This is high praise for someone about whom we know almost nothing, including her real name, the exact dates of her life, and anything biographical about her, other than what’s in the Revelations. What we do know is:
- that Julian survived at least three onslaughts of the Black Death [1348, 1361, 1369], when she was six or seven, nineteen, and twenty-six years old;
- that when she was about 30 1/2 years old, “a simple creature unlettered”, by her own admission, she fell very ill, to the point of death, and received the last rites after three days and three nights;
- that her mother was at her deathbed, along with those caring for her, including her curate, after she’d hung on for two more days and nights;
- that during the third night, on either May 8 or May 13 of 1373 [the Middle English transcription isn’t clear], she received a revelation from God around 4 o’clock in the morning as she gazed at the crucifix, a “revelation of love that Jesus Christ our endless bliss made...” in sixteen “showings”;
- that on the following night she received the sixteenth showing, the “conclusion and confirmation of all the fifteen”;
- that she did, indeed, live in an anchorhold at St. Julian’s Church, Norwich, in her later life;
- that the account of the Revelations to Julian comes to us in two forms: an earlier short version (of which we have only one manuscript: copied in the mid-15th century from a copy made initially in 1413), and a longer version (preserved in two manuscripts: the Parisian (c.1650), and the two Sloane manuscripts (post-17th cent.?) from the British Library);
- that Julian wrote the short text shortly after May, 1373, and the long text, some 15 or so years later, after much deep reflection, prompted by a revelation which led her to understand more keenly the original showings;
- that this later secondary revelation, probably around the year 1388, clarified for her, in Christ’s words, that “love was His meaning”;
- that, according to several wills and an eyewitness account, Julian was enclosed as an anchoress at least by 1393; that Margery Kempe, a somewhat eccentric “mystic”, attests that she visited Julian between 1413 and 1415, and that “Dame Jelyan was an expert in such things and could give good counsel”; and that Julian was still alive in 1416.
My first reading of Julian's Revelations was in 1996. As I got into the sixth Chapter, I read: “A man goes upright and the food of his body is sealed as in a purse full fair; and when it is time of his necessity, it is opened and sealed again full honestly. And that it is [God] who does this is shown there where He says that He comes down to us to the lowest part of our need...” My reaction was: “Did Julian just say what I think she said?” Rereading it confirmed that she had, and I fell madly in love with Julian of Norwich, this earthy 14th century woman who could speak so candidly about God’s presence and care of us in even our most private, basic, mundane human needs.
The essence of the Revelations is that Julian comes to understand the nature of God through the divine wisdom and love which she sees in Jesus the Christ. Julian reads as her revelatory text the message of love revealed in the suffering body of Christ on the Cross. In Chapter 2 Julian says: “I desired a bodily sight...” She longed for “a more true consciousness of the Passion of Christ.” Frederick C. Bauerschmidt observes: “She does not ‘see’ simply with her eyes, but with her entire body. She cannot maintain the distance that the eyes allow, but sees Christ’s suffering by participating in it...” It’s really the kind of “seeing” involved in the practice of lectio divina. Lectio divina literally means “sacred or divine reading”. It’s been a key ancient monastic practice, and Julian obviously made it one of her practices as an anchoress. Many serious Christians practice it daily as part of their spiritual journey. Primarily it refers to letting the word of Scripture, especially, (though it’s not limited to that) wash over our souls so frequently and deeply that it begins to guide and direct how we think, how we speak, and how we act. In a nutshell, it’s a serious, lifelong undertaking aimed at keeping us faithful in seeking God.
- true contrition: the abandoment of one’s self-ego as the center of reference;
- natural or loving compassion: a “suffering with” which is other-oriented;
- wish-filled yearning for God: a longing of the will for the only Good which can satisfy; purity of heart/singleminded- ness/a true heart. In Chapter 39 Julian says: “By contrition we are made pure, by compassion we are made ready,
but only if I love God better;
and in so much as you love God better,
it is more to you than to me.
I do not say this to those who are wise, for they know it well,
but I say it to you who are simple,
for your benefit and comfort,
for we are all one in love....
If I look individually at myself, I am just nothing;
but in general terms, I am, I hope, in unity of love with all my
fellow Christians...” (Chapter 9)
“ From the time that it was shown, I desired frequently to know
what our Lord’s meaning was. And fifteen years after (and more)
I was answered in spiritual understanding, saying thus:
‘Wouldst thou know thy Lord’s meaning in this thing?
Be well aware: love was His meaning...’” (Chapter 86)