Julian of Norwich was a mystic and anchoress of the 14th century and wrote Revelations of Divine Love, the first book to be written in English by a woman. Not much is known about her life, but she was born in about 1342 and may have been from a wealthy family that lived in Norwich. When she was 30 years old, she suffered a mysterious illness and almost died. After a series of visions, she recovered and entered the church as an anchoress.
Many towns liked to have a spiritual recluse living in their community to provide counsel and spiritual advice. Julian lived in a room next to the church and watched the Mass and received the sacraments through a window in the wall. In The English Mystics, Karen Armstrong describes what this would have involved:
“The anchoress would be interred in this room in an impressive if rather disturbing ceremony during a Mass for the Dead. She would publicly don her religious habit and walk into the cell as into her grave, while the presiding bishop sprinkled ashes in her wake. Henceforth, like St Paul, she was dead to the world and alive only to God.”
Julian’s cell was a small room with windows that enabled her to look out at the town beyond. She had at least two servants who ran errands and looked after the anchorage and served the church. The original room doesn’t exist anymore, but a reconstruction has been built on the foundations of her cell beside St Julian’s in Norwich.
Julian experienced her revelations before entering the anchorage, probably while she was still living at home. She fell gravely ill, but the fact that she recovered so quickly suggests that her mystery illness may have been psychosomatic, at least in part. She had previously prayed and asked God for three gifts, one of which was to experience physical illness, as she describes:
“The second gift was due to my sorrow for my sins. I really wanted to have a serious illness which would bring me to the point of death so that I would receive the Last Rites of Holy Church in the sincere belief that I was going to die and that all the other creatures who saw me should think the same. … The idea was that this would purify me, by God’s mercy, so that in future, because of that illness, I would be more devoted to God and I might even die more quickly because I wanted to be with God soon.”
This is connected to the idea of suffering as Jesus did on the Cross, a way to purify yourself of your sins. To my mind, this appears neurotic but in the 14th century it made perfect sense. Julian was living at a time of great turmoil in the Middle Ages when there was a lot of suffering with the Black Death, wars and revolting peasants, and so on.
The church at that time was into preaching hellfire and damnation. But Julian’s revelations were very different. Her vision was of a maternal loving God, not one itching to condemn you to hell just for the sin of existing.
Whatever the cause of Julian’s illness, everybody believed she was about to die so a priest was called. As he performed the Last Rites, Julian fell into a trance and had a series of 16 visions and revelations, and then finally recovered her health. She experienced these visions as traumatic, unlike the author of the Cloud of Unknowing for whom it was more joyful. (For more on that spiritual text go here.)
Julian wrote her manuscript in 1373 in middle English, the language of Chaucer and the common people. In contrast to the church of the time, she developed her own theology that shows how the suffering of Christ and humanity is transformed into joy by the unconditional love of God.
She believed that her revelations weren’t just for herself but for everyone. She asks questions about the nature of sin and the problem of evil and says that in her visions, she sees no hell or sin. She describes Jesus as our Mother and says that God shall make all things well.
Julian’s Revelations didn’t have much impact on the church in her day and the book was suppressed and hidden because it was considered dangerous to the church. But her writings have become popular in modern times, probably because, as Karen Armstrong explains:
“…she touches on themes that are common to the mystical traditions of other faiths. Her vision of God in the depths of the self is reminiscent of the basic insights of Buddhists, Hindus and Sufis. Like Jewish and Muslim mystics, Julian stresses the paradox of God’s mysterious need for mankind and also explores the notion of the female dimension of God, a frequent theme in Kabbalism and Sufism.”
Julian of Norwich is now recognised as one of England’s greatest mystics. She doesn’t expect readers to accept her words without question but encourages you to contemplate the deeper meaning of the mystery of the divine and faith. Her visions offer a contemplation on the problem of sin, but her underlying message is optimistic, joyful and compassionate.
Over the following weeks, we’ll explore this text using extracts quoted in The English Mystics by Karen Armstrong, who is quoting from the 1901 modern translation by Grace Warrack. Follow the links below:
- Part 1: Creation as tiny as a hazelnut
- Part 2: How can anything be amiss?
- Part 3: All shall be well
- Part 4: The problem of evil
- Part 5: On the importance of prayer
- Part 6: God is never angry
- Part 7: Nothing between God and the soul
- Part 8: the Motherhood of Christ