Friday, May 8, 2009

Julian of Norwich: God's Messenger of Love

Julian is without doubt one of the most wonderful of all Christian voices. She gets greater and greater in my eyes as I grow older, and whereas in the old days I used to be crazy about St. John of the Cross, I would not exchange him now for Julian if you gave me the world and the Indies and all the Spanish mystics rolled up in one bundle. I think that Julian of Norwich is, with Newman, the greatest English theologian.
(Thomas Merton)

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 is probably not her name; that she adopted the name of the church (St. Julian the Hospitaller was possibly the patron) where she was an anchoress (female form of anachoretes = “withdrawn from the world”);
- 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.

Aside from this, we know nothing of her upbringing, her family, whether or not she was always single, what sort of education she had, or exactly when she became an anchoress. Nor does Julian mention anything about the social/ political/religious turmoil going on all about her in Norwich.

What we do know about her is that Julian is, as Fr. Herbert O’Driscoll notes, “...not only a great lady of the past...”, but “also a great woman in our future.” As the first woman to write a book in the English language, she dares not only to make her subject theology, including the most profound articles of faith -- the Trinity, sin and salvation, the Eucharist, etc. -- but to join a long line of at least 27 other classic mystics and theologians who, borrowing images from Scripture, write about Christ as “Mother”.

Unlike many medieval writers, Julian is a theological optimist. She doesn’t accept that the suffering, pain and evil which she sees in her and other people’s lives is the final reality. Nor can Julian accept that God is angry or wrathful. She sees this as a distorted human image, in no way reflecting who God really is. Julian is adamant that ultimately “all manner of thing shall be well”.

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.

Julian never gave her book a title, though she describes it in the opening chapter of the long version: “This is a revelation of love”. And it’s fairly clear that Julian realized from the start that her record of Christ’s “showings” were meant not just for her personal benefit, but for that of others, whom she terms her “even Christians”.

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.

Julian’s manner of “seeing” in her Revelations is meant to convey how her and our learning of Christ’s message of love and trust, not merely with our mind, but with our whole being, might help her and us, her “even Christians”, to live a holy life. As Julian herself says: “...He wants us to be like him in wholeness of endless love toward ourselves and our fellow Christians...

Julian tells us that even before her “showings” she’d asked for three gifts of God:  
1) the memory of Christ’s Passion, i.e., she wanted to personally participate in it as had Magdalen and the other lovers of Jesus; it was her way of being in solidarity with all who suffer: “sharing”, as Paul says, “his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” In this way Julian could become more compassionate for both.  
2) serious bodily sickness at a young age, so that she would have the sense of dying.  She says this came to her freely from God, not as something she sought. She says she wanted to be “purged by the mercy of God and afterwards live more to the honor of God because of that sickness.”   
3) to have from God’s gift three wounds, again a sharing in Christ’s wounds:
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,
and by true yearning for God we are made worthy. These are three means, as I understand, by which all souls come to heaven -- that is to say, those who have been sinners on earth and shall be saved.

Julian never asked for these visions or manifestations. She humbly accepted the “showings” she received, but always saw them as God’s gift for which she continually expressed her utmost gratitude. For her the only important thing was the message of God’s merciful love.  

A single linear reading (or even several) cannot take the place of patient study: this is solid meat and requires a great deal of theological chewing...Julian integrated theologian, for whom daily life and religious experience and theological reflection are all aspects of the same whole.” (Grace Jantzen)  Notice, however, that Julian isn’t a “theologian” in an academic sense; she undoubtedly wasn’t trained in formal theology, but she had the knack of carefully listening to, observing, praying over the elements of the Faith and then pulling that all together in a cohesive and practical whole. She lived her belief through a personal relationship with God, and this came of engaging all her natural and spiritual powers in seeking God through Christ in the Spirit.  The more you read and pray over Julian’s Revelations, the more you see the interconnection, in her thoughts and ideas, of the great truths of catholic faith. 

Not surprising, for she builds on a rock-solid foundation of natural reason; Scripture; the Church’s tradition and teaching; and experience. 1) natural reason: Julian calls it “oure kyndly reson” and comments that: “...our reason is in God, understanding that it is the highest gift that we have received, and that it is grounded in human nature...” (Chapter 83) and later, “...our reason is founded on God, who is essential nature.” (Chapter 56)  2) Scripture:  “Our Faith,” says Julian “is based on God’s word, and it is part of our Faith that we believe God’s word shall be preserved in all things.” (Chapter 32)  Julian incorporates Scripture so well that there’s virtually no distinction between quotation and her own words: another fruit of lectio divina. But even this didn’t stop Julian from admitting her perplexity and confusion over apparent contradictions between Scripture and Church teaching, and what was revealed to her.  3) the Church’s tradition and teaching: Julian is clearly a most faithful daughter of the Church: “ everything I believe as Holy Church believes, preaches, and teaches...wishing and intending never to accept anything that could be contrary to it...” (Chapter 11)   She insists on this, even though she finds herself personally struggling to resolve certain theological issues, such is how “all shall be well” in a world of sin and suffering, or if, by God’s grace, there is universal salvation for all humankind. “...I was taught by the grace of God that I should steadfastly keep myself in the Faith as I had interpreted it before, and also that I should firmly believe that everything shall be well as our Lord showed at the same time...” (Chapter 32)

A final word from Blessed Julian herself:

...I am not good because of this showing,
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)

God of thy goodness, give me thyself for thou art 
enough to me; and I can ask for nothing that is less that
can be full honor to Thee; and if I ask for anything that is
less, ever shall I be in want, for only in Thee have I all.”

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