Julian of Norwich

Today is the Feast day of Mother Julian of Norwich in the Anglican and Lutheran traditions. She’s one of my favorite what? (not sure, she’s not a formal saint, but far more than merely the first published woman author in English). Mystic will perhaps do. I’ve written about her before, of course, here’s a bit.

“Her theology is interesting, she comes fairly close to being an Universalist, although some of it appears to be based somewhat on St. Augustine, and her thinking is such that I have heard her called a Proto-Lutheran because it does somewhat parallel Luther’s beliefs.”

It’s true enough, although she uses different terms and conditions she unmistakeably (at least to me) read as a “Theologian of the Cross”, in Lutheran terms. There are echoes too of Wycliffe and Langland’s Pier Plowman here as well. In sum, I find her firmly on the road that would lead to the Reformation, but not stridently enough to concern the church in her lifetime.

She also, while enclosed as an Anchoress, gave advice to many who came to her cell, including Margery of Kempe, the author of the first autobiography in English, from (what we would call) nearby Bishop’s (now King’s) Lynn. Margery rather sounds like she was a “bloody and difficult woman”, a trait not unknown amongst Englishwomen in any age. In fact, she got herself tried for heresy several times.

But Julian lived a quieter life. Susan Abernethy gives the best write up I know of it.

From her writings, we know that Julian was most likely born in 1342. She lived in Norwich or nearby and may have been from a privileged family. Her real name is not given in her texts. She may have taken her name from the parish church of St. Julian at Conisford in Norwich where she had a cell and lived as an anchoress or perhaps her real name was Julian or Juliana which was a common name at the time. We don’t know if she married or if she had children or even if she was a nun. We don’t know how she got the education that allowed her to write her books. Julian may have learned reading and writing from her mother or from the priests in her parish. Throughout her writing it is evident she sought teachings and preaching from her local priests. Everyday medieval life was inextricably linked to the church.

Norwich at the time of Julian’s life was a vibrant town whose wealth came from sheep breeding and wool production. There was trade with the Low Countries, Zeeland and France. At the time of Julian’s birth, Norwich had a population of about ten thousand and it was the second largest city in England. She and her family would have spoken English. Latin was spoken in the churches and the merchants and upper classes spoke French. A decade after her birth, the King made English the official language of his court.

When Julian was six years old, Norwich was visited by the pestilence known as the Black Death for the first time. Julian herself survived but within a year, three quarters of the population of the city was dead. It persisted for three years. The city itself came to a standstill. There were no workers to repair roads or shepherd the sheep. The wool trade ceased. Slowly, slowly life came back to the city.

When Julian was nineteen, the steeple of Norwich Cathedral fell to the ground in the storm. It seemed to be an omen. A few months later the Black Death returned and this time it targeted infants and small children. Medieval people believed the plague was sent by God as punishment for man’s sins. But everyone from all walks of life and all classes died from the plague. It was a confusing and perplexing time. The plague returned once again in 1368 along with a cattle plague and a bad harvest the next year.

I wrote a bit about her theology in Julian of Norwich: The ‘Sharpness’ of Sin. But hey, Mondays are bad enough, let’s have a conversation between Mother Julian and Rev. Dr. Luther, shall we?

NARRATOR: I came early this morning to set up, and no one was here. I was tired so I sat down on the chancel steps, and fell asleep. And I had the strangest dream: Julian of Norwich had a conversation with Martin Luther …..

ANGEL: (singing, from the balcony) “I want Jesus to walk with me, I want Jesus to walk with me, all along my pilgrim journey, Lord I want Jesus to walk with me.” (ELW #325)

LUTHER: (appearing from behind the pulpit, holding a large Bible, opened, in one hand, his feather ink pen in the other) “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect!” (Matthew 5:48, Gospel for Epiphany 7A) What does this mean?

JULIAN: (appearing in her cell, sitting on a stool, leaning upon the reading desk) What does this mean to you?

LUTHER: Who are you?

JULIAN: Julian of Norwich.

LUTHER: Are you one of those uber-enthusiasts, I call Schwaermer in my native German tongue? Julian of Norwich, that’s hardly the way to relate to the Lord.

ANGEL: (singing) “I want Jesus to walk with me; I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”

JULIAN: How did you learn that you couldn’t be perfect as God is perfect, by your efforts alone? What did you do?

LUTHER: At first, I rubbed the tips of my fingers raw washing the floors in the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. That didn’t help my conscience. So, in 1510 I decided to go off to Rome. I crawled devoutly up the stairs of the Scala Santa, as millions of other pilgrims did.

JULIAN: Life, itself, Martin offers its own penance: disappointments, failures, sickness, betrayals. Life, if we but allow it, purges us of all the things for which our habits and affections grasp. Why on earth did you do all those things?

LUTHER: I laboured and sacrificed so much in order to purge myself of sin. It was up to me, I believed, to make myself right before God. It all depended on how hard I worked and the more penitential I became. I tried to impress God. I once believed my good works were the gateway to my salvation; only then, could I be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect.

JULIAN: What happened to change your understanding?

LUTHER: It was on the Scala Santa in Rome as I made my wearisome, guilt-ridden way up those holy stairs, I heard God’s voice saying to me: ‘The just shall live by faith, not by doing penance.’ It was like scales fell from my eyes. I stood up, walked back down, and stalked out to ignite the Reformation!

JULIAN: You heard God’s voice speak to you! How do you know that it was God who spoke? Was it the only time you heard the voice of God speak to you? It seems quite an experience, no? Did you not criticize the ‘Schwaermer’ — as you call them — those ‘fanatics’ who relied on experience alone to express their Spirit-filled faith?

LUTHER: Well, yes .. and no, not just experience alone. I was suffering severe cramps in my room one evening, reading through Paul’s letter to the Romans, when I came across the verse from chapter 3: “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, we are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through Jesus Christ” (v.23-24). This word of God is external, and comes to us quite apart from any experience we might have.

JULIAN: But you are not denying that God comes to us and speaks to us through our experiences?

LUTHER: Only when mediated through the Word.

JULIAN: I see, “Only when mediated by the Word.” And what, for you Martin, is the “Word’?

LUTHER: The spoken word, preached and proclaimed. The words in the bible. And, most importantly, the living Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.

Do continue with Martin Luther & Julian of Norwich.

Mother Julian wrote, and it is important for us to remember…

“If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love.”

And that is important, we are, none of us, perfect and the world shall trouble us. but she also reminds us that in the next world if not this one (in Elliot’s words)

Sin is Behovely, but
All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well.
If I think, again, of this place,
And of people, not wholly commendable,
Of no immediate kin or kindness,
But of some peculiar genius,
All touched by a common genius,
United in the strife which divided them;

[…]

Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us—a symbol:
A symbol perfected in death.
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.

 

 

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14 Responses to Julian of Norwich

  1. The English Lady Julian is NOT Blessed or a Saint in the RCC, and here we should not be surprised from the R. Catholic sense! She was surely a mystic soul and very eclectic theologically, and appears affected by other English and non-Catholic’s at the time. See the Catholic Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08557a.htm

    Btw, see the “Cloud of Unknowing” and Walter Hilton.

    Liked by 1 person

    • NEO says:

      Nobody said she was, Fr. I would point out that her Catholic feast day is the 15th. A few years ago Pope Benedict said some very nice things about her, but she is more in keeping with Lutheran and Anglican thought than what we see of Catholic.

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      • The battle over Lady Julian “theologically” has been long and hard actually, especially since she was much more accepted in the spirituality of the English Reformation, with Hilton who was also an Augustinian monk and Catholic. But his writing were also much more read among the English Reformation (in the day). Now of course both are read by Anglo-Catholics and some Roman Catholics. But her Catholic Feast Day is minimal outside of the English speaking!

        Liked by 1 person

        • NEO says:

          Very true. We English speakers – even the Catholic ones, are inclined to go our own way, sometimes. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        • Btw, I am not quite the anti-Catholic that people think! (I was born & raised Irish Catholic, but yes left in the 70’s) But, surely some of the best Roman Catholics were British! But, I am not so sure today? And I say this sadly!

          Liked by 1 person

        • NEO says:

          My best guess: some are, some aren’t. Just like everything else, I reckon.

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        • And so-called “Benedict” was in my opinion one of the best English speaking Roman Catholic theologians (an Augustinian also theologically to some degree) from Vatican II to the present! He was the Prefect of Doctrine for years!

          Liked by 1 person

        • NEO says:

          I agree, he knew what he was about.

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        • I do remember Cardinal Basil Hume, RIP, a Benedictine also, who surely could have been a Pope in my reckoning! But, the papacy will never see a British one in my opinion. Btw, Hume’s father was a Scots Protestant, and his mother was a French Catholic.

          Liked by 1 person

        • And btw, there have been very few modern British Benedictine’s that have worn the Red hat, and right now there are none since Basil Hume! And in reality Hume was sort of a Catholic moderate in many ways, but always an interior broad minded Christian! He died as I remember in 1999 at 75 years old from cancer. Again, RIP!

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  2. Steven says:

    I’m intrigued by the parts of her writing that may or may not be universalist in nature, but I think what I like most is her theology on prayer. I’ll confess that I lost steam before finishing her book, maybe I will pick it back up and finish it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • NEO says:

      I hear you. I’ve started it at least five times and haven’t made it through yet. There’s a lot there, but for some reason it’s not easy going. You’re right on her theology of prayer though.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. the unit says:

    Well, of course I know not enough to comment on Julian really.
    But…”It was a confusing and perplexing time.” And I thought I was having a bad day until I read all this. I’m feeling better…and thankful. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • NEO says:

      Always a good thing, I think! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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