teaches us things modern culture would have us deny. She teaches that life is painful, but can be borne with grace. She teaches that we will never find rest in the things of this world – whether material goods, goals, friends, or family – but that we can love them and love God through them if we can see them with God’s own eyes. Finally, Julian teaches that even if we never achieve “wellness” in this life, still “all shall be well.” We are drawn to her because we are drawn to the truth about ourselves, our world, and God.
Confession: Yes, “life is painful, but can be borne with grace.” May we embrace this reality as part of the people of God and find our rest in Christ alone.
About the author:
Tom enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa and their four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he teaches adult electives and co-leads a small group), among healthcare professionals as the Northeast Regional Director for the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), and in higher ed as a volunteer with the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). For a number of years, the Christian Medical Society / CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine was the hub of his ministry with CMDA. Note: Tom served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship / USA for 20+ years, including 6+ years as the Associate Director of ESN. He has written for the ESN blog from its launch in August 2008. He has studied Biology (B.S.), Higher Education (M.A.), Spiritual Direction (Certificate), Spiritual Formation (M.A.R.), Ministry to Emerging Generations (D.Min.). To God be the glory!