LADY JULIAN OF NORWICH (1342-1416)

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Lord God, in your compassion you granted to the Lady Julian many revelations of your nurturing and sustaining love: Move our hearts, like hers, to seek you above all things, for in giving us yourself you give us all; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. [Collect for Julian of Norwich]

Lady Julian of Norwich is remembered in the Episcopal Church and in the wider Anglican Communion on May 8th. Although little is known of her life, Archbishop Rowan Williams describes her writings as “what may well be the most important work of Christian reflection in the English language.” She may have been born to a prosperous family in Norwich in southeastern England in 1342 and she died sometime in 1416. In her writings she frequently claimed to know “no letters,” but that was more of a rhetorical flourish common to her age and her gender than a matter of fact.  On May 13, 1373 she reported that at the age of thirty-nine and a half that she received revelations that she felt compelled by God to write down. They were published at a later date with the title Showings (or Revelations).

The revelations described in Showings came to her as she lay on what she believed to be her deathbed. In her 30thyear Julian had asked God for “three graces”: “to have a recollection of Christ’s Passion” so that she “might see with my own eyes our Lord’s Passion which he suffered for me”; a “bodily sickness” that “might be so severe that it might seem mortal, so that I should in that sickness receive all the rites which the Holy Church had to give me, whilst I myself should believe that I was dying, and everyone who saw me would think the same,” so that she could experience all that death entailed prior to her own death and because of her desire to soon be with God; and three wounds, “the wound of contrition,” “the wound of compassion,” and “the wound  of longing with my will for God.” As a result “God sent me a bodily sickness,” she writes, “in which I lay for three days and three nights; and on the fourth night I received all the rites of the church.” (Showings, 125-127)

It is difficult to do justice to such a beautiful and comprehensive vision of God’s love for all humanity in a short reflection. I would like to focus on three of the best known and most beloved passages from her work in hopes that you might want to read deeper and explore it for yourself.

In the 31st chapter of this book of showings or revelations we find perhaps its famous words, where God tells Julian that “all manner of things will be well.”  The great majority of English translations of this passage, however, are inaccurate, because the Middle English words with which she writes are often translated according to the modern meaning of similar English words. The recently published guide, The Complete Julian of Norwich (2009), finally sets this right. As correctly translated, Julian writes:

And so our good Lord replied to all the questions and doubts I could raise, saying most reassuringly: “I have the ability to make everything well, and I have the knowledge to make everything well, and I have the wish to make everything well, and I shall make everything well, and thou shalt see for thyself that all manner of thing shall be well.

In the notes to Chapter 31, the editor explains that the four Middle English words underlined in the paragraph above, in order of their appearance, may, can, wil, and shalle, are often translated incorrectly in accordance with more modern meaning of these terms and not with the correct meanings of these words in Middle English. The modern English “may” is derived from ‘might’ and so this is better translated as “I have the ability.” The Middle English word can means to “know” or “to know how” (see for example the modern German verb meaning to know, “kennen”), and so is best translated as “I have the knowledge.”  In Middle English wil means want (the German word meaning want is “will”), and so this is best translated as “I have the wish.”  Finally, shalle in Middle English refers to a definite intention, that God “shall make everything well” (Complete Julian, 156).

Where other translations, for example, say, “I make all things well, and I can make all things well, and I shall make all things well, and I will make all things well,” the translation found in the Complete Julian of Norwich provides access to the richer meaning of this text.

In its larger context this passage is not a promise that we will never suffer in this life.  This revelation to Julian is closely connected to her sufferings and the sufferings of Christ.  The promise contained in this passage is in the context of our entering into and participating in the sufferings of Christ. We may suffer, but those sufferings ultimately will not overcome us.

In the 5th Chapter, Julian relates how God showed her “something small, no bigger than a hazelnut lying in the palm of my hand….”

I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: What can this be? I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God. In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it. But what did I see in it? It is that God is the Creator and the protector and the lover (Showings, 183).

What is so amazing about this passage and about the book as a whole is the vivid awareness of the love, care, and compassion that God, in unity of being and in trinity of persons, has for all creatures.  Her vision is one in which the whole Trinity is engaged and working in all things to bring divine love to fulfillment in every creature.

In both the revelation involving the hazelnut and in the revelation “that all manner of things shall be well,” Julian is uncompromisingly Trinitarian. This is evident in her description of the Trinity as God, the Creator, protector, and lover. When she tells us that God says,  “I have the ability,” she understands this to refer to the work of the Father. Similarly, “I have the knowledge” refers to the Son” and “I have the wish” refers to the Holy Spirit. “I shall make everything well” refers to the work of the whole Trinity of whom she says parenthetically, “three Persons and one truth.”

Although Julian’s writings are unrelentingly Trinitarian, the fact that a woman of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries could write about God as both a father and a mother, and about Jesus as a mother, is a surprise for many modern readers.  In the 58th chapter Julian writes:

…God almighty is our loving Father, and God all wisdom is our loving Mother, with the love and the goodness of the Holy Spirit, which is all one God, one Lord (Showings, 293).

The Showings are visions, as the collect for Julian says, of God’s “nurturing and sustaining love.” In conclusion, let us rejoice with Julian reciting her “five great joys”:

And so I saw that God rejoices that he is our Father, and God rejoices that he is our Mother, and God rejoices that he is our true spouse, and that our soul is his beloved wife. And Christ rejoices that he is our brother and Jesus rejoices that he is our saviour. These are five great joys as I understand, in which he wants us to rejoice, praising him, thanking him, loving him, endlessly blessing him, all who will be saved (Showings, 279).

Citations were taken from:

Julian of Norwich: Showings. The Classics of Western Spirituality.  Edmund Colledge, O.S.A. and James Walsh, S.J., eds. New York: Paulist Press, 1978

The Complete Julian of Norwich.  Father John-Julian, OJN., ed.  Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2009.

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