“By his grace and help therefore let us in spirit stand and gaze, eternally marveling at the supreme, surpassing, singleminded, incalculable love that God, who is goodness, has for us.” —Julian of Norwich
On the eighth of May, in the year of our Lord 1373 — the third Sunday after Easter — a thirty-year-old woman, known to us as Julian of Norwich, received sixteen “shewings” or revelations, which she later acknowledged were visions from God. Near the beginning of that month she had fallen to an illness, the nature of which was not known. After a week in which her condition worsened and she was thought to be dying, a parish priest was called to administer the last rites. At the conclusion, as he was leaving, he placed a crucifix before her and bid her look upon the face of her Savior for comfort. In the next hours, as she prepared herself for death, the showings were revealed to her in rapid succession.
The first fifteen came to her the morning after the visit of the priest, starting at four a.m. and finishing at nine. The last one, the sixteenth, occurred later that night, concluding and affirming the previous ones. Much to her surprise, and that of her family and friends, she recovered. The meaning of the visions occupied her for the remainder of her long life.
There resulted two written versions of the revelations, the first and shorter version inscribed soon after she recovered, and the longer version some twenty years later, the result of much meditation in the intervening years. Although the later, longer version may naturally contain some embellishment on the original visions, both are considered authentic by the Church. She called herself “an unlettered person,” a deprecatory statement that testifies to her humility, but is refuted by “the sheer integrity of Julian’s reasoning, the precision of her theology, the depth of her insight, and the simplicity with which she expounds profound truths.”
So little is known of her life that what we learn of her character and background must be gleaned from the writings themselves. Based on allusions and hints in the text, biographers have tried to put together a plausible story that takes into account the context of her times.
In 1332, ten years before her birth, the bubonic plague — the Black Death — originated in India, making its way westward by 1347 to devastate Europe. Geoffrey Chaucer was born in 1340, two years before Julian, the same year that Queen’s College was founded at Oxford. In 1349 the Black Death arrived to kill off a third of the population of England. By 1350 Salisbury Cathedral was completed, and in 1352 Corpus Christi College, Oxford, was founded.
In 1361 the Black Death reappeared in England for the second time, devastating Julian’s home city of Norwich, this time striking down infants and small children. Julian would have been nineteen at the time. Her memories of the first plague during her childhood may have been diffuse but unforgettable. In the second wave she was nineteen, married and probably the mother of at least one child, a child who quite possibly was also one of the victims.
Although she does not mention specific personal losses in her writings, she does reflect on the travail and sadness she experienced. There was a time, she writes, “when I had a great longing and desire of God’s gift to be delivered of this world and of this life. For oft times I beheld the woe that is here and the wellness and blessed being that is there…This made me to mourn and earnestly to long — and also my own wretchedness and sloth and weariness — that I did not want to live and to travail as it fell to me to do.”
Plagues and wars were regarded as God’s punishment in Julian’s time, although human sin was the weakness that brought on the devastation. A single sinner could bring down the wrath of heaven on a community. It is the state of our sufferings here that weighs upon her in her solitude. Like anyone else, the presence of evil and suffering seems to her disproportionate to our culpability.
Her biographers and translators (she wrote an early form of English that can be difficult to read) are quick to affirm that in matters theological she followed the Church’s teachings without question — with two important exceptions. She did not accept that God could be wrathful and she did not believe that humans were wholly evil. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin neither convinced her nor intimidated her. As for the wrath of God, she saw only love in all that God did.
Just as the whole of life is rooted and grounded in love, and just as we cannot even exist were it not for God’s love poured out on us, so Julian infers that it is impossible that God should be angry. “I could see no sort of anger in God, however long I looked,” she recounts. “Indeed, if God were to be angry but for a moment we could not live, endure, or be!” (Julian 138). The dread we feel when we sin is not from fear of God, but from our deep need for God’s forgiveness and grace to overcome our sense of separation. It is the fear of the runaway child who suddenly sees herself alone and longs for home and for her parents.
Various theories and conjectures have been put forward to explain her divergence on these matters. Insubordination does not factor here: she voluntarily submitted to the Church’s authority and teachings. Lack of knowledge? Hardly, since the doctrine of hellfire, purgatory, and eternal torment would have been part of every child’s upbringing in her time. One commentator suggests that despite the trauma of surviving two waves of the Black Death before she was twenty, she was the product of a loving, stable, and happy home. While Norwich was a consequential city, the fourth largest city in England at the time, she had been shielded from its ranker aspects and probably never traveled beyond its immediate countryside. Simply put, she had little continued exposure to the cruelties and vileness of human depravity. In her innocence she saw the beauty and worth of every person.
“There is a godly will in our higher part, which by its basic goodness never wills what is evil, but only what is good. This is the reason why he loves us, and why we can always do what pleases him,” she wrote (Julian 118).
In her work as an anchoress, a person who voluntarily withdraws from the larger world to pray for the world and to counsel others, she no doubt heard their woes, their pains, their grievances against others, and their spitefulness. But she steadfastly held the belief that there was a seed in every person — without exception — that was pure and undefiled and was the germination point for the Holy Spirit in that person’s life.
Yet, the very presence of evil and suffering troubled her. She returned to the subject time and again throughout the revelations. “Good Lord,” she writes, “how can everything be all right when such great hurt has come to your creatures through sin?” In an aside to her readers she confides, “I desired, as far as I dared, to have more information for my own peace of mind” (Julian 106).
The answer came to her in two parts. Of the first, concerning our salvation, there is no mystery. Everything we need to know, everything we are hungering to hear from God about forgiveness, grace, and love, is there for the taking. “In this our Lord intends us to be occupied: delighting in himself, as he delights in us” (Julian 106).
The other part may not satisfy us today, accustomed as we are to perceive mysteries as information we have not yet analyzed, collated, and distributed. “The other part is completely hidden from us,” she writes. “It is our Lord’s own private matter, and it is the royal prerogative of God to be undisturbed in that which is his own business” (Julian 107). If we really wanted to please God, she says, we would want only what is God’s will, and in this case it is God’s will that we should not know this just yet. In later passages she hints that the last great secret that God will reveal to his children will be how he has determined the final judgment.
Sin, Julian says, “has no substance or real existence. It can only be known by the pain it causes” (Julian 104). The pain passes quickly and works on us to purge us and make us self-aware; in that pain we turn to God for mercy. “Because of his tender love for all those who are to be saved our good Lord comforts us at once and sweetly, as if to say, ‘It is true that sin is the cause of all this pain; but it is all going to be all right; it is all going to be all right; everything is going to be all right’” (Julian 104).
The refrain that sings throughout the Revelations, from beginning to end, is that all will be well. We might think this to be a passing surge of emotion, but it remains at the core of her being after a lifetime of reflection on her extraordinary personal vision. She lived, as near as can be determined, well into her seventies, loved and admired by those drawn through need and circumstance into her circle, as acquainted with the sorrows and agonies of life as with the abiding assurance of God’s love.
Every once in a while, perhaps when it is most needed, some person is lifted and held in the arms of God long enough that they return with God’s heartbeat pulsing through their veins. This has happened in diverse eras to reassure us that God has not left us orphaned. What catches our breath and quickens our spirits is that some of them return with gifts from that far country (as miraculously close as the light behind their eyes) — gifts of words and images that draw us up to God.
“With regard to the physical sight,” Julian states, “I have related what I have seen as truthfully as I can. For the words I have repeated them exactly as our Lord showed them me. About the spiritual sight I have already said a fair amount, but I can never describe it fully” (Julian 191–2).
What we can say runs behind what we can imagine. What we can imagine we can’t always say. Does our imagination outrun our language? Does our language constrict the limits of our imagination? Julian’s vision of God and of Jesus — she called him ‘Mother Jesus’ — and of the Holy Spirit, transcended both her time and her Church.
The being of God is, in our present state, unknowable, but in the Word made flesh — in Jesus — we see all we need to know of God that we can bear. We sometimes turn away from this because we do not trust our experience. Julian herself at first could not believe her spiritual eyes: “On the very day that it happened, when the vision had passed, I — wretch that I am! — denied it, and said quite openly that I had raved” (Julian 187). But the Lord showed it all over again to her, in greater detail this time, and quietly said, “You know that was no raving that you saw today.” Take it, he said to her. Believe it, comfort yourself with it, live in it. “For his will is that we should continue to believe it to the end of our life, and remain in the fullness of this joy thereafter” (Julian 188).
All will be well.
Notes & References:
Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, ethics, and communications for 37 years at universities in Maryland and Washington, DC. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
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