In the fall of 2016 while taking a course on Church history I was introduced to Julian of Norwich. I had never heard of Julian, but something in her story attracted me, so much so that after ordination I sought out and read the book she wrote. But I get ahead of myself.
The mid 1300s were a hard time to be alive in England. Early in the century a great famine killed up to third of all people in Europe and England, and in midcentury the plague came to England, killing up to half of those left. The hundred years war between France and England was in its early stages.
The city of Norwich, where Julian lived, escaped none of these disasters. In fact, Norwich which had been the second biggest city in England, shrank to a village, never to regain its size and wealth.
This was the world into which Julian was born. We don’t know any specifics about her life until eight fateful days in March of 1370.
Julian was exactly 30 – and one-half years old, a significant age since that is the age that it was believed that Jesus was when he died. Julian from an early age had an attachment to the person of Jesus, and when she became ill she took some solace in the thought that she was imitating Jesus in this way. She later wrote that her only regret was that she had not done more good in her life.
Julian was deathly ill and expected to die. For six days she suffered greatly, and on the seventh it appeared to those around her, and Julian herself, that he was at the point of death. A priest held a crucifix where Julian could focus her vision on her savior, which she did as the cold and numbness spread from her feet upwards.
But Julian did not die. She fell into what we might suppose was a coma. During the next day and night, and again on the third day, she had a series of visions of Jesus conversing with her as a parent would a beloved child. When she awoke, she wrote down these visions, sixteen in number. She referred them as ‘showings’. The remainder of her life, and she lived to be over 70 years old, were devoted to meditating and praying on her visions.
Julian’s story may have died with her memory if not for the fact that she wrote a book called “Revelations of Divine Love”, recording her visions and her meditations. It became a best seller in a time when books were copied by hand. In fact, historians tell us that her book was the first one written by a woman in the English language. Julian was a contemporary to Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales are considered the first book written in English by a man. Up to this time, English was considered something of a creole language with elements of French, Latin and German. Julian had apparently been educated and learned to write in English as her native language. In fact, Julian’s book is a sophisticated text, full of deft allusion, bold imagery, parables, and philosophical and theological reflections.
Sometime after her illness and recovery, Julian answered a calling to be less present to the world and more dedicated to prayer and meditation. She became an anchoress, a type of hermit who lives in a small house attached to a church. She had a window into the church to participate in Mass and another for someone to pass her food, and through which she received sunlight. This life was unusual even then but not unknown for both men and women who followed St Paul’s admonition that “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal 5:24). The decision to take up this way of life was of course intensely personal, freely made after years of discerning and counseling by others, but it also represented a commitment from the community to support those who undertook it.
Julian lived the rest of her long life as an anchoress, never leaving her cell. Surviving examples of anchoress cells are about 100 square feet. She is often depicted with a cat and may have had a pet. She became well known as someone who gave good practical as well as spiritual advice. People, famous people even, travelled far to speak with her. Like John the Baptist, she did not go into society. Society came to her.
The object of her life was contemplation, the unceasing concentration upon God in prayer. It was after more than 20 years of contemplation that she wrote “Revelations of Divine Love”.
Prominent among the themes in Julian’s meditations is the overwhelming, exuberant love God has for us, and the unbreakable bond of love between God and each one of us. She compares God’s love to motherly love, tender, intense and whole love which is manifested in creation and in the whole history of salvation and that is crowned by the Incarnation of the Son. She wrote: “Jesus Christ therefore, who himself overcame evil with good, is our true Mother. We received our being from Him and this is where His Maternity starts. And with it comes the gentle protection and Guard of Love which will never ceases to surround us. Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother.”
Julian understood it this way: God is love and it is only if one opens oneself to this love totally and with total trust and lets it become one’s sole guide in life, that all things are transfigured, true peace and true joy found and one is able to radiate it. She wrote: “The love of God creates in us such a oneing that when it is truly seen, no person can separate themselves from another person.”.
Julian relates that at one point in her vision, sees herself holding a small nut, a hazelnut. She is given the understanding that this small nut contains all of creation. It is so small, tiny in comparison to the chaos of nothingness that surrounds it. How can it survive? Julian comes to see in that tiny little hazelnut the crystallization of three truths on which everything depends. The first is that God made the hazelnut, it being quite unthinkable that the hazelnut could account for its own existence. The second is that God loves the hazelnut. Why otherwise would he fashion something he could not love? There must accordingly be something good, lovely even, in all that God made. And, finally, that God looks after that hazelnut at every moment.
It is in reflecting on the hazelnut that Julian understands that the God who made the universe to be good, is guiding all things to tend towards good even, when it seems that evil surrounds us. It is a remarkable thing to believe in a time of famine, plague, and war. Julian lived in a strange time and chose a way of life that many would find unimaginable. But has the world really changed so much in the intervening centuries?
Julian wrote that God, who knows all things, knows that the troubles, trials and pains of this world are in some way preparing the world for its ultimate conclusion as good. And so I will close with these, perhaps the most famous of Julian’s meditations:
“God made all things for love;
By the same love God will keep them and shall keep them without end.
And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be exceedingly well.”