Some reflections on Julian of Norwich
(online Vespers, Mount Zion – May 11, 2020) Prepared and presented by Pauline Finch
In a recent issue of his online Daily Reflections, Richard Rohr writes about his experience of re-reading the 14th-century English mystic, Lady Julian of Norwich and how her influence endures some seven centuries later. He says, “Each time I return to her writings, I always find something new.”
This rings especially true now, as we adjust to protecting ourselves from a pandemic whose threat would have been even more frightening to people of her time, when medical knowledge was far less developed and plagues like the Black Death swept across Europe and Britain multiple times in just one generation.
When Lady Julian (whose actual name remains unknown) was a young child in the 1340s, her home city of Norwich was hit by the Black Death, which killed nearly 19,000 of the city’s 25,000 citizens – a toll of 75% from just one wave of this highly contagious disease. About a dozen years later when she 19, another wave of Black Death ravaged Norwich, and again she survived.
In 1373, when she would be middle-aged, Lady Julian became seriously ill, perhaps from yet another wave of the Black Death disease. One night during her illness, when those caring for her were certain she would not survive much longer, she experienced a series of visions, or “showings” as she called them. For several hours, she saw and heard Jesus speaking to her from the cross and realized that his words were meant not only for her, but for all humanity. Rohr calls this insight “unitive consciousness.”
Miraculously, Lady Julian survived and began writing down the messages received in her visions. The fact that she could even do so in a society where 98% of people were illiterate was fortunate for history, because her writings during that terrible time of disease, wars and social upheaval would continue to inspire and influence people long after her death. In fact, she was the first woman ever to write and be published in English.
Another action taken by Lady Julian was also very bold for a lower-class medieval woman. She felt she needed a place apart from society in order to reflect on what had happened to her and to strengthen her relationship with God.
So she asked the bishop of St. Julian’s Church – from which historians took her name – to build a little house against the church wall. And she wanted it to have two windows: one opening into the church so she could attend Mass, and another opening onto the street so townspeople could come to her for prayer and counselling. Lady Julian became what is known as an “anchorite” or mystical semi-recluse, who served her church and community while remaining socially distanced from them. Anchorites who lived in humble dwellings attached to major churches were very typical all over 13th- and 14th-century Europe.
After writing a brief description of her visions soon after they occurred, Lady Julian spent the next two decades of her life in contemplation and prayer, seeking discernment to better interpret the deeper meanings in her visions. Finally, she wrote her now-famous book, Revelations of Divine Love. And it was radically unlike any other theological work to emerge from that turbulent period.
As Richard Rohr observes:
“Julian’s interpretation of her God-experience is unlike the religious views common for most of history up to her time. It is not based in sin, shame, guilt, fear of God, or hell. Instead, it is full of delight, freedom, intimacy, and cosmic hope. How did she retain such freedom, we ask? Maybe and precisely because she was not a priest, ordained to speak the party line … As I read her words this time (Rohr continues), what strikes me is the similarity between Julian’s time and our own. In her anchorite’s hut, Julian may have recognized the potential spiritual benefits of social distancing during a time of crisis, such as the awakened ability through solitude to be personally present to divine love. Yet we must remember that she also let God’s love flow right through her to those on the street requesting her counsel, and to us through her writings.”
Here are a few examples of sayings by Lady Julian of Norwich, all from Revelations of Divine Love:
“And all shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be exceeding well.”
“If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love.”
“The greatest honor we can give Almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of his love.”
“Our Savior is our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.”
And finally (there are numerous others to be found in her book),
“Lord, let not our souls be busy inns that have no room for thee or thine, but quiet homes of prayer and praise, where thou mayest find fit company,
where the needful cares of life are wisely ordered and put away, and wide, sweet spaces kept for thee; where holy thoughts pass up and down and fervent longings watch and wait thy coming.”
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For reflection and discussion:
Does the example of Lady Julian of Norwich spark any insight about deepening our own faith during social isolation, while still serving others?
Above is an “illuminated” (decorated) page from a later Medieval copy of Lady Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love. If you look closely at the bottom line, the first phrase says (in modern spelling): “I had great feeling in the passion of Christ…”
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To follow Richard Rohr’s daily reflections from the Center for Action and Contemplation you can sign up free here: https://cac.org/sign-up/
The week of May 10 – 16 is devoted to further discussion of Lady Julian of Norwich.
Thanks for your supportive listening and feedback,
More about Masks
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