In writing down her remarkable visions of God, Julian of Norwich became the first English female writer. As this year marks 650 years since Julian's classic work The Revelations of Divine Love was written, Karen Murdarasi looks at her life and legacy
Perhaps you shouldn’t be reading an article about Julian of Norwich.
Julian herself urged her readers not to pay any attention to the ‘poor being’ who saw visions from God, but only to the visions themselves. Since Julian wasn’t very forthcoming about herself, we know very little about her, but it is possible to piece together a few details. So if you feel like ignoring her request, read on.
WHO WAS SHE?
The woman known as Julian of Norwich was almost certainly not born ‘Julian’, and probably wasn’t originally from Norwich. She spent the last few decades of her life living in a room attached to St Julian’s Church in the busy port city of Norwich, East Anglia, and unless the name of the church is just a striking coincidence, this is where she took her name from.
Julian was born in 1342 to a wealthy family, perhaps of merchants. Her dialect suggests that she probably hailed from further north than East Anglia. Although she was a devoted Christian, her life was unremarkable until, at the age of 30, she suffered from a very serious illness that nearly killed her. In fact, she was so close to death that at one point her mother closed her eyes, thinking she had already passed away.
As strange as it might sound, Julian had actually prayed to suffer an illness like this, so that facing death could draw her closer to God, but she was not prepared for the way God would draw close to her during her suffering.
Julian saw a number of visions or ‘shewings’ while near to death and during her recovery. Although she initially wrote them off as delirium, she was later convicted that they were truly messages from God. She also decided they were not just for her, but for all people. She wrote her visions down so that the message could be shared with everyone who was interested. In doing so she became the first identifiably female writer in the English language, or at least the first whose work has survived. Julian may have been married and even had children, we don’t know. Although people often assume that she must have been a nun when she had her visions, she actually seems to have been living at home during her illness, with her mother and parish priest at her bedside.
What we do know is that later in life she became an anchoress: a female anchorite. This was someone who, instead of joining a convent, lived a type of monastic life in a ‘cell’ (a room or suite) usually attached to a church. Once anchorites entered their individual cells they would stay there until they died, but they could have visitors, usually people looking for spiritual advice. Julian, as an elderly anchoress, gained a reputation for wisdom, and was visited by the younger mystic Margery Kemp, among others. But it is her visions as a young woman that she is now remembered for.
The Female Mystic
Being a woman who saw and wrote down religious visions made Julian unusual, but not unique. On the continent in the 13th and 14th centuries there were other female mystics recording their visions, such as Mechtilde of Hackeborn, Marguerite d’Oingt, Bridget of Sweden and Catherine of Siena.
Women’s spirituality was becoming increasingly acceptable. From the 13th century a growing number of women were recognised as saints. These women’s books of visions were available in East Anglia towards the end of the 14th century and may have given Julian the confidence to publish the revelations she had received when she was young.
VISIONS OF GOD’S LOVE
During the course of her illness, Julian saw a total of 15 visions, ranging from a bleeding crucifix to a complex parable. Even though a number of the visions were distressing or even frightening, Julian was assured through her visions that God is in control of everything and will never leave us.
The major message of the visions was that God loves us more than we can possibly understand. Julian’s final vision summed up all the others. In it, God said to her: ‘Do you want to know what your Lord meant? Know well that love was what he meant. Who showed you this? Love. What did he show? Love. Why did he show it to you? For love.’
All Shall Be Well, And All Manner Of Things Shall Be Well
Julian wrote down these visions, and her interpretation of them, twice. The first, shorter version is called the Short Version, and the second, expanded version is called (you guessed it) the Long Version. Together they are often referred to as Revelations of Divine Love.
It’s easy to see why many people find Julian’s revelations profoundly comforting. Even those who know little or nothing about the woman herself have probably heard her most famous quotation: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’ But while this sounds like a simple assurance that everything in life will turn out all right in the end, it is in fact much more challenging than that.
In Her Own Words
I am sure that if there had been none but I that would be saved, God would have done all that he has done for me.
Short Text, 20
He showed me a little thing, about the size of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, and to my mind’s eye it was as round as any ball. I looked at it and thought, “What can this be?” And the answer came to me, “It is all that is made.”
Short Text, 4
He did not say, “You shall not be tormented, you shall not be troubled, you shall not be grieved”, but he said, “You shall not be overcome.”
Short Text, 22
A SECRET RADICAL
Some of the things Julian said or implied are hardly orthodox Church doctrine, and might even be described as subversive. Julian started with the assumption of a God whose wrath burned against sin and sinners, but that was not what she saw in her visions. The God she met could not be angry.
He was entirely loving, with no room for anger or blame, even against sin. Sin, in fact, does not really exist in the conventional sense, because ‘God is all things’ and ‘God does all things’, and there is no sin in him. The suffering caused by sin does exist, but it was part of God’s plan because it made people humble and repentant, so that they returned to God. Julian even suggested that the suffering we cause ourselves through sin draws us closer to Jesus because it is like sharing his sufferings on the cross. ‘Sin is not shameful to man, but his glory’ because God’s grace will turn it to glory.
Of course, a world in which sin doesn’t really exist and God never blames anyone for anything doesn’t tie in well with the idea of hell. Julian struggled with how it can be true that ‘all shall be well’ if there are souls suffering in hell for eternity, as the Church taught. God’s answer to her, in her vision, was that he would do something at the end of time so that ‘all shall be well’. Exactly what he would do was not revealed, but this final action would make ‘all well that is not well’. Despite Julian’s frequent protestations that she believed all Church teachings, she comes awfully close to universalism: the idea that everyone will be saved. Julian accepted that those who love sin are separated from God, but she added ‘if there are any that do’.
Julian lived at least into her 70s and was regarded with respect by local people, so despite her unorthodox beliefs she avoided being labelled a heretic. Her revelations remain a source of comfort and inspiration to many, perhaps because they show that even a nameless woman, ‘ignorant, weak and frail’ is immeasurably precious in the eyes of an immeasurably loving God.