Julian of Norwich belongs to a group of metaphysical mystics, in whom much can be learnt in regards to the wider complexities of Christianity and is dogmatic adherence to doctrine and Churchmanship; most of which was in essence misogynistic in power and albeit, content.
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The fourteenth century English Church was in a period of rapid change, expansion, church building and moreover, theological debates and discoveries, in that, despite being a hierarchical misogynistic institution, also in part, listening to the wider voice of mysticism, which had down the ages, allowed many to come to a place of faith. This is, in part largely due to mystics like our study and her notable, contemporaries like: Margery Kempe and Hilton.
Interestingly enough, these mystics, represented a ‘personal church’ according to Wakefield (130), in that, they provided against a background of ecclesiastical institutionalised religion, a ‘personal religion’, within the bounds of the institutional confinements, of clergy and ritual. This allowing for a deeper more, mystical union of contemplative and God; in doing so, a rich and meaningful dialogue between the soul and God, through an opening of love for God and regards for the beauty of His creation.
Julian of Norwich, 1342-1420, lived as an anchorite, for most of her adult life, in a ‘cell’ near the Church of St Julian, from where it is assumed she took her, religious name (Wakefield: 236). She is widely credited as being the first woman to write a book in the English language.
This work which took many years to complete, was an account of her many metaphysical visions and enlightenments. Julian’s, Revelations of Divine Love was written in two versions; a longer and shorter notation; allowed her to be seen as a leading theologian of her day, and moreover, as a women, this was no mean feat.
The crux of this metaphysical union was predominately attained through illness, an illness that was so serious that her life was ebbing from her; nevertheless, she prayed for a bodily sign of ‘Christ’s Passion’ (Wakefield: 236) which inevitably through answered prayer, she was enraptured in sixteen revelations, of Divine love.
Despite her humility, in stating that she was indeed a ‘feeble, frail and women’ (Wakefield: 237) she nevertheless, was noted in that her education was such that, she was more than aware and conversant with biblical thought and had a firm knowledge of patristic theology.
Within the simplicity of the ‘work’ she reflects upon themes clearly seen and experienced from the World around her, eg: the hazel nut, clothes blowing in the strong wind and the sea bed. The correlation between the drops of, ‘Christ’s blood’ and the ‘scales of herrings’, notes her consistency between the Anglia coast and her focus of connecting spiritual beauty in the land. Therefore, it is not unknown for some to accept her as a proponent of: linking theology and ecology.
In this extensive metaphysical work, she widely explores the nature of God’s love, in which we are given ‘snapshots’ of love in the guise of: Father, Son and Spirit; Mother God, even, the comfort and ‘cosy’ safety of ‘home’ within the safety, of a loving mother, whose role represents a clear metaphor, in extolling the depths and qualities of a loving God – around the hearth of God’s presence.
The text openly explored themes of equality so counteractive to the doctrine of the church that we are able to wonder, at the fact that her writings were not ‘band’ or ‘destroyed’ the establishment upon completion. Julian was the first English mistress of “writing between the lines,” or placing subversive messages in texts that are not apparent to the purveyors of the institutions they are subverting.
Julian candidly dealt with the misogynist Church led emphasis on the, make-up of the Holy Trinity by reflecting clearly on the feminine attributes, in ‘God the Mother’, but she also rejected widely and perhaps even controversially other, Christian institutions in her work: ‘The, Revelations of Divine Love’.
The most obvious way in which Julian made her stand against the Christian traditions of her day was her language. While the Middle English prose may be difficult for the modern reader to stumble through, it really was the language of the people when it was written, and it is appropriate given the nature of Julian’s ‘shewing’ (a unique ‘Anglo Saxon term, used to denote her reflections) God’s revelation to Julian was one that was shown directly to the people (Julian held no kind of religious office, she was not even technically a nun), and it is only fitting that the account of that revelation be written in the vernacular of the day.
In doing so, we can find that her, writing depicts a God who is awesome, close to His people, through the complexities of: life, love and light (Wakefield: 236). Moreover, her picture of the Trinity, from her metaphysical encounter with Christ, offers much hope to mankind in that, it reveals a God who is always creative, redemptive and enabling; through a love that is never coercive or destructive, in that, it is born out of a humble heart and gentle soul. Heart to God, hand to mankind.
The priestly and necessary intermediary of a ‘man’ was in all essences, required for nearly every religious experience, from confession of one’s sins, to translation of religious texts, to the receipt of a divine manifestation.
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However, it is clear from her writings that God manifested himself to Julian, with no intermediary. Julian makes very clear that her readers are vitally aware of this huge departure from ecclesiastical traditions, in doing so, in several places in the text. When God first manifests himself, Julian says it is “without intermediary” (Newman: 7).
When she openly addresses her ‘Christian companions’ in her text, she says that: “she hopes everyone receives pleasure from reading her book as if; Jesus had shown it to you directly, as he did to me” (Wakefield: 237). Contrary to the church doctrine of the period, Julian repeatedly communicates her belief in, a personal relationship and dialogue, between God and His people, to her readers, seriously countermanding the Roman Catholic, standing of the intermediary, the priesthood.
Julian also through the risk of even writing her work, provides, some clear hope, in God’s extending His love directly to the individual, and in doing so, could be seen as being divisive in ecclesiastical circles. Nevertheless, this feminist theologian, and mystic, has through her unique works, stood the test of time, through continual inspiring, the people of God, to, engage with God as individuals.
In the current age, we can note that still, the ‘cold’ clearly misogynistic, Roman Catholic church, will not allow a women to be priest, and continues to promote, ‘interaction with God’ through the auspices of the Roman Catholic church.
Notwithstanding the present age, in the fourteenth century, Julian was struggling to find an instructional voice in her religious tradition. In chapter VI she states, “God forbid that you should take me for a teacher” (Newman: 4) but the clear implications throughout the rest of the work is clear, that she most certainly means the exact opposite.
Earlier in the same chapter, Julian states that she wants to: “council you for your own profit” (Newman:4) and there are many other clues to Julian identifying herself as an ‘educator’ throughout the work. Julian can be noted as candidly affirming the traditions of the church, but equally, and perhaps subversively throws caution to the wind, in leading her fellow believers in equality.
Julian in the fundamental dialogue of her work, stands with her back to the Church, and leans into the wind of the Holy Spirit, breathing fresh air, into how one should view their relationship with God and humanity. Whereas, the God of the Old Testament is a vengeful, full of wrath, the God of the New Testament becomes a forgiving and loving God.
The Roman Catholic Church in her generation, and perhaps in the present age, has tended to impart, in its followers a good healthy dose of guilt and fear that the Old Testament inspired. Julian, on the other hand, is largely a proponent of the concept of a loving, humble and constant companion God.
The titles of her works offer, (Revelations of Divine Love and God the Mother) a picture of God as a nurturing figure, and the soft tone of her text, makes Julian’s feelings about her God even more clearly, apparent.
The juxtapose of Julian’s abilities, which reveal her theology, actually goes beyond ‘institutionalised churchmanship’ as to reveal and specifically impart to her readers, some of this divine benevolence, for which as, images of God, we are wholly, part of the Divine, through His love and humility and in being so, we are expressions of revealing His, life, love and light, through our own.
This counteractive theology to the theology of the day, can be seen in chapter XVII, where, Julian states: “… in each soul who shall be saved is a natural will that has never assented to sin, and never shall” (Beer: 48), which reveals a little of her, feminist stand against the attitudes of the church of her day.
The prevailing attitude of the Church was one of promoting clearly, that humanity was borne of sin, and therefore, is constantly encountering and engaging with evil and therefore, the devil incarnate, in doing so, believers not only retaining their attachment to heaven by very weak thread. Whereas, Julian’s views are entirely optimistic; offering a much more palatable relationship with God, than one of coercive dogmatically instilled fear and self hatred from ones beliefs.
What we can learn from the life and works of Julian of Norwich is certainly a more palatable relationship with God. In her story of the cosmic largely remote Christ, promoted by the Roman Catholic Church of her day, is clear recognition of the cost of the human dilemma.
In that, the Church is the signpost to a relationship with God. In doing so, through God’s abundant love, reveal ‘how’ the personal walk with God is possible for each and every believer; notwithstanding, that the Church’s role is to engage and lead humanity into this oneness of sacred interaction.
Julian of Norwich is a revealing and inspiring mystic, one who through her own frail humanity, simply and poetically revealed the ‘femininity’ of God’s love, nurturing, sustaining and revealing to all who want to partake therein.
Beer, F, Women and Mystical Experience in the Middle Ages. Rochester, NY: P. Boydell 1992.
Friends of Julian of Norwich, About her life and work, ud. Web.
Julian of Norwich, Biographies, ud, accessed from http://www.luminarium.org/medlit/julian.htm
Long, T. Julian of Norwich: Essentialist and Feminist? Society for Feminist Studies Open Panel, Modern Language Association Annual Convention, Thomas Nelson Community College, Hampton, VA December 29, 1998.
Newman, B. From Virile Woman to Woman Christ: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature. Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania P, 1995.
Wakefield, G, A Dictionary of Christian Spirituality. London: SCM Press, 1983.