Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Julian of Norwich (1342 - 1316)

Julian of Norwich is considered one of the foremost Christian mystics. Very little is known of her early  life, including her birth name. She was an English anchoress (similar to a hermit).  She may have been from a privileged family in or around Norwich  Norfolk. At the age of 31, suffering from a severe illness and believing she was on her deathbed, Julian had a series of intense visions of Christ. They ended by the time she recovered from her illness on 13 May 1373. She was at home during her near death experience, and gives no mention of her personal life up until that point. Julian wrote down a narration of the visions immediately following them, which is known as The Short Text. Twenty to thirty years later she wrote a theological exploration of the meaning of the visions, known as The Long Text. These visions are the source of her major work, called Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love (ca. 1393). This is considered by many scholars to be the first book written in the English language by a women.  Julian became well known throughout England as a spiritual director to both men and women. The English mystic Margery Kempe, in her  autobiography, the first written in England , mentions going to Norwich to speak with Julian.  The Norwich Benedictine and Cardinal of England Adam Easton  may have been her spiritual director and editor of her Long Text.

Her theology was optimistic, speaking of God's love in terms of joy and compassion rather than law and duty. Suffering is not seen as punishment that God inflicts.  rather it is part of a transformational process that could facilitate a revaluation of Gods compassion and love. She believed that God loves everyone and desires  to 'save" all. The popular theology of the day interpreted current events including the black death as God punishing the wicked. In response, Julian suggested a more merciful theology. She believed that behind the reality of hell  is a greater mystery of God's love.

Her theology was unique in three aspects: Her view of sin. Her belief that God is all love and no wrath. And her view of Christ as mother. According to Julian, God is both our mother and our father. This idea was also developed by Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century.  The harmony Julian suggests between the motherly and fatherly qualities of God/Christ have greatly influenced modern feminist theologians.  

Julian taught that humans sin because they are ignorant or naive, not because they are evil or depraved, as  was the  commonly held view of sin during the Middle Ages. Julian believed that in order to learn, we must fail. . The pain caused by sin is an earthly reminder of the pain of the Passion of Christ. Therefore, as people suffer as Christ did, they have the opportunity to draw closer to Him by their experiences.

 Similarly, Julian saw no wrath in God. She believed wrath existed only in humans. She writes, “For I saw no wrath except on man's side, and He forgives that in us, for wrath is nothing else but a perversity and an opposition to peace and to love”. Julian believed that it was inaccurate to speak of God's granting forgiveness for sins because forgiving would mean that committing the sin was wrong. Julian preached that sin should be seen as a part of the learning process of life, not malice that needed forgiveness. Julian writes that God sees us as perfect and waits for the day when humans' souls mature so that evil and sin will no longer hinder one's life. 

 Probably her most controversial theological concept  was her belief in God as mother. Though most scholars read  this as  a metaphor, rather than a dogma. In her fourteenth revelation, Julian writes of the Trinity in domestic terms, comparing Jesus to a mother who is wise, loving, and merciful.  Julian's revelation revealed that God is our mother as much as He is our father. She also 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 writes metaphorically of Jesus in connection with conception, nursing, labor, and upbringing. However, she sees him as our brother and husband as well.

 The saying, "…All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well", which Julian claimed to be said to her by God Himself, reflects her theology. It is one of the most famous lines in Catholic / Anglican theological writing. And one of the best-known phrases of the literature of her era

 Julian is remembered with a feast day on May 13 in the Roman Catholic tradition and on May 8 in the Anglican and Lutheran traditions.

graphics: upper left, an early depiction of Julian in her cell, lower right a page from the Divine Revalation of Love

living water reprint from 2010

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