Monday, August 20, 2007

Julian of Norwich (1342-1416)

Julian of Norwich is also called Juliana. She was born on November 8, 1342 probably at Norwich, Norfolk in England and died on 1416. She is considered to be one of the greatest English mystics. She was Roman Catholic, as was all of Europe, but her work is a clear precurser to Martin Luther and other Reformation writers which gives her honored status in both churches. The Roman Catholic Church cannonized her and she is honored by both the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Anglican Church.[1] Little is known of her life aside from her writings. Even her name is uncertain, the name "Julian" coming from the Church of St Julian in Norwich, where she was an anchoress (which means a type of nun or lay woman, who lives in a small enclosure, never going out, and never abandoing her commitment to prayer for those who lives around her). Her whole life is given to silence, to worship and to deep comtemplation of the mysteries of God. At the age of thirty, suffering from a severe illness and believing she was on her deathbed, Julian had a series of intense visions. (They ended by the time she overcame her illness on May 13, 1373.) She recorded these visions soon after having them, and then again twenty years later in far more theological depth. They are the source of her major work, called Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love (circa 1393). This is believed to be the first book written by a woman in the English language.[2]
Theology of Julian of Norwich:
Julian's theology was optimistic, speaking of God's love in terms of joy and compassion as opposed to law and duty. For Julian, suffering was not a punishment that God inflicted, as was the common understanding. Julian's ground-breaking theology was that God loved and saved us all. Popular theology magnified by current events including the Black Plague and a series of Peasant Revolts assumed that God was punishing the wicked. In response, Julian suggested a far more optimistic theology, universal salvation. Because she believed that beyond the reality of hell-fire is yet a greater mystery of God's love, she has also been referred to in modern times as a proto-universalist. Even though her views were not typical, local authorities did not challenge either her theology or her authority to make such faith claims because of her status as an anchoress.
As part of her differing view of God as compassionate and loving, she wrote of the trinity in domestic terms and compares Jesus to a mother who is wise, loving, and merciful. Similarly, she connects God with motherhood in terms of 1)"the foundation of our nature's creation, 2) "the taking of our nature, where the motherhood of grace begins" and 3) "the motherhood at work" and speaks metaphorically of Jesus in connection with conception, nursing, labor, and upbringing. She, like many other great mystics, used female language for God as well as the more traditional male pronouns.[3]
Her great saying, "...All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well", reflects this theology. It is also one of the most individually famous lines in all of Catholic theological writing, and certainly one of the most well-known phrases of the literature of her era.
Contribution of Julian of Norwich in the Christian mystics:
Julian of Norwich has her own unique place in the roll of christian mystics if only for the warm comfort of her teaching. She was an artless person, who told in homely language of her visions and spoke with utter confidence of God’s ways with the human soul, but her insight was nevertheless profound, and her understanding of her spiritual experiences both clear and subtle.
Christian mysticism is based on grace: the indwelling of the Trinity in the souls of mankind, and a divine call to holiness. Julian emphasizes this, and various other points of doctrine, with an exquisite joy, focusing on bliss and glory rather than the idea of earth's being a battleground for good and evil. During the middle Ages, the latter was the prevalent views - Satan sought to trip and trap us, and heaven was a promise difficult to hope for. Julian stresses the life of striving for virtue, but not in the highly negative manner common in her day, wherein rigid penance was the means to "atonement" for one's sin. In her Revelations, Julian shows great charm in the childlike, tender quality of her expression. She sees God as one who delights in his creation - and who is thankful to us for our happiness in heaven.
There are areas in which Julian was quite untypical:[4]
a) The fourteenth century was a period when the Inquisition was at full force, and the emphases of many theologians and religious Orders was the refutation of heresy. (Heretics were thought to be in league with the devil.) Julian is entirely positive - focussing on divine grace and not on the errors of his creatures.
b) Julian saw the suffering of the world not as a punishment (the common approach during the time of the Plague!) but as a channel through which God could draw us closer to Himself. The idea of purification of sin was hardly new, but her seeing rejoicing in it is quite in contrast to the "fire" which one would pay the Pardoner to avoid. (One wishes a meeting between Julian and contemporary Dante could have been recorded.) This is a joyous purification - not the lash.
c) Julian expresses both that the pain was the consequence of sin and that there is a mystery (not a clear cut cause and effect) which made this offering glorious. Theologians of the period (who tended to see the world as having belonged to Satan since the time when Adam fell), though they would have muttered "felix culpa", were at their wit's end to define exactly how the world was lost and "re-purchased". Julian glories in redemption, but shows unusual insight in admitting we cannot know precisely how this was accomplished.
d) Julian interestingly does not emphasize "using intercessors", but is keenly aware of the rejoicing of saints in heaven. Her kinship with the saints is profound, but she advocates approaching God directly as what best pleases Him. The "direct approach" to the King is hardly typical of the predominantly feudal society, with its "necessity" of intercessors. (This was the time when the saints were so stressed that pilgrimages during which one could view such curious relics as the head of the child John the Baptist or the palace of Dives were in much demand.)
e) Her references to the mystical nature of the Eucharist, during her revelations about "Christ our mother", show unusual depth. The common approaches to the Eucharist ranged from the superstitious to the scientific (and the faithful attended, but rarely participated in, the banquet.)
f) Julian gives us a picture of the devil as eternally frustrated. Sin was not "real" for Julian in that it was neither created nor eternal - she never denied sin, its pains, or the need for repentance and purification. The images of the sinner's redemption as leading to greater joy in heaven (and virtue on earth) makes even the evil one an unwilling co-operator with divine providence. All of creation serves its purpose in the divine will's being fulfilled.
g) The idea of the Church as a vehicle of divine revelation is essential to understanding Julian. Her supposed deference to holy Church is not a fearsome obedience (very understandable during the Inquisition period, even if England was not under fire at the moment) but a thankful awareness for a divine gift (and of our own eternal capacity for self-deception). It is stronger because it does not assume that the hierarchy exceeded anyone else in personal holiness, nor that any role in the Church (whether shoemaker, gatekeeper, or just penitent) was less vital to its members as a whole.
Julian speaks of her own lack of letters, but most modern critics dismiss her self-deprecation. Whether she dictated to a scribe or wrote her thoughts in her own hand, however, Julian left a body of work attractive to theologians today because of the way she formulated the idea that the Christian God encompassed the feminine as well as the masculine sphere, a concept not often heard after the second century. Sadly, Julian enjoyed a short period of local celebrity and then was largely forgotten.
However, the church does not want to demonstrate the involvement of women but it could not afford totally to ignore women's usefulness. Numbers of women with a religious vocation, or literally call, answered that call by devoting themselves to the service of the church and to spiritual contemplation.

Julian of Norwich., Showings. New York, Ramsey, Toronto: Paulist Press, 1978.
Pelphrey, Brant., Christ Our Mother-Julian of Norwich. Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1989.
Webliography: 4 July 2007 4 July 2007
[1] 4 July 2007
[2] Brant Pelphrey, Christ Our Mother-Julian of Norwich (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1989), 17-18.
[3] Julian of Norwich, Showings (New York, Ramsey, Toronto: Paulist Press, 1978), 8-11.
[4] 4 July 2007

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