Julian of Norwich, May 8

Julian of Norwich

Julian is among the most beloved of medieval mystics and visionaries in the twenty-first century. Her sheer joy in the love of God in Jesus Christ, her vivid writing, and her use of maternal imagery to understand and explain God’s love have all endeared her to contemporary Christians and seekers. What’s often ignored in contemporary appropriation of her thought and spiritual wisdom is how profoundly late medieval her sensibilities were. Whatever we find compelling in her today is dependent on piety and psychology that are deeply alien to us.

To wit:

She begins her Revelations of Divine Love by describing her desire to a “bodily sickness … so severe that it might seem mortal.” She wanted her illness to be so serious that she would receive last rites and that she would have “every kind of pain, bodily and spiritual, which I should have if I were dying, every fear and assault from devils, and every other kind of pain except the departure of the spirit…”

She was granted her desire, received her illness and last rites. It was during the last rites that she received her first vision, as the body of Christ on the crucifix carried by the priest came to life and began speaking to her.

She describes her visions in great detail, especially with regard to Christ’s suffering and blood:

… I saw the body bleeding copiously in representation of the scourging and it was thus. The fair skin was deeply broken into the tender flesh through the vicious blows delivered all over the lovely body. The hot blood ran out so plentifully that neither skin nor wounds could be seen, but everything seemed to be blood. And as it flowed down to where it should have fallen, it disappeared. Nonetheless, the bleeding continued for a time, until it could be plainly seen. And I saw it so plentiful that it seemed to me that if it had in fact and in substance been happening there, the bed and everything all around it would have been soaked in blood.

And near the point of death:

After this Christ showed me part of his Passion, close to his death. I saw his sweet face as it were dry and bloodless, with the pallor of dying, then more dead, pale and languishing, then the pallor turning blue and then more blue, as death took more hold upon his flesh. For all the pains which Christ suffered in his body appeared to me in his blessed face, in all that I could see of it, and especially in the lips… The long torment seemed to me as if he had been dead for a week and had still gone on suffering pain, and it seemed to me as if the greatest and the last pain of his Passion was when his flesh dried up.

By all means, Julian should be read and meditated upon. We have a great deal to learn from her but the fullness of her witness should not be silenced by our modern sensibilities.

Julian of Norwich, May 8

Today we commemorate one of the great mystics and visionaries of the Christian tradition. Julian has become enormously popular in recent decades because her theology is well-suited to twentieth and twenty-first century sensibilities. Some quotations from her Revelations of Divine are widely disseminated, like these:

All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

 

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. But you will never know different, without end.

My Good Friday homily this year concluded with these words.

She is beloved for her deep devotion to Jesus Christ, the infusion of the love of God throughout her works, and for using maternal imagery for God.

For all her appeal to contemporary people, she remains elusive to modern scholarship and elusive to all attempts to appropriate her for contemporary spirituality. We know very little about her that doesn’t come from her own writings. While there’s evidence that she was popular in her lifetime (Margery Kempe describes a visit to her, and several wills mention her), we are certain of neither the date of her birth or her death. Her works survived only in several manuscript copies–suggesting that there was relatively little interest in her writing after her death. It was only in the twentieth century that scholars and then the wider public began to take an interest in her writings.

Contemporary readers of her Revelations may be inclined to overlook her vivid descriptions of the sufferings of Christ as well as her own stated desire to suffer. For example, here she describes the moment of death:

“After this Christ showed me part of his Passion, close to his death. I saw his sweet face as it were dry and bloodless with the pallor of dying, and then deadly pale, languishing, and then the pallor turning blue and then the blue turning brown, as death took more hold upon his flesh. For his Passion appeared to me most vividly in his blessed face, and especially in the lips. I saw there what had become of these four colors, which had appeared to me before as fresh and ruddy, vital and beautiful. This was a painful change to watch, this deep dying, and his nose shriveled and dried up as I saw; and the sweet body turned brown and black, completely changed and transformed from his naturally beautiful, fresh and vivid complexion into a shriveled image of death.

Her writings are rich in detail and in theological insight that bear close study and meditation. But ideas, images, or themes that may seem appealing in the twenty-first century should not be extracted from the context that inspired her–a deep devotion to the passion of Christ and a spirituality that began in the attempt to enter into the passion as fully as possible. Her visions of Christ’s suffering helped her to experience his pain, profound grief at his suffering and death, and as she reflected on those experiences, she began to understand the depth and power of Christ’s love.

(all texts from Julian of Norwich: Showings. Classics of Western Spirituality. 1978)

 

Love was His meaning: A Homily for Good Friday, 2013

Is there any symbol more ubiquitous in our culture than the cross? We see it everywhere. Although the crosses here in the church are veiled, we can detect their outlines behind the veils. We wear them on pendants around our necks; we see it in ads; some even have crosses tattooed on their bodies. Most of the time, when we see a cross, we don’t give it another thought. It may not even have religious significance for the one who wears it as jewelry. Continue reading