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)

 

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