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Divine love is revealed

by
05 May 2023

Emma Pennington considers the continuing popularity of Julian of Norwich’s theology

Alamy

Statue of Julian of Norwich by David Holgate beside the west door of Norwich Cathedral

Statue of Julian of Norwich by David Holgate beside the west door of Norwich Cathedral

IN 1373, a 30-year-old woman lay dying. As was the custom, her local parish priest was called to give her the last rites, and, as he held a crucifix before her eyes, she saw it take on a “common light”. The room darkened, and from this cross flowed a series of 16 “shewings”, or revelations, which were given to the woman we now know as Julian of Norwich.

Some of the showings were rooted in the story of the Passion, as described in the Gospels, but others took her down to the bottom of the sea or up to a feast in heaven. In one revelation, she even enters into the wound in the side of Christ, where she sees “a large delectable place, large enough for all humanity to be saved and to rest in peace and love”. Collectively, she called them “a revelation of love”.

Of course, we would have known nothing of the events of this single day in May 1373 if Julian had not survived and left us her writings. These consist in two forms. The first, and shorter, version of Revelations of Divine Love was probably written soon after her revelation of 1373, as it has the feel of capturing her initial thoughts and the immediacy of her visionary experience; but then, at some later point, she writes again.

In this longer text, Julian tells us that she spent nigh on 20 years reflecting on, and thinking deeply about, the visions she received, and what they revealed about the nature of God, our relationship with the Trinity, and the problem of sin. This text is at least twice as long as the first, and interweaves descriptions of her visions with interpretation and theological reflection, the fruit of many years’ hard thinking and praying.

Sadly, we have no definitive manuscripts which contain her original work, but only copies of copies of copies that have been updated and redacted by subsequent generations — perhaps proof that those who read her text, however small and selective a number this might have been in the past, sought to make this Middle English text as accessible and understandable to the present age as they possibly could.

The same is the case today. Since Grace Warrick’s early-20th-century discovery of Julian’s shorter version of her Revelation of Divine Love in the 15th-century Amherst manuscript, a plethora of editions, translations, modern renderings, bite-sized extracts, prayers, novels, musical editions, and plays testify to the impact that Julian’s words have had on those who have read her. So much so that many modern writers, editors, artists, and theologians have sought to disseminate the words and meaning of what is a dense medieval work in various — and often imaginative — ways for our own time.

 

SO, WHAT is it about Julian’s writings that they have so powerfully spoken to people down the centuries and today? How does a 14th-century text and its author’s world-view still resonate with us, 650 years on? We live in a seemingly vastly different era when our world, society, and the language we use to interpret it, could not be more different. And yet, speak to a person who has read something of Julian’s words and their face will light up at the profound understanding of their faith which Julian has revealed to them.

After 30 or so years of reading, studying, praying, and preaching on Julian, I still return to her. Professor Marilyn McCord Adams concluded her Oxford lecture series on Christology with the claim that, of all the great theologians, it is Julian who cracks the problem of sin, and reveals in the most simple way exactly who Christ is, and what was wrought by him on that first Easter morn.

 

“ALL shall be well” is but the tip of the iceberg of what Julian reveals, but, for many, this mantra has come to encapsulate the essence of her positive theology which shows that the world is more than we know.

Like us, Julian lived in a time of pandemic, war, difficult living conditions, and rising costs. In her writings, she does not withdraw from these issues or the abject suffering of humanity into a mystical visionary world of disconnectedness, but rather sits at her window in the little cell attached to the church of St Julian, in Norwich, and hears the groans of the heart of ordinary people who came to her for guidance, and, most importantly, for reassurance.

From her writing, we get a sense of what these concerns might have been, and they will be all too familiar: “I confess my sins but don’t feel forgiven”; “I am worthless”; “I keep getting it wrong”; “I am full of sin, and fear the judgement of God”; “I don’t feel part of the Church”; “I don’t know how to pray”; “Who is God, and where is he in my pain and fear?” Into these negative expressions Julian shines a Christlike torch of affirmation and revelation that is grounded and rooted in scripture and theological reflection.

For Julian, there is no wrath in God. There cannot be, as anger is against his nature. Neither does God see sin, for when God looks on us he sees only Christ in whom we are loved and enfolded. Redemption is not a consequence of the Fall: instead, it was always God’s plan to gather us as children into the family of the Trinity and share in the universal dance of creation.

Sin plays its part, but only in drawing us closer to God. Christ is our mother, who bears us to bliss, picks us up when we fall, and delights in who we are: her beloved children. Julian’s revelation truly shows what it means to believe John’s words that “God is love and those who live in love live in God and God lives in them.”

 

THIS month, we mark the anniversary of a vision that was given to a woman 650 years ago. By constantly erasing herself from the text, she forces us not to focus on her, the receiver of the vision, but rather on the revelation that she received and was compelled to share.

In her text, she then crafts and recrafts a work which she possibly felt was never completed; for this was to be not just the messenger of her revelation, but the edifice in which she invites us to encounter God for ourselves.

Perhaps this is why Julian is so important to those who have read her; for her words take us to a place of prayer in which is found the comfort and peace of the presence of the risen Christ.

 

The Revd Dr Emma Pennington is Canon Missioner of Canterbury Cathedral.

Feature, pages 22-24

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