The fullness of joy is to behold God in all.
Many of you may know who Julian of Norwich was. Most may know her through the words that Jesus spoke to her, which have been immortalized by T. S. Eliot in his famous Quartets: “Sin is necessary, but all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.” The lives of the sainted ones and their venerated writings, such as those by Julian, are of immense value because they serve as the great role models and liberators of human life on the earthly plane—revealing how we too can be divinely aware in the present moment.
Much like the beam from a lighthouse, they bring reassurance, comfort, and hope into our individual journey on the Path that we also will one day attain such delicious freedom and unity with the Infinite Source, talking with our God as did Julian. Thus, having transcended the outer mind, with our spiritual eye open, the inner Light is henceforth known firsthand from within our hearts as the only Living reality.
Let us move backward in time to enter Julian’s world in the harsh 1300’s. She lived in Norwich, a hectic, noisy seaport with a population second only to London, through which most of England’s European textile trade flowed. Historically, the 14th century has been described as a “calamitous time” and a period of almost unprecedented human suffering and distress. The Hundred Years’ War between England and France had commenced before Julian’s birth, and its toll was enormous.
In 1349, when she was about six, the Black Death (bubonic plague) swept through Norwich and would do so several times for more than a century. It was also the terrible time of what was called “The Great Schism” when the Catholic Church split into two churches and two Popes who claimed authority, each calling the other the Antichrist. Violent social unrest, poverty, and famine were rampant. Amidst all this incredible outer turmoil and terror, God’s deepest mysteries were opened to Julian, for she consciously perceived God’s full presence in her life.
Other than what is known about Julian’s solitary enclosure and Norwich at the time she lived, very little is known about her personally. We do not know where she was born (though some authorities claim it was probably Norwich sometime around December 1342), who or what her family was, her religious history (though she was likely a Benedictine nun), or when she died (she was known to be still alive in 1413). We do not even know her given name. Describing herself as a “simple creature unlettered” when she received her visions, the extent of what is known about Julian is what she actually wrote about God through the ongoing “inward instruction” she received.
Julian was an anchoress, which means she voluntarily chose to live as a solitary and be enclosed in her cell in the parish church, where she resided. In her outward confinement of space, she was able to open her inner spaciousness by seeking to be alone with God. In her divine solitude and inner contemplation, her hungry soul became united with God, with the Eternal Presence. Julian’s mystical “showings,” as she called them, have become known as the Revelations of Divine Love.
The word anchoress comes from a Greek verb meaning “to retire.” In essence, Julian became a recluse (religious hermit) whose inner prompting entailed a more severe withdrawal from ordinary life than even previously when she was thought to have been a cloistered nun. A dramatic ceremony of enclosure, much like a funeral rite, would have initiated her into her new life. Once she was interned in her enclosure, her strict vow required that she would never leave her anchorhold. Were she to do so, excommunication was the drastic consequence. Thus, freed from external distractions, she could dedicate herself to a more intense, deep form of contemplative living in her own sacred space. This served as the archetypal “room of her own” coveted by so many women throughout time. In her simplicity of life and pureness of heart, she could absorb God’s love and truth.
Her cell adjoined the parish church of Saint Julian in Conisford at Norwich. It was likely reasonably comfortable and would have had at least one adequate-sized room, maybe several, with her own oratory—her own place of prayer, like a small chapel or a room for private devotions. For a stretch of exercise and sunshine, Julian was probably also granted the right to walk in the church courtyard or possibly an adjoining garden area. A maid would have cooked and cleaned for her and a companion cat stalked the mice. Her meals were simple, tasteful ones by the standards of the day in the early Middle Ages. Through a “squint” or a small opening in a wall that gave her view of the altar, she could watch the on-going church services. Her cell also included another window that opened out onto a parlor sheltered from the weather for those who sought her help and guidance. An anchoress was expected to serve in the role as a spiritual adviser, and Julian’s skills were remarkable and renowned. She was the famous therapist of her day!
We do know that she was thirty-and-a-half years old (by her own statement) when she became desperately ill—to the point that her curate performed the last rites and held a cross for her to see. As her consciousness dimmed, her last sight was of the crucifix. This illness actually came upon her from an earlier request when she was younger for “three graces by the gift of God.” She had fervently desired and prayed for “recollection of the Passion,” where she would experience Jesus’ own suffering on the cross. Her second request was to undergo an illness so extreme and life threatening that all, including her, would think her to be dying. And the third desire was for three wounds: of true contrition (sincere penitence or remorse), of loving compassion, and of longing with her undivided will for God. Above all, she sought complete union with God, whom she suggests was “heaven itself.”
During those hours while she was gravely ill and in a state of trance, she underwent a series of sixteen mystical “showings,” which alternated numerous times between intense pain and suffering to intense delight and joy, occurring over slightly more than 24 hours in May 1373. She later described these literal visions as “living and vivid and hideous and fearful and sweet and lovely.” She tells us that “our good Lord opened my spiritual eye” and the seer explains the process, “The first began early in the morning, about the hour of four, and it lasted, revealing them in a determined order, most lovely and calm, each following the other, until it was three o’clock in the afternoon or later.” Almost on the brink of death and in an extremely receptive state, she personally witnesses Jesus’ crucifixion in such clarity that she observes great drops of bright red blood flowing down his forehead. This horrific vision turns into beholding Jesus triumphant and full of joy.
During the entire experience she grapples with the fundamental issues of evil and suffering, of salvation and damnation, of human goodness and wickedness, and above all, of the infinite love and compassion of God. She depicts God’s love as surrounding us much like clothing. While in her near-death state, she also literally wrestled with the heat, stench, and smoke of the Devil—not once, but twice. During these hours, Jesus answers questions for her probing mind, and still baffled and unsatisfied, she interacts at length with God, wherein God spoke to her, often simply by forming words in her understanding and also by giving Julian visions.
She emerges from this subterranean experience victorious and permanently united with God, for she had once cried: “God, of your goodness give me yourself, for you are enough for me, . . . only in you do I have everything.” God had opened to her the deepest recesses of her soul, which she portrays “as wide as if it were an endless citadel, and also as if it were a blessed kingdom, and . . . a fine city.”
As soon as she recovered, she felt divinely commanded to write down a record of the stark simplicity of her multiple visions. With awe and gratitude, she knew she had been entrusted with a great gift she was meant to share beyond her own private experience. She captured her visions in a simple and clear style, almost like a journalist, as she narrates them in an impersonal, brief catalog of the sixteen distinct showings. With Chaucer as a contemporary of her time, she was the first woman believed to have written a book in the English language. Although she gave her book no title, scholars often refer to the first accounting of her visions as “The Short Text.” The words of The Short Text were for Julian as sacred and authentic as any Gospel as a source of Truth, because Julian had the primacy of a direct, unmediated encounter with God. She knew she knew.
Over the course of the subsequent 20 years or so of reflection, Julian flowered in growth as an individual, in her deep knowledge of human nature through her counseling, and in her evolving understanding of the visions. Finding Him to be “very accessible, familiar and courteous,” she also continued her intimate dialogue and relationship with God. According to her, “God wishes to be known, and it pleases Him that we should rest in Him.” She then writes an expanded version of the book in which she gives a much fuller, sweeter account of how her own understanding has grown. In those intervening years, she had integrated her visions fully into the fabric of her own being and offers them to us in a deeply nourishing and sustaining way. This is referred to as “The Long Text,” and it is three times longer than the short version.
During Julian’s life, as it seems at times in present day, the outer world around her was in utter chaos. She did not waste precious time or effort by dwelling on the ills of the world. In fact, Julian wrote, “those who deliberately occupy themselves with earthly business, constantly seeking worldly well-being, have not God’s rest in their hearts; for they love and seek their rest in this thing which is so little and in which there is not rest . . . .” What was revealed to her, in spite of the context of her world appearing to be on fire, was that God is indeed all love, mercy, compassion. Her revelations showed no trace of a wrathful, punishing God, only astonishing faith and confidence in God. She wrote, “everything has being through the love of God.”
Moreover, a fundamental optimism pervades her writings and her experience of life, for “our Lord is with us, protecting us and leading us into the fullness of joy.” The fruit of her grace was peace and a pervasive acceptance and confidence in the goodness and generosity of God. Julian promises us, “It is God’s will that we accept his commands and his consolations as generously and as fully as we are able; and he also wants us to accept our tarrying and our suffering as lightly as we are able, and to count them as nothing. For the more lightly we accept them, the less importance we ascribe to them because of our love, the less pain shall we experience from them and the more thanks shall we have for them. In this blessed revelation I was truly taught that any woman or man who voluntarily chooses God in her or his lifetime may be sure that she or he too is chosen.”
One of Julian’s primary theological contributions is that she drew Motherhood or the Mothering aspect firmly into the Trinity. Through the centuries, Julian serves as a much-needed female teacher with her warm, feminine insights. Her intense visions were wonderfully inclusive and relational. She declared in her writing that, “as truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother.” Julian also wrote of God, “I am he, the power and greatness of fatherhood; I am he, the wisdom and lovingness of motherhood; . . . I am he, the unity. . . .”
For Julian, the truest job of all on earth is the mother’s role. As a perfect vehicle to describe the Motherhood of God, she speaks of “the mother’s service is nearest, readiest and surest” and describes her as “my kind Mother, my gracious Mother, my beloved Mother, have mercy on me.” She goes on to declare: “This fair lovely word ‘mother’ is so sweet and so kind in itself that it cannot truly be said of anyone or to anyone except of him and to him who is the true Mother of life and of all things. To the property of motherhood belong nature, love, wisdom, and knowledge, and this is God.”
Now recognized as one of the greatest spiritual classics of all time, these final words are from the last chapter of The Long Text:
And from the time that it was revealed, I desired many times
Julian lived more than six centuries ago. Yet her enduring revelations of God’s warmth, nurturance, compassion, generosity, and love live as powerfully in their spiritual essence as ever. The waves of beauty and goodness she sent forth have gained in momentum and have as great, if not a greater effect today. The rose of her purity, devotion, and spiritual attainment sustain us as though enfolded by her continuing optimism, grace, and endless joy. What is the energy that you are personally sending forth from your life? Does it contribute to the healing and upliftment of the world? What might your legacy be?
• Pray Ceaselessly (discusses the Rose of Divine Mother’s Love and the Pearl Ray)
• The Cup Called Mother (discusses our relationship with our biological mother as another primary facet of the Moon)
Beer, F. 1992. Women and Mystical Experience in the Middle Ages. Boydell Press.
Colledge, Edmund, O.S.A., and James Walsh, S.J. 1978. Julian of Norwich: Showings. Paulist Press.
Wikipedia (Accessed September 4, 2011.)
Flinders, Carol Lee. 1993. Enduring Grace: Living Portraits of Seven Women Mystics. HarperCollins.
Flinders, Carol Lee. 1994. Enduring Grace: The Lives of Six Women Mystics From the Age of Faith. Two cassettes. Sounds True Audio.
Furlong, Monica. 1996. The Wisdom of Julian of Norwich. Lion Publishing.
Jantzen, Grace. 1987. Julian of Norwich, Mystic and Theologian. Paulist Press.
Wolters, Clifton. 1982. Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Penguin Books.
Text © by Zane Maser, 2011. Photos obtained at WikiCommons. The last photo is © or attributed to Evelyn Simak. All rights reserved worldwide.
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