Julian of Norwich

Brief biographical data:

Window in St
              Julian's ChurchFourteenth century -  English anchorite and mystic; revelations based on 16 "showings", related to the Passion of Christ, received at the age of 30; long text of the revelations compiled twenty years following the revelations shares the spiritual knowledge she developed as their outcome. The showings, which occurred when Julian genuinely believed she was about to die, were an answer to her prayer to develop true contrition (perfect love - intimacy with God.) Commemorated as a saint by the Church of England in 1980.


Julian's Message
Selections from the
Julian's words: 
God as Mother
Julian's words: Sin

It can be most tempting to be selective, when we read the works of medieval mysticism. Julian's message can elude us if viewed through a 21st century haze.  Since the current trend is to evaluate the needs and popular thought of society, then mould our religious practise to the "acceptable", we may remove Julian's writings from their context. We may enjoy "all shall be well", and the idea that sin is not "real", yet ignore the essential Christian faith which is the essence of her message.

St Julian Church site of
            Julian's cellSaints, of any era, are both products of their time and holy despite the prevalent conditions. Sanctity has never been in vogue, and the holy fulfilled needs that were neglected rather than conformed to a popular standard. Julian affirms eternal truth with an approach that is in marked contrast to the popular piety of the late Middle Ages. She describes herself as "unlettered", yet her theological sophistication  testifies  to the validity of her religious experience, and to her being a woman of burning love for her Creator.

True contemplatives do not seek unusual experiences, much less  personal power. Their consuming goal is intimacy with God. Apparently, the singular incident of the 16 showings provided the insight which influenced Julian's entire spirituality. It is telling that her "long text", which amplified the awareness she had received from these revelations, was composed 20 years later (when she'd reached what was, for the era, the "advanced" age of 50). Given that an anchoress lacked neither time nor motivation for recording such reflections, it is a fair assumption that her understanding of the full scope of her revelations developed over many years. In the era of the microwave and T-1 carrier, we must recall that quick mega-doses of the divine grace are not likely to come from the Master's hands … even if the process can be completed in eternity!

Christian mysticism is based on grace: the indwelling of the Trinity in the souls of mankind, and a divine call to holiness. Julian emphasises this, and various other points of doctrine, with an exquisite joy, focussing on bliss and glory rather than the idea of earth's being a battleground for good and evil. During the Middle Ages, the latter was the prevalent view - Satan sought to trip and trap us, and heaven was a promise difficult to hope for. Julian stresses the life of striving for virtue, but not in the highly negative manner common in her day, wherein rigid penance was the means to "atonement" for one's sin.

In her Revelations, Julian shows great charm in the childlike, tender quality of her expression. She sees God as one who delights in his creation - and who is thankful to us for our happiness in heaven. Though our medieval friends (no holier than mankind has been before or since!) were far more aware of God and of eternity than we could imagine, it was hardly characteristic of the time that "the king" would delight in the servant.

Julian's attitude that "all shall be well" largely depends on acceptance of the limitations of our own vision ,and the knowledge that the vastness of divine providence is mysterious. (Theologians of the Middle Ages would not have denied this, but nonetheless attempted to explain the inexplicable with scientific accuracy!) Hers is not an optimism (such as that which briefly flourished in the late nineteenth century) which denies the malice of either the evil one or the individual! Rather, it is an awareness that divine love  can bring good from any circumstance. Recalling that Julian's era was that of the Black Death, great corruption amongst the Church hierarchy, the peasant's revolt, and other assorted tribulations, we see that hers is no naive idealism, but a trust divinely inspired and responded to with love.

There are areas in which Julian was quite untypical:

Twenty-first century hazards to understanding Julian's essential messages

God is Truth, and truth eternal. It remains for those who love Him best to stimulate our own, weary minds and hearts to seek that same Truth, in love. The question remains: how do we incorporate the richness of Julian's message into our own lives?

Julian's near contemporary and near neighbour, the Franciscan John Duns Scotus, saw love as sanctifying grace, that is, the indwelling of the Trinity in our own souls. Love for God was the return of this wonderful and free gift of His, and love of neighbour a cherishing of another whom God created, and for whom His Son acquired Redemption. Thus, all love reflects that joy and delight of the Trinity, which Julian so eloquently described.

To paraphrase another theologian of the late Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas, the gift comes according to the manner of the recipient. The "accidental" of Julian's message - how God reveals Himself through His Church, for example - may be puzzling, but the essence we can embrace in faith, while asking that our own revelation of God's will (one likely to be much less dramatic, but no less affective), lead us as well to a loving response.

Essay © 2000 by Elizabeth G. Melillo, Ph.D.
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