Julian of Norwich

In Norwich … we treasure the memory of the first woman to write a book in English more than 600 years ago. We call her Julian after the church to which she was attached. Her book was about God’s overwhelming love. She lived at a time of war, the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt. There wasn’t much love around, though there was plenty in Julian’s experience. She recognised that sin made us unhappy. But it didn’t lead God to be angry. She wrote that God was “never angry and never will be. Because he is good, he is truth, he is love, he is peace; and his power, his wisdom, his charity and his unity do not allow him to be angry”.

[BBC Thought for the Day, 21/01/2014]

We know almost nothing about Julian of Norwich, other than that she had a visionary experience 641 years ago in the midst of a serious illness, that she felt compelled to share her vision in a work called Showings some 20 years later, and that she became an anchorite, a person who chose voluntary confinement in a small cell within the church of Saint Julian in Norwich, from which her name was derived.

To be an anchorite meant not simply to be confined, but to be supported by the local community in material and physical ways in exchange for supporting that community spiritually, in prayer.

Julian’s vocation as an anchorite was by no means a rarity. Contemporary records show that there were anchorages scattered throughout England. As late as Shakespeare’s plays we find allusions to medieval “beadsmen,” that is, persons pensioned to “pray the beads” on behalf of a benefactor. If we find the latter practice strange, is it because of the bead-counting piety of the medieval church, or because our own bean-counting parsimony could never justify paying such a price for such an impractical service?

The heart of Julian’s visions was the knowledge of God in the crucified Christ. Because the Saviour bore and nurtured a new humanity on the cross, she took up an image often employed by other spiritual teachers in the Middle Ages and likened him to a mother. This image of Christ, and all else in her book, found fulfillment in the divine love. For in everything that God showed her, Julian wrote, “Love was our Lord’s meaning. And I saw for certain, both here and elsewhere, that before ever he made us, God loved us, and that his love has never slackened, nor ever shall.”

The inclusion of feminine imagery in her writing that has prompted a whole host of commentary about whether she was a proto-feminist, or whether that is completely anachronistic, a projection of twentieth century issues onto a time when they would have been unknown and probably unthinkable. And it has prompted a whole host of commentary about the feminine in the divine, and Julian’s place in inspiring later generations to examine the patriarchal nature of much organised religion. However, that is not necessarily a modern, post-1960s, feminist point of view; after all, the reference to the feminine in the divine, the description of God as wisdom in the feminine is found in scripture, especially, for example, in the book of Wisdom, which uses the feminine noun, Sofia to describe divine wisdom.

Julian knew about suffering. After all, she had been visited by a vision of Christ at the most agonizing moment of his life and at the point at which she was herself in greatest suffering and near to death. Understanding that her vision was derived from her own suffering, and included vivid experiences of Christ’s suffering – but tinged with joy, counter-intuitively – illuminates the question of human suffering and our relationship with the divine. It is often at moments of suffering that we become most open to God. This is neither because God inflicts suffering to gain our attention, nor because God only comes when we are in deepest need. As Julian tells us, God is never further away than our own soul. No, it is when we are most vulnerable, in most need, that we are most open to the presence of God.

And so, when we need to do so, especially when we suffer, should we trouble to do so, we can look upon Christ on the cross, there not because anyone forced him to be, but because he chose to be, and try to understand Julian’s vision, seeing suffering melt into joy. Because that is the path to understanding, no matter what the outcome of events in this human life, what it means that, in what are probably her most famous words:

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all things shall be well.

Julian’s life of prayer is a reminder to us of our need to be in prayer, as conversation with God. (As opposed to people who seem to be speaking to themselves when they use head sets for mobile phones!) It is also a reminder that we need to trust God, not only to be all-powerful, not only to be all-wise, but also to be all-love. Sometimes we can accept the first two, but the third is more challenging.

Julian’s story is one that encourages patience. She spent many years coming to terms with the meaning of her “Showings.” In the final chapter of her book, she summarized the essence of what she had been told.

And from the time that it was shown, I often asked to know what was our Lord’s meaning. And fifteen years after and more, I was answered in inward understanding, saying this:
‘Would you know your Lord’s meaning in this? Learn it well. Love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show? For love. Hold fast to this and you shall learn and know more about love. But you shall never need to know nor learn anything else for ever.’
So was I taught that love was our Lord’s meaning.

What Julian teaches us is that God and humankind are intricately knit, woven together, in suffering and in joy – and love.

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