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.

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