Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Julian of Norwich

Portrait of a Young woman wearing a Coif  (c. 1435)
                     by Roger van der Weyden

The ancient city of Norwich has the rare distinction of being the home to two Christian mystics, namely the physician-philosopher Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) and the anchoress Julian of Norwich (circa 1342-1416).

Browne has been a perennial bloom of English literature. Diverse writers have responded to his creativity, including in modern times, Jorge Borges and W. G. Sebald. In contrast, Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love  has from being little-known in the early 20th rapidly become recognised as a work of world spiritual literature, better known than either Browne's Religio Medici (1643) and certainly more than his advisory essay Christian Morals (circa 1670).

Julian of Norwich's fame as a writer of profound spiritual insight, and as the first woman to write a book in the English language, was however, not established until the 20th century. Her Revelations of Divine Love only fully entered public consciousness through a sympathetic edition published in 1901 by Grace Warrick and later when T.S. Eliot famously quoted her in his poem  'Little Gidding' of the Four Quartets in 1942.

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well

Julian of Norwich lived during the last years of the Black Death which devastated the population of Europe by one third. The later years of the 14th century were also an age of cattle disease, social unrest in the form of the Peasant's Revolt and several years of bad harvest; the harvest of 1369 being the worst in a 50 year era. Against this historical background, on May 8th 1373 aged 30, when seriously ill and preparing for her Last Rites, Julian experienced a series of  'showings' or visions of the Passion of Christ. Miraculously recovering from her near death experience, she spent many years contemplating the meaning of her Revelations which she believed were a spiritual message to be shared with all Christians.

Although describing herself as 'unlettered', the early Short Text and the later expanded Long Text of the Revelations of Divine Love are testimony to the long journey which Julian made in her life-time from visionary to profound and original theologian. Indeed, Julian's Revelations have been described as, 'the most remarkable theological achievement of the English late Middle Ages'. Throughout her Revelations of Divine Love Julian insists upon, and emphasizes her conformity to the doctrine of Holy Church.

Her mystical imagery includes the hazelnut as symbolic of God's love for humanity-

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 forever, because God loves it'.

It's also in Revelations of Divine Love that Julian, like Jesus in the gospels, uses the medium of parable involving a lord and a servant. Julian describes her vision of lord and servant as a parable of Man's relationship to God thus-  

The first kind of vision was this: the bodily likeness of two people, a lord and a servant, and with this God gave me spiritual understanding.... The lord looks at his servant lovingly and kindly, and he gently sends him to a certain place to do his will. The servant does not just walk, but leaps forward and runs in great haste, in loving anxiety to do his lord's will. And he falls immediately into a ditch and is badly hurt. And then he groans and moans and wails and writhes, but he cannot get up or help himself in any way. And in all this I saw that his greatest trouble was lack of help; for he could not turn his face to look at his loving lord, who was very close to him, and who is the source of all help; but like a man who was weak and foolish for the time being, he paid attention to his own senses, and his misery continued..

Julian believed that the servant in 'good will and his great longing were the only cause of his fall', and throughout the Revelations there's an emphasis upon humanity's basically good, but flawed nature. Today, on at least three accounts, Julian is considered to be a theologian of significance. Her declaration-

'Just because I am a woman, must I therefore believe that I must not tell you about the goodness of God.'

- places her as a staunch supporter of the Christian feminist movement. Disassociated in gender from dubious and negative traits of patriarchy, Julian's highly original depiction of God as a caring and nurturing mother as well as father has resounding implications for Christian feminist theology. 

Secondly, according to Grace Jantzen, Julian's insights into spiritual growth and wholeness anticipate modern interest in psychotherapy and the attendant quest for spiritual insight which has dominated the 20th century. Thirdly, Julian's total lack of condemnation of humanity, far removed from standard medieval concepts of damnation and notions of God's wrath and judgement, distinguish her as a radical theological modern. There is no wrathful or angry God in Julian's merciful and compassionate theology,  she herself stating-

'For I saw no wrath except on man's side, and He forgives that in us, for wrath is nothing else but a perversity and an opposition to peace and to love'.

God's love for humanity is described by Julian as - 'our clothing, wrapping us for love, embracing and enclosing us for tender love'.

For Julian, sin occurs in human life not as stressed in medieval theology, because people are intrinsically evil, but because they are ignorant and lack self-knowledge. Through sin (a heavily-loaded word which many protest and recoil from upon hearing, without any real understanding of its meaning moral and spiritual wrong-doing) and the resultant consequences of sin in one's life, suffering humanity draws closer to an awareness of Christ's own suffering. In Julian's theology sin is necessary in life as ultimately it brings one to self-knowledge which in turn leads to acceptance of the role of Christ and God in one's life.

Julian of Norwich's vision of love and joy ruling God and Christ's relationship to humanity, her emphasis upon the feminine aspect of God and insistence upon orthodoxy are positive factors which will continue to attract new admirers to her spiritual classic Revelations of Divine Love throughout the world.

Julian's feast day is celebrated on May 8th in the Anglican and Lutheran Church and on May 13th in the Roman Catholic tradition.

Recommended books
Julian of Norwich  Grace Jantzen SPCK 1987 new edition 2000
Revelations of Divine Love trans. Elizabeth Spearing Penguin 1998

The English Mystical Tradition  David Knowles Burns and Oates 1961
In search of Julian of Norwich Shelia Upjohn pub. Darton -Longman-Todd  1989

Web-Links   Wikipedia - Julian of Norwich
Web-site on Julian, her life and contemporaries Umilta
Essay on Julian and Sir Thomas Browne's literary and spiritual affinity at Umilta

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