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Julian of Norwich: In God’s sight, by Philip Sheldrake

04 October 2019

Edward Dowler reads an authoritative study of Julian of Norwich

MORE than 30 years of teaching, writing, and thinking about the 14th-century mystic and spiritual writer Julian of Norwich have yielded Philip Sheldrake’s authoritative study of her work. Thorough and careful, but non-technical, lucid, and engaging, it would serve as an excellent primer for those who have never read Julian’s work, and also repay the attention of those already familiar with her writing.

Sheldrake guides us helpfully through the contested field of Julian’s own theological background. Rooted in her mystical experience of God in the midst of sickness and suffering, her writing is also steeped in the Bible and in Christian theology, albeit that the precise extent of her theological reading is uncertain.

Her use of English, in preference to French or Latin, her fondness for homely images, and her projected audience give her writing an attractively non-elitist feel: “I was greatly moved in love towards my fellow Christians [mine evenchristen] that they might all see and know the same as I saw.”

Sheldrake situates Julian in her historical context: an age of adversity racked by war, heavy taxation, famine, and the Black Death. The temptation in such circumstances was to conceive of God as a mighty lord and an intimidating judge of human failure, but Julian’s approach contrasts with this. Firmly orthodox, Julian emphasises that “in everything I believe as Holy Church preaches and teaches,” and yet, as Sheldrake persuasively argues, her emphasis differs from that of many of her contemporaries.

This is shown in the parable of the Lord and a Servant in chapter 51 of her Revelations of Divine Love, which Sheldrake uses as an interpretative key to her theological approach. In this chapter, Julian reflects at length on the meaning of her vision of these two central characters.

The lord sits “in rest and in peace” while the servant stands beside him, humble and ready to do his bidding. Once the servant knows his master’s command, he sets off in haste to obey, but, because he is in such a hurry to do this, he falls into a ditch and seriously injures himself. He moans, cries, and struggles, but cannot help himself, or even turn his head and look at the lord who loves him.

This very compassionate account of the fall highlights the servant’s weakness rather than his disobedience, what Sheldrake terms (in terms that perhaps come across as a little too modern and psychoanalytical) “the unproductive sense of guilt and worthlessness which make us feel separated from God”.

Similarly, Julian writes that God looks upon his children “with pity and not blame”. Using expressions coming into currency at the time, she characteristically speaks of God’s courtesy and familiarity, and emphasises that salvation is primarily an act of healing and compassion: dispensation of medicine rather than strict application of law.

Sheldrake clearly loves Julian’s simple and powerful prose, and several times in this illuminating study he draws us back to the heart of Julian’s own interpretations of her showings: “What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning.”

The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is Archdeacon of Hastings in the diocese of Chichester.


Julian of Norwich: In God’s sight
Philip Sheldrake
Wiley Blackwell £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18

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