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Julian of Norwich – Revelations of divine love


Image: Catholic Saints

May 8 is the feast day of Julian of Norwich, one of the first women to write a book in English. Her book about her near-death experience and visions, Revelations of Divine Love, remains in print today. Like Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Julian is a British mystic who has fascinated and inspired generations of men and women. She is most famous for the line "All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well", which TS Eliot quoted in "Little Gidding", and the Queen Mother took for her motto. She is also the only mystic I know to be depicted with her cat.

Julian escaped the plague when she was six and again when she was eighteen and twenty-six. The town of Norwich lost one person out of every three to the Black Death. Festive pilgrims like those that Chaucer describes were riding through green lanes on their way to Canterbury not long afterwards, but death rode close to them, as close as their left hand.

It was natural that Julian would have thought about death, but she admits that she did not understand death or suffering or love. In May 1373, when she was thirty-one, she prayed that she would know what Christ suffered. As if in answer, she became dangerously ill.

Over three days and nights, as her mother and several friends tended her, she lost the ability to move or speak. On the fourth night, a priest gave her the last rites. Two days and two nights later, she was still clinging to life, but “dead from the waist down.” When the priest returned in the morning, he set a crucifix before her fixed eyes. To her sight the room seemed dark but she could see the crucifix, and she suddenly felt all her pain leave her. Over the course of the day she had sixteen revelations of divine love.

Her revelations began with the Crucifixion, which many people consider the most ghastly part of the whole Gospel. The revelation of the Crucifixion told Julian that God suffers with us and for us. He sees the sacrifices we make - for children, parents, work, freedom, friends. He understands sacrifice as an expression of love. He hopes that our sacrifices will strengthen and transform us and give us joy. This will mean, as another Anchoress observed about a mother and father who faced the death of their child, "allowing love to come in and have its way with them - instead of shutting it out." And the simple, tender symbol of this is that when you reach out to hug another person, and your arms open wide, your body makes the shape of the cross - the cross of love.

While Julian was recovering, she described her revelations to the visiting priest. She told him she must have been dreaming or mad, but he grew very quiet. "This man takes my least word seriously," she wrote later with amazed delight. He urged her to write her revelations down.

I imagine her in the morning light, a cat beside her as she writes or dictates. Occasionally she stops to gaze across the room and recall in detail the loving God who had cared for her like "a father and a mother," like "a brother and a friend". Some people think their visions make them special. (A sure sign their visions are not to be trusted.) Julian did not. She wanted people to know how God cared for them. Her "delicacy and precision in dealing with theological insights" (Gordon Miller, The Way of the English Mystics) and her honesty and humility persuaded a skeptical Church that her revelations were the real thing.

By then she had made the decision to live as an anchoress, immured in a small room attached to the Church of St. Julian and St Edward in Norwich. She lived in that room for the next forty years, meditating on the revelations, describing them in more depth in a second manuscript, and opening her "worldly-wise window" to those who came to her for advice - harried mothers, restless merchants, young seekers on the path.

In Revelations of Divine Love she wrote,

"Our Lord is a courteous and loving friend. . .and greatly cheered by our prayers."

"Then our good Lord opened the eye of my spirit and showed me my soul in the middle of my heart. I saw the soul as large as if it were a world without end and also as if it were a blessed, blissful kingdom. . ."

For years Julian wondered exactly what the Lord meant by the revelations she had received. One day the Lord answered her, using the Old English verb wit, which means know, and sounding, to this reader, just a tad impatient. "'What? Wouldst thou wit thy Lord's meaning in this thing? Learn it well: love was his meaning. And who showed it to you? Love. Why did he show it to you? For love.'"

"But what about suffering?" we ask. "How can we endure it?"

And Lady Julian answers, "Our dearworthy Lord did not say, 'You will never face trouble, you will never feel sorrow, you will never be afflicted.' He said, 'You will not be overcome.'"