|Julian of Norwich*|
We also do not know exactly how she came to become an anchoress, one of the earliest forms of monasticism. An anchorite withdraws from society to lead a life that is prayerful, ascetic and, in the case of Julian, involves daily Eucharist. Unlike other hermits, in the Middle Ages anchorites vowed to remain permanently enclosed in a cell, often attached to a church, and their rite of consecration was similar to the funeral rite, after which they would be deemed dead to the world, yet a kind of living saint.
Among the possibilities explaining how Julian became one are disease and widowhood. Keep in mind that epidemics of the plague ran rampant in the 14th century; in some cases, the anchoritic life was a quarantine of sorts for devout people. Some hypothesize in addition that Julian may have been a widow whose family had died in the plague. There is also inconclusive debate as to whether she was a nun in a nearby convent.
Whatever her origins, we know precisely how her life as a mystic began. At the age of 30 Julian became seriously ill nearly to the point of death and her priest came to administer the last rites on May 8, 1373. As part of the ritual, he held a crucifix in the air above the foot of her bed, and Julian reported that she was losing her sight and felt physically numb. Then, as she gazed on the crucifix, she saw the figure of Jesus begin to bleed. Over a number of hours and days she had 16 visions of Jesus Christ, all of which ended with recovery from illness five days later.
The anchoress wrote about her visions immediately after they occurred in a work called Revelations of Divine Love. This first version of the book, consisting of 25 chapters, is the earliest surviving book written in the English language by a woman. Twenty to thirty years later, Julian wrote a theological exploration of the meaning of the visions—known among scholars as “The Long Text”—which runs to 86 chapters.
Julian lived in a cell with two smallish windows; one faced the church chancel, the other was on the church’s exterior wall and looked out on the outdoors. Julian maintained contact with the world through letters and was even interviewed around 1414 by the lay English mystic Margery Kempe, who came for advice, as did many pilgrims.
Even in adaptation to an English more intelligible to the contemporary reader, but not entirely modernized, Julian’s writing is of unparalleled beauty. Even her archaisms help the reader discover a new way of thinking about profound topics.
In her opening chapter, she summarizes all 16 visions, including the first, which included “many fair shewings of endless wisdom and teachings of love: in which all the shewings that follow be grounded and oned.” She speaks of Jesus’ suffering, crucifixion and death in one vision, and of his mother in another as “dearworthy,” in a footnote rendered as “precious” or “honored”; yet dearworthy feels to me far less pretentious and more genuine. I hear her say she finds both the Passion and Mary worthy of endearment and love.
She is best known for her saying, in the original, “al shal be wel and al shal be wel and al manner of thynge shall be wele,” which in the faddish spirituality of feeling good comes across as some lighthearted reassurance in the face of what seems frightful. Yet in the full context of her revelation (it occurs in her 13th shewing) it reveals the serious doubts and concerns of a believer faced with the problem of evil, as follows:
After this the Lord brought to my mind the longing that I had to Him afore. And I saw that nothing letted me but sin. And so I looked, generally, upon us all, and methought: If sin had not been, we should all have been clean and like to our Lord, as He made us.
And thus, in my folly, afore this time often I wondered why by the great foreseeing wisdom of God the beginning of sin was not letted: for then, methought, all should have been well. This stirring was much to be forsaken, but nevertheless mourning and sorrow I made therefor, without reason and discretion.
But Jesus, who in this Vision informed me of all that is needful to me, answered by this word and said: It behoved that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
Indeed, even today’s Catechism of the Catholic Church cites Julian in affirming that God can draw out goodness even from evil.
She concludes, therefore, that Christ wishes us to “keep us in the Faith and truth of Holy Church, not desiring to see into His secret things now.” This is something that council fathers from Nicaea onward, along with theologians and religious rebels, could have kept in mind and spared the world a great deal of confusion, not to mention strife.
Julian is also down-to-earth in her delving into the psychological and physical needs of human beings.
“The feeling of weal is gracious touching and lightening, with true assuredness of endless joy; the feeling of woe is temptation by heaviness and irksomeness of our fleshly living,” she writes. “We are kept all as securely in Love in woe as in weal, by the Goodness of God.”
Although she is not a canonized saint, Julian has a feast day, May 8 in the Anglican and Lutheran traditions and May 13 in the Catholic.
* Statue of Julian of Norwich, Norwich Cathedral, by David Holgate FSDC. (Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)