Julian of Norwich
Mystic, Writer, Anchoress
All things shall be well
You shall see for yourself that
All manner of things shall be well 1
Julian of Norwich’s refrain of hope and joy has given comfort to seekers throughout the ages. Such a hymn to God’s love is often sung by one who has had a direct experience of that love. Julian, a fourteenth century recluse, is considered a mystic because of her intense experiences of the sacred, but she becomes a powerful witness in her spiritual classic Revelations of Divine Love, or Showings as she titled it. Her style of contemplating God’s love may be set in the fourteenth century, but the meaning transcends time and invites us to share in that same unfailing love.
The hope and optimism from Julian’s teaching did not come from the historical mood of her day. The second half of the fourteenth century in England was a time of disintegration and chaos. There was economic suffering, the effects of war, and the devastation of death and loss rising from the Plague. Because death was so pervasive, it is no wonder that the themes of death and suffering were a constant part of the spirituality of the day. Julian’s vivid descriptions of Jesus’ Passion reflect these themes. Her mysticism, however, was not the world-denying mysticism that was so popular in fourteenth century England, but a vision of God’s nearness and ultimate goodness.
For as the body is clad in the cloth,
And the flesh in the skin,
And the bones in the flesh
And the heart in the trunk
So are soul, and body, clad and enclosed in the goodness of God 2
Julian’s gospel of love came to her through a series of visions she received at the age of thirty in 1373. These visions of Christ on the cross became the touchstone of all her spiritual understandings. She received these visions when she was struck with an inexplicable illness and lay between life and death for several days. When she recovered from her illness, she continued her life as a contemplative anchorite in a cell attached to the church. She began to reflect more deeply on the message she had received, and after twenty years, she compiled her reflections into a book trusting it would fall into the hands of “faithful lovers of God.”
It is in her reflections that we are blessed with the wisdom of Julian. She seems to ask many of the same questions that we have today on the spiritual journey. If God is all goodness, why is there suffering in the world? What is God like? What is the ultimate meaning in life? All of her questions are asked in the framework of prayer, and it is the interplay of mind and heart that makes us trust her answers.
For those who struggle with negative images of God, Julian offers a welcoming image of coming home to a God who is accessible, familiar, and courteous. God’s familiar love is described as a source of joy encompassing the unity of all our earthly relationships. To describe the gentle compassionate love of God, she uses the image of God as mother.
As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our mother
And he revealed that in everything and especially in these sweet words where he says,
“I am the power and goodness of fatherhood,
I am the wisdom and lovingness of motherhood.
I am the light and grace which is all blessed love.” 3
Being at home with God includes being at home with all of creation. One of Julian’s most famous passages is her surprise when she sees God’s divine presence and protection in an ordinary hazelnut in the palm of her hand.
I looked at the hazel nut with the eye of my understanding and thought, what can this be? I was amazed that it could last for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding. It lasts and always will, because God loves it, and thus everything has being through the love of God. 4
Thus Julian assures us that in all things God is the creator, the protector, and the lover.
Julian becomes a true companion to those seeking God’s love in the midst of a dark night of the soul. She knew what it was like to experience both consolation and desolation. There are spiritual questions that remain unresolved. She stands face to face with life’s contradictions. Yet she moves forward in the darkness clinging to the words
You will not be overcome.
God did not say you will not be troubled,
You will not be belaboured,
You will not be disquieted;
But God said, You will not be overcome. 5
I have gone to Julian in many of my own life’s contradictions. At the time when I learned that one of my dearest friends, my encourager and guide, was dying of AIDS, I asked God over and over why was this happening. I struggled for an answer to the meaning of his life and why he lay alone in a hospital room many miles away. It was the wisdom of Julian of Norwich that came to me. She herself struggled with the meaning of her own life experiences. Her answer became mine and it remains with me today.
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. 6
Portrait of Julian
of Norwich by David
1. Julian of Norwich, Showings, translated and introduced by Edmund Colledge, O.S.A. and James Walsh, S.J. (Paulist Press, 1977) p 231
2. Ibid. p. 186
3. Ibid. p. 295
4. Ibid. p. 183
5. Ibid. p. 315
6. Ibid. p. 342