What can we learn from Julian of Norwich?
We know precious little about Julian – even her name is unclear. She gives away almost no personal information in her Revelations of Divine Love. What we know can be gleaned from small scraps of information in wills, in a contemporary account, from some fleeting references in her work and from a rubric (a few lines of introductory text) in the only surviving medieval manuscript of her work.
This rubric, in a manuscript dated to 1413, describes her as a ‘Julyan that is recluse ate Norwyche and ȝitt on lyfe’ [Julian, who is a recluse in Norwich and is alive] (f. 97r). Here the word ‘recluse’ means that Julian was an anchoress – a woman who had retreated from the world to live a life of prayer and contemplation, alone in a cell. We know her today as Julian because she was attached to the church of St Julian in Norwich (although the name ‘Julian’ could also be given to a woman in this period). If she had another name, we do not know what it was.
The great medieval mystic Julian of Norwich is renowned for her theological optimism (“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”) as well as for her willingness to colour outside the gendered lines (“As truly as God is our father, so too is God our mother”).
Julian of Norwich was an enigmatic character. The first known woman to write in English, she was a medieval "anchoress" or hermit, who lived from 1342 to around 1416. But her work didn't become known until much later; the language was updated and her book – Revelations of Divine Love – reissued in 1901, when it became a huge success. She's now recognised as one of England's most important mystical writers.
Revelations is based on a series of visions of God Julian received while seriously ill. When she recovered, she recorded these 16 "showings", and later expanded their account into a much longer text.
Though written centuries ago, they contain deep truths about God that can speak to us today of His character and faithfulness.
In her Revelations of Divine Love Julian relates that in May 1373, when she was 30 years old, she suffered a serious illness. After she had been administered extreme unction, she received 16 revelations within the span of a few hours. When she wrote her Revelations, she was a recluse at Norwich, supported by the Benedictine convent of Carrow. Anchorite seclusion was a rather common form of life in 14th-century England among Christians with high spiritual aspirations. A woman of little formal education— she calls herself "unlettered"—Julian writes in a beautifully simple style and shows a solid grasp of traditional theology.
Julian's revelations, a mixture of imaginary and intellectual visions, bear all the characteristics of true mysticism. According to her, her visions came in fulfilment of three petitions of her youth: to have in mind the Passion of Christ, to have a critical bodily sickness at 30 years of age, and to receive the wounds of "true contrition," "genuine compassion," and "sincere longing for God." The revelations consist mostly of visions of the crucified Christ occasioned by the sight of a crucifix which the priest had left at her bedside. But through the Passion, Julian is led to intellectual visions of the Trinity and of the universe as it exists in God. Thus she is confronted by the teachings of sin and damnation, which she finds hard to reconcile with God's grace in Christ. Nevertheless she accepts the traditional Church doctrine of the existence of an eternal rejection. Yet on the sinfulness of those who will be saved she hedges: "In every soul to be saved is a godly will that has never consented to sin, in the past or in the future. Just as there is an animal will in our lower nature that does not will what is good, so there is a godly will in our higher part, which by its basic goodness never wills what is evil, but only what is good." Obviously she finds herself unable to accept that divine goodness could ever allow the elect to be truly sinful. Her fundamental outlook is optimistic. The Lord tells her: "All shall be well," and "You will see for yourself that all manner of thing shall be well."
Little is known of Julian's later years, not even the date of her death. She is last referred to as a living person in a will dated 1416. Apparently even during her life she enjoyed a certain renown, for people came from afar to see and consult her.
One of Julian's most famous analogies stemmed from her vision of a hazelnut in the palm of her hand, from which she placed emphasis on the enduring and sustaining love of God for everything He has made.
"In this little thing I saw three properties," she wrote. "The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it."
She noted the fragility of the nut, "I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing," but was immediately granted understanding: "It lasts and always will, because God loves it, and thus everything has being through the love of God."
We perhaps need to hear this more than ever. In a time of deep uncertainty in the US, a seemingly endless war in Iraq and Syria, and resulting humanitarian crises, Julian's famous assertion that, "All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well" may bring some comfort. In fact, these words are enshrined in a stained glass window at the Chapel Royal in St James' Palace, where the Queen herself goes to pray.
During Julian's lifetime, the Bubonic Plague ravaged England, killing a third of its population. During her own illness, she was at one point thought almost dead, and a priest read her the last rites. She understood suffering well, and was not speaking from a place of only ever having known happiness.
Yet in one vision, she said Christ reminded her: "You will not be overcome. God did not say you will not be troubled, you will not be belaboured, you will not be disquieted; But God said, You will not be overcome."
Maybe the best way to finish this post is to quote Julian herself, with perhaps her most eloquent and lovely prayer:
God, of your goodness, give me yourself, for you are enough for me. I may ask nothing less that is fully to your worship, and if I do ask anything less, ever shall I be in want. Only in you I have all.
Deen, Edith. Great Women of the Christian Faith. New York: Harper, 1959.
Gardner, Edmund G. “Juliana of Norwich.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Translated by Clifton Wolters. Penguin, 1966.
Julian of Norwich. Showings. New York: Paulist Press, c1978.
“Julian, of Norwich.” Dictionary of National Biography, edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. London: Oxford University Press, 1921 – 1996.