Wise Woman: Julian of Norwich

by Vinita Hampton Wright on 10/10/2012

Julian of NorwichWe heard from a German mystic last week, St. Hildegard of Bingen. Now we’ll hear from the “first woman of letters in the history of England,” Julian of Norwich (1343–1423), an anchoress (probably Benedictine) at the church of St. Julian in Norwich. For lack of many specifics about her life, she was never canonized. Yet she is considered one of the great medieval mystical writers from the Christian tradition. When she was 31, she became very ill and nearly died, and during that trauma received a series of visions. She wrote about them immediately—and then, after 20-some years of meditating on the meaning of these showings, she wrote about them again, in more elaboration. These writings generally appear under the title Showings, or Revelations of Divine Love.

When we think of the events during her life in England, the parallels with our own time present themselves with awesome clarity. She saw the assassination of a king and an archbishop, and the nationwide rioting of the poor in the Peasants’ Rebellion. She lived through three sieges of the Black Death, which struck Norwich with exceptional devastation and killed over half of the population there, saw the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, and saw the firm rock of the papacy come crashing down—first in the Babylonian Captivity at Avignon, and later in the Great Schism when for a time there were three men each claiming to be the true pope; she watched the continuing degeneration of the monasteries from being centers of the highest sacrifice and devotion to becoming England’s greatest (and most self-aggrandizing) landlords; she saw the results of the moral collapse of the Franciscan Friars (in whom so many had placed such high hopes); and she lived during the rise of England’s first heretics in the persons of Oxford’s John Wycliff and his later Lollard Followers (some of whom were executed in the Lollard’s Pit in Mousehold Heath at the edge of Norwich).

This was the mad, crumbling world in which this exceptional woman lived, and it was in this world that, astoundingly, she was able to accept and articulate those most famous words: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

The preceding quote and these that follow are from Revelations of Divine Love (trans. Fr. John-Julian, Paraclete Press, 2011).

God wishes to be known,
and He delights that we remain in Him,
because all that is less than He is not enough for us.

For the goodness of God is the highest prayer,
and it comes down to the lowest part of our need.

And therefore we can ask of our Lover with reverence all that we wish,
for our natural wish is to have God
and the good wish of God is to have us.
And we can never leave off wishing nor longing until we have Him in fullness of joy.

And thus I saw Him and I sought Him,
and I possessed Him and I lacked Him.
and this is, and should be, our ordinary behavior in this life, as I see it.

But freely our Lord gives when He wishes,
and permits us to be in woe sometimes,
and both are one love . . .

The following two quotes are from Enduring Grace: Living Portraits of Seven Women Mystics by Carol Lee Flinders (HarperCollins e-books, original copyright 1993), whose primary source was Julian of Norwich: Showings (translated and with an introduction by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh, New York: Paulist Press, 1978).

And from the time that it was revealed, I desired many times to know in what was our Lord’s meaning. And fifteen years after and more . . . it was said: What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same.

Do not accuse yourself that your tribulation and your woe is all your fault; for I do not want you to be immoderately depressed or sorrowful. For I tell you that whatever you do, you will have woe. And therefore I want you wisely to understand the penance which you are continually in, and to accept that meekly for your penance. And then you will truly see that all your life is profitable penance. This place is prison, this life is penance, and he wants us to rejoice in the remedy. The remedy is that our Lord is with us, protecting us and leading us into the fullness of joy.

Image by Evelyn Simak under Creative Commons license.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

maria October 10, 2012 at 4:46 pm

Very often I go back to Julian of Norwich,.it is so conforting

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Jo October 10, 2012 at 5:52 pm

John Wycliffe a heretic!?!

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Vinita October 11, 2012 at 1:46 pm

Technically, he was a heretic in terms of the Catholic Church in that era. The point I take from that bit of the excerpt is that heretics were executed near where Julian lived–yet more heartbreak and upheaval. Fighting inside and outside the church. Sounds rather familiar . . .

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Jo October 11, 2012 at 4:40 pm

Thanks Vinita for qualifying that, its helpfull

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Lynda October 10, 2012 at 7:48 pm

“…he wants us to rejoice in the remedy. The remedy is that our Lord is with us, protecting us and leading us into the fullness of joy.” How incredibly true that our most gracious Lord is the remedy for all. It is so edifying to hear about these amazing women. Thank you.

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