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Mother Julian of Norwich (1342 – 1416)


Mother Julian of Norwich


Agnostics and atheists frequently announce that the world’s pain and distress loom so large as to contradict God and render faith in him impossible. They seem unaware that many whose lives unfold amidst unspeakable suffering nevertheless exemplify a throbbing faith and a vivid apprehension of God that not only attests the possibility of faith but even renders God undeniable. Julian’s book, Revelations of Divine Love, was the distillate of a divine visitation that occurred amidst horrific developments in the fourteenth century.

Edward III, the monarch who came to power in 1330 and reigned until Julian was 35, ascended the throne when his adulterous mother and her lover trashed his father. In 1334 Scotland and France ganged up on England and plunged the country into the Hundred Years’ War, searing everyone in the land for generations. Pestilence loomed in the midst of war as the Black Death, the plague that was to kill one-third of Europe, galloped everywhere. In 1351 a mutant strain of the scourge especially lethal to children scythed the population. As clergy ministered the comfort of the gospel to victims dying agonizingly, the clergy succumbed at even higher rates. The crop failures of 1348 and 1363 were climaxed by that of 1369, and this one in turn inflamed the Peasant Revolt of that year. In 1377 the church appeared less than “one” when rival claimants to the papacy headquartered in Rome (Urban VI) and Avignon (Clement). The former recruited Julian’s bishop, Despenser of Norwich, to lead armed forays against his Avignon counterpart. Militarily crushed, the bishop stumbled back to Norwich in disgrace. In it all Julian’s confidence in the gospel and her affirmation of “Holy Church” and her grasp of the meaning of her “revelations” remained resilient.

In 1373, at age 30, the cloistered nun had found herself “visited” by her Lord as she lay near death. Upon recovering she described in writing the vivid visions vouchsafed to her (the “short text.”) She refrained from speaking of them ( never mind preening herself on account of them), wisely knowing that the visitation was brief while the disclosure of its meaning was protracted. She pondered them for the next twenty years, steeping them in prayer, living the truth disclosed in them, awaiting further illumination from their author and object. In 1393 she wrote the “long text” (a book of 170 pages), elucidating their significance for her and readers that had been entrusted to her. (She knew that God intended others to profit from her experience and reflection, and for this reason had written in English rather than Latin.)

Like prophets and apostles of old, Julian knew that vividness alone is the measure of nothing. Who is possessed of greater vividness, after all, than the drug-intoxicated or the deranged? And yet like prophets and apostles, she knew that apart from our experience of our Lord doctrine is only a mental abstraction, scripture but a quarry whose nuggets are buried in tons of lifeless rock, and the church too often a principality that misrepresents the gospel and victimizes its members. While visions and auditions, raptures and ecstasies, consolations and desolations (the latter two being the feeling of God’s presence or absence) strike most Protestants as bizarre and therefore dismissible, the fact is that all of this is found in biblical personages. We need only think of David and his “Why dost thou hide thyself in times of trouble?” (Ps. 10:1) and “When the cares of my heart are many, thy consolations cheer my soul.” (Ps. 94:9) Like Paul before her, Julian never preached her experience; she declared only the gospel, the “word of the cross.” Still, again like Paul, without her experience she would never have proclaimed anything. In it all she insisted that God isn’t known as we wait for visions and ecstasies, but rather as we wait on God through relentless prayer and diligent study.

Consider the first revelation. “And immediately I saw the red blood trickle down from under the garland of thorns. I was overwhelmed with wonder that he, so holy and awesome, should be at home with the likes of me. I knew that in this revelation there was strength enough to enable me to withstand every spiritual temptation.” The sixteenth revelation pertains to those whom God’s grace has rendered a child of God: “What can give us more joy in God than to see that he has great joy in us, the pinnacle of his creation?” Like all the spiritually attuned, her sense of the encroachment of evil, together with its subtlety, cunning and consequences, was exquisite: “After this the devil came back again with his heat and stench. The smell was so vile and sickening and dreadful and oppressive that he kept me busy‚Ķand I scorned him.”

More exquisite still was her awareness that much delights God, especially the believer’s delight in God. (John Wesley, a direct descendant of Julian in the tradition of English spirituality, never wearied of saying that unbelievers forfeit the enjoyment of God.)

Julian never hesitate to speak of Jesus Christ as “our mother.” In this, however., she was not supporting the current feminisation of God. She knew that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — eternally, and that this God dwells in Jesus of Nazareth. (Col. 2:9) In speaking of Christ as “our mother” Julian was merely likening the work of Christ to that of a mother. He gives birth to those who are “born again.” Like a mother, he suffers for them before, during and after “delivery.” He must patiently nourish, safeguard and instruct those who are born of him. In none, of this, however, was Julian anticipating the contemporary argument that God is “she.”

Julian lived in an era of atrocious, undeserved suffering as plague rampaged throughout Europe. In reflecting on human pain in the light of God’s truth and mercy, she proffered no “quick fix” or shallow legitimation. Instead she admitted that beyond the suffering that serves a cautionary or corrective purpose there is colossal suffering that appears random and arbitrary, pointless and inexplicable. At the same time she insisted that no future reward or blessing or delight at God’s hand, however protracted or intense, can ever compensate for such suffering so as to “outweigh” it. Rather, in God’s economy there will be reward or blessing that is seen to be intrinsic to our suffering and impossible without it; on the great Day our capacity for suffering will be seen to be essential to that human creature whom God has finally rendered “the apple of his eye” and who can now enjoy him forever.

Since Julian spoke the truth of the gospel she speaks to people of an era. Lest anyone think, however, that because she lived in the fourteenth century she knows nothing of the institutions and principalities that beset us, we should understand that the fourteenth century saw the invention of the clock (with huge private and public consequences for humankind), as well as the birth of the modern university, parliament, and the banking system.

Victor Shepherd