Julian of Norwich

(c 1342-1416)


Contemplative

Lady Julian, 1342 - c1416, is named after the church where she resided during the latter part of her life. Her own name is unknown, and there are very few facts that are recorded about her life.

Julian's World

We do know that she was born in England in 1342 during the days of the Black Death. In fact, the Bubonic plague swept through Norwich three times during her life. As very few personal details of her life have been preserved, we can only speculate whether or not Julian was married, and if she lost a family to the plague. Certainly, virtually every home was affected by the plague to varying degrees.

Life in Julian’s day was difficult. In addition to the constant looming threat of death due to the black death, there was also rampant poverty, unemployment, high taxes, bad harvests, political unrest, war with France, religious division and persecution. (Just half a mile from Julian`s Church, the early followers of the Protestant John Wycliff, The Lollards, were being martyred in the Lollards pit).

In this world where death seemed to reign, the church itself also preached mostly on themes of death. Judgment after death, and the passion and death of Christ were the most common sermon themes. In addition to the terror of death in this life, people were also terrified of facing a greater judgment from God after death.

Into this world was Julian born—and into this world she went forth—with a passion to know and love God, and to be a true and pleasing Christian. She asked the Lord for three things in her life:

First; she prayed for revelation and that she might personally share in and have a greater understanding of the Passion of Christ.

Second, she asked God for a “near death experience” that would basically cause everyone to believe her to be dead—even though she would not actually die. In this way, she felt that she could receive all the rites of the Church and be fully cleansed by the mercy of God and go on to lead a more consecrated life to His Glory. (Please note that the theology in Julian’s day led her to believe that this would be one sure way of being cleansed and sanctified before God with a deep assurance of salvation).

Though she asked God for the first two requests to be granted only if it was His will, her last request was of unconditional surrender. Her desire was for three internal “wounds.” These were: a true contrite and humble heart, natural compassion for others, and an unshakable longing and passion for God.

The Visions

God was soon to answer her prayers. In early May, 1373, at the age of thirty and a half, Julian became very ill with the Plague, receiving the last rites on the fourth day. On the seventh day, her mother reached out to close her daughter’s eyes. In the next few moments, Julian suddenly felt a new surge of health course through her body, and her physical pain began to ebb away. Suddenly, Julian was carried away into a heavenly realm and began to see visions--a total of16 in all. These visions were to profoundly affect her life, and became the source of her two books.

After recovering from her illness, she wrote a short text--her first book--about her heavenly visions; and desiring a closer union with God, gave her life to contemplation and prayer as an anchoress. An anchoress was a person who though called to a solitary life, was not cut-off from the world, but anchored in it. Her home was a small room, attached to the Church of Saint Julian, just off one of the main streets of Norwich. Her cell had 3 windows that opened; one into the Church, so she could hear Mass and receive the sacrament; one to communicate with her servant, who would have lived close at hand; one to give counsel and encouragement to those who sought her advice. During her lifetime, she gained the reputation as a wise counselor, whose advice combined spiritual insight with common sense, and many persons came to speak with her.

After twenty years of prayer and contemplation, she was to write more fully of her experience. Wanting her book to be available to more people, she chose to write it in English rather than Latin. She was in fact, the first woman to write a book in English. Entitled, “The Revelations of Divine Love,” it is interesting that some of the most profound revelations of God’s love and sovereign care, came through a women in who lived in some of the most turbulent and dark days of European history. In her writing, she reveals a profound level of wisdom and insight that, over six hundred years later, remains a strong word to minister to the contemporary church.

Her Book

In her book, she shares how the Lord Jesus was revealed to her not an angry Person, full of sorrow and vengeance for a creation gone awry, but a joyful Savior who looked with love and patience upon His creatures.

"Glad and merry and sweet is the blessed and lovely demeanour of our Lord towards our souls, for he saw us always living in love-longing, and he wants our souls to be gladly disposed toward him . . . by his grace he lifts up and will draw our outer disposition to our inward, and will make us all at unity with him, and each of us with others in the true, lasting joy which is Jesus."

Each time Jesus appeared in a vision, Julian’s heart was flooded with greater and greater joy. She saw the Godhead as our Maker, our Keeper, our everlasting Lover, and our endless source of Joy and Bliss.

In one vision, she saw God as our clothing, wrapping us and holding us tenderly in His love. Next, she described seeing God holding a tiny thing in his hand, like a small brown hazelnut, which seemed so fragile and insignificant that she wondered why it did not crumble before her eyes. She understood that the thing was the entire created universe, and that it would continue always because God loves it, just as everything is loved and has its being by the love of God. Such a tiny thing was easy for God to keep, and He kept if faithfully. She was told, "God made it, God loves it, God keeps it." Receiving this revelation brought a deep sense of rest and happiness to her soul, knowing that nothing could separate her from the love of God.

In her first eight visions, Julian saw many aspects of the Passion of Christ. The first one was an answer to her prayer have greater revelation of Christ’s suffering. In her vision, she saw the red blood trickling down from the garland just as it was at Jesus' Passion when the thorns were pressed into His head. Julian was overwhelmed with the reality that He who suffered for her was both God and man. Julian saw that God truly suffered--- what He suffered and for whom He suffered. She saw that we should view what He went through with contrition and compassion. However, in the visions of Christ's passion, Julian did not witness His actual death. Instead, she saw Jesus’ expression change to joy. This filled her with a deep happiness. She understood that if we in this life take up our crosses and follow Jesus, we will also share in the joy that was set before Him, by which He endured the cross; and we too will be changed.

Her introspective nature was troubled that sometimes we are faced with decisions where there is no clear moral answer. It troubled her that sometimes, no matter which way we decide, we will have acted from motives that are less then completely pure, so that neither decision is defensible. She finally wrote: "It is enough to be sure of the deed. Our courteous Lord will deign to redeem the motive."

Of our response to the sins of others, she said: "The soul that would preserve its peace, when another's sin is brought to mind, must fly from it as from the pains of hell, looking to God for help against it. To consider the sins of other people will produce a thick film over the eyes of our soul, and prevent us for the time being from seeing the 'fair beauty of the Lord'-- unless, that is, we look at them contrite along with the sinner, being sorry with and for him, and yearning over him for God. Without this it can only harm, disturb, and hinder the soul who considers them. I gathered all this from the revelation about compassion...This blessed friend is Jesus; it is his will and plan that we hang on to him, and hold tight always, in whatever circumstances; for whether we are filthy or clean is all the same to his love."

In a later vision Julian realized that sin stood in the way of her yearning for God. Without sin we would have been pure and like God, and all would have been well. This troubled her, as to why God allowed sin in the first place. When she questioned Him about it, Jesus reassured "that all would be well, and all manner of things would be well".

Rather than seeing Hell merely as a place of punishment Julian saw that sin itself was the hardest hell, and the true hell which the Savior came to redeem us from.

Another matter that greatly troubled her was the fate of those who through no fault of their own had never heard the Gospel. She never received a direct answer to her questions about them, except to be told that whatever God does is done in Love, and therefore "that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

In her vision, Julian was constantly encouraged to trust the love and wisdom of God, being assured again and again, that “all shall be made well.”

Julian’s end-time view was radically different than most of the church in her day:

"It appears to me that there is a deed that the Holy Trinity shall do on the last day, and when that deed shall be done and how it shall be done is unknown to all creatures under Christ, and shall be until it has been done. -- This is the great deed ordained by our Lord God from eternity, treasured up and hidden in his blessed breast, only known to himself, and by this deed he shall make all things well; for just as the Holy Trinity made all things from nothing, so the Holy Trinity shall make all well that is not well.

"And I wondered greatly at this revelation, and considered our faith, wondering as follows: our faith is grounded in God’s word, and it is part of our faith that we should believe that God’s word will be kept in all things; and one point of our faith is that many shall be damned, -- And given all this, I thought it impossible that all manner of things should be well, as our Lord revealed at this time.~ And I received no other answer in showing from our Lord God but this: “What is impossible to you is not impossible to me. I shall keep my word in all things and I shall make all things well.”

Though she may not have had the theology to lay it all out point by point, Julian’s soul was solidly set in a faith that could not be shaken, that God would make right every area where there had been wrong; and that He was completely trustworthy, wise, powerful and loving. To this “courteous God,” Julian encourages us to keep on praying, to keep on thanking, trusting, rejoicing---knowing that life is not absurd but has a divine purpose.

This is Julian's optimistic, visionary theology -- a theology where the love of God is expressed not in terms of law and duty, but in terms of joy and heartfelt compassion.

The precise date of her death is uncertain.

--Info written and compiled by Mercy Aiken

Some books on Julian of Norwich available from Tentmaker Resources.

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