A mother's view of God's love
Julian of Norwich was England's earliest published female author and a leading mystic of the mediaeval age. This popular book - Revelations of Divine Love (Penguin Classics) - provides a powerful message of comfort that still reads well in the 21st century
The cry jerked the bored watchers into wakefulness as they crowded around the bed. The old priest was tired of waiting; after all, she was going to die, so why didn't she get on with it? Her mother watched with much deeper care and concern, but after three nights of waiting and the loss of all hope, she too was exhausted.
Now there was hope. The coma broke as the young woman cried out - but that cry had nothing to do with pain. Her call was the shout of ecstasy from a soul caught up in visionary rapture. This sick body would recover, live to a respectable age and become today's most widely read mediaeval female author - but her real name would never be known.
Julian of Norwich is probably our earliest published English woman writer. As a visionary of exceptional clarity, she ranks among the leading mystics of her age; but we know her only by a nickname. After recovering from the brink of death and recalling the visions she saw during those lost days and nights, she volunteered to be an anchoress, living her life of prayer in a cell attached to the riverside church at Carrow in Norwich. The church was dedicated to St Julian, and that's how she got the name by which she has been remembered through the centuries. This lack of signature is typical of her self-effacing nature, which allowed her to write of deep spiritual experience, but to reveal almost nothing about her personal history or manner of life. We know from eyewitness accounts that she was respected - most notably from that strange visionary, Marjorie Kemp of Kings Lynn, who travelled to Norwich to seek Julian's advice.
Julian's legacy to the church is contained in two volumes, one short and one longer, recalling her visions and expounding the ideas that arose from those experiences. Fortunately, though the English of her time is obscure to modern readers, her works have been preserved and translated and are available to us as Revelations of Divine Love. Clifton Wolters, another of her translators, says that her language can be difficult to translate; but the job he has done results in a readable book that brings Mother Julian to life and makes her message ring true for our times. "Mother" Julian - that is another of her nicknames and effectively conveys her delightful care, her humanity and her motherly warmth. Perhaps she had been a mother? Certainly, when she entered her cell she was already old enough to have married, borne and lost a child, and suffered widowhood. This is just speculation, but it is a testament to the tenderness of her writing that we should feel such warmth from an author about whom who we know so little.
Revelations of Divine Love spans the breadth and depths of God's love through a series of visions and Julian's reflective analysis. Her background was so alien to my nonconformist experience that I approached the book with suspicion at first reading. But she was not the product of an institutional mould, and she made me feel at home in her personal world. Always outwardly true to the church, she nevertheless creates an individual theology that owes everything to personal revelation and maintains a light hold on traditional dogma. Her unique originality produced the vision of "Christ our mother", an emotion-rich concept that cuts across orthodox teachings but brings the personality of Jesus into fresh and comforting light.
Originality is her strong suit and she skirts close to heresy at times. Heresy", that is, by the standards of the dogma of her day. Her view of the ultimate triumph of God's love could be sneeringly condemned as universalism, but it has the support of revered early theologians such as Origen. "I could find no anger in God", she declares, ignoring the fire-and-brimstone ranting of itinerant preachers of her day. She saw God's love as complete and overcoming: neither to be defeated by human or demonic rebellion, nor to be forced into oppressive reaction. "Sin is necessary", she declares enigmatically, "but everything will turn out right in the end".
Her view is long range, reaching from her tiny cell out into
the ultimate destination. Her appreciation of divinity touches the horror of
Passion (but with sympathetic delicacy) and the hugeness of Creation. Her book
is relatively small, but her visionary range is immense - a paradox that is
illustrated by one of her images. In a vision, she sees a tiny nut in the palm
of her hand and asks God "What is that?"
"It is everything there is", comes the tender reply
Suddenly, she sees that the smallest speck of life and the most distant stars, are accessible to God and within her spiritual grasp - and the world ceases to be overwhelming.
It is not surprising that Julian has become popular in our modern
world. Her mysticism is homespun, simple and accessible and carries none of
the baggage of formal asceticism or ecclesiastical language. She is readable.
She is lovable. She is stirring. If you want to be reassured of God's love,
read Julian's Revelations.
©Derrick Phillips 2001
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