Saturday, 24 February 2018

Julian of Norwich

We don’t know much about the woman known to history as ‘Julian of Norwich’. She was probably born in November 1342 and was certainly dead by 1416. We don’t even know her name.
    The city of Norwich was the second largest in medieval England. The Church of St Julian in the centre of the ancient city contained an anchorite’s cell, as was common in those days — a sort of flat for hermits. The hermits who lived there took the name of the Church, hence ‘Julian of Norwich’,
although ‘Julian’ was also a fairly common name for women in the Middle Ages and could possibly have belonged to the anchoress as well as to the church.
     Julian may have been from a privileged (wealthy) family residing in or near Norwich. It is quite possible that she received her early education with the Benedictine nuns at nearby Carrow Abbey.
Epidemics of plague were common during most of the fourteenth-century so Julian may have lost her family in the plague and become a hermit after being widowed. Becoming an anchoress may have served as a way to quarantine her from the rest of the population.
    When she was thirty, and while living at home, Julian suffered a serious, unknown, illness. She was close to death so on 8 May 1373 her curate came to administer the last rites. As part of the ritual, he held a crucifix above her bed. Julian said later that she was losing her sight but, as she gazed on the crucifix, she saw the figure of Jesus begin to bleed.
     Over the next few hours, Julian had a series of sixteen visions of Jesus which ended by the time she recovered from her illness a week later on 13 May 1373. Julian immediately wrote about her visions in a text we now call the Revelations of Divine Love. It’s a remarkable book of twenty-five chapters. To the modern reader it seems a little unstructured as it describes her visions. It rambles delightfully.
     The Revelations of Divine Love is the first known theological book in the English language written by a woman. Two versions exist of this important Christian text: the first is Julian’s first draft, written soon after her illness in 1373. The second, longer text was written much later, and offers a sustained meditation on Julian’s visions.
     Julian’s mystical theology is often expressed daringly. She likens God’s love to the love of a mother, a theme found in the Biblical prophets, as in Isaiah 49:15. According to Julian, God is both our mother and our father.
 Indeed, most of her themes relate to love. Even when talking of sin, she sees good. She says that sin is ‘behovely’, which is often translated as ‘necessary’, ‘expedient’ or ‘appropriate’. By this phrase, Julian means that God can even use evil to create a greater good, because love always seeks what is good.
    In another vision she said, ’I saw that our Lord is to us every thing which is good and comforting for our help. He is our clothing, who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces us and shelters us,
surrounds us for his love, which is so tender that he may never desert us. And so in this sight I saw that he is everything which is good.’
     The poet T.S. Eliot famously used another of Julian’s quotes, saying ‘… All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’ into the poem Little Gidding in his great book Four Quartets.

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