By Robert Fruehwirth
Julian of Norwich (1342-ca. 1416) is known to us almost entirely through The Revelations of Divine Love, which is universally considered a classic of Christian spirituality and one of the most creative theological and mystical works in Christianity. It is also the first surviving work in English to have been written by a woman.
About Julian herself we know very little, except that she lived the majority of her adult life as an anchorite attached to St. Julian’s Church in Norwich. An anchorite was a person publicly consecrated to God in the Church, like a monk or nun, except they lived not in a community, but alone, usually in one- or two-room apartments attached to a parish church. There they lived a life of nearly constant prayer and moderate asceticism, and offered spiritual counsel to those who sought them out, functioning like the resident “holy person” of the parish. When Julian became an anchorite at St. Julian’s, she likely took the name of the parish — “Julian” — as her own, thus shrouding her earlier life, before she became an anchorite, in anonymity.
In her Revelations of Divine Love Julian tells us that she was around 30 years old when she experienced a near-death illness, and in that illness, she received from God a series of 16 discrete mystical experiences. She called these experiences “Showings,” which opened her mind and heart to God’s unconditional love for us, unlimited compassion in suffering all things with us, and unceasing joy in us.
Shortly after this, Julian wrote down a brief account of her Showings, which we know now as the Short Version of the Revelations. She then spent 15 to 20 years praying and reflecting on her experiences, and eventually produced the Long Version of her Revelations, which is nearly six times longer. The Long Version of the Revelations is a spiritual masterpiece that interweaves mystical autobiography with creative theological development, and pastoral reflections intended for all Christians. Julian’s aim in sharing her experiences with us, and her lengthy reflections, is to help us live “gladly and gaily” in greater assurance of a God who loves and rejoices in us. She takes human suffering and wrongness seriously, but she remains always a figure of hope and simplicity and light.
After centuries in obscurity, Julian of Norwich has become one of the Church’s most loved and well-known mystics, and Revelations of Divine Love has inspired countless readers. Julian’s vision of a God of unconditional love, of Jesus as our Mother, birthing us into life by sharing our suffering in compassion, her revelation of a God who promises that even sin is “behovely” and “all shall be well”: all this has been spiritually transformative for untold numbers of people. Sometimes, in talking with pilgrims at the Julian Shrine in Norwich, I would discover that “all shall be well” in particular seemed to have a quasi-sacramental authority, inspiring in many an authentic trust in God, even in times of severe crisis, the words thus effecting the spiritual wellness of which they speak.
We should celebrate all such consolations and inspirations. But while living in close conversation with Julian, and writing and speaking about her for over 25 years, I have come to believe that Revelations of Divine Love, while offering consolation, also offers so much more: it describes, with psychological sensitivity and within a coherent systematic theology, the lifelong journey of Christian transformation that allows us to share more and more in the urgent creativity and self-offering that is God’s own life.
Take for example Julian’s repeated affirmation of a God of unconditional love, the maker, lover, and keeper of all, whose loving delight holds each thing in being, and whose love is at work in every instance of reality to make all things well.
On hearing such things, our first reaction is to hear them as beautiful, inspiring religious ideas. Perhaps we are authentically consoled by them. Perhaps they allow us to find our way, for a moment, beyond the dread or shame that normally haunt us, and to experience something again like trusting in God, and entrusting our whole selves to God.
But if we sit with “all shall be well” and the promise of unconditional love for any period of time, something else comes to the fore.
We discover in ourselves an opposition to God’s way of loving, and even to God’s promise of making all things well. We discover that we don’t love and don’t want to love as broadly and unconditionally as God loves — and we don’t want God to love that way either. There are parts of world history, parts of ourselves, and people in our lives, that we don’t want to be included in God’s well-making, embraced by God’s mercy. Our resentment or insecurity would rather have these parts selectively excluded, cast out, condemned. Against a background of unconstrained loving and universal well-making, we thus discover how constrained our loving is, how constrained we believe God’s power of redemption and making well must be. At the very least, we experience a ringing incredulity that all things, literally all things, could ever be made well.
Julian had a single word for this opposition to God’s love and life. She called it wrath. While she was clear that there was no wrath in God, and thus no movement of God against us, there is a great deal of wrath in all of us, what she also called a contrariness to God’s peace and love. This is not the whole of who we are, but it is a part of our fallen condition. We have in us, she says, all the suffering, blindness, and anguish of Adam’s falling mixed up with the wellness and joy of the risen Christ.
For Julian, then, the chief aim of God’s redemptive work in Jesus and the Holy Spirit is the slaking of our wrathful opposition to peace and love, which means the healing of the hurt that is behind our wrath and our spiritual blindness.
And though we, through the anger and contrary spirit that is within us, are now in tribulation, distress, and misery, as befits our blindness and weakness, yet we are certainly safe through the merciful protection of God, so that we do not perish. But we are not blessedly safe in the possession of our endless joy until we are all in peace and in love; that is to say, in full contentment with God, and with all his works, and with all his judgements, and loving and at peace with ourselves and with our fellow Christians and with all that God loves, as is pleasing to love. And God’s goodness does this in us. (Revelations 49 in Revelations of Divine Love, trans. by Barry Windeatt. [Oxford: OUP, 2015])
This process of having our wrath slaked, our defenses undone, our hurts addressed and healed, is a supremely tender and gradual one. And in understanding this process, which is really the process of divine love adapting us to God’s own life, Julian’s implicit systematics comes into its own — her soteriology, Christology, pneumatology, ecclesiology — in a way perfectly in sync with her mystical experience and her pastoral psychology. Julian would say that all of us have already suffered Jesus’ Passion with him in the “Passions” of our lives. In discovering Jesus (as God suffering our hurt with us and ministering to us, if only by accepting presence and understanding, open to all that we are), our resentments and hurts are revealed and thus more open to the soothing and healing work of God’s Spirit. God probes our refusals of love and our rejection of wellness within an always greater love and an always deeper wellness.
In the end, the most wonderful thing about Julian, as a mystic, theological friend, and spiritual companion, is that she does more than just tell us about God, and more than just describe what it was like to encounter this God. She actually shares with us her own incomplete, decades-long process of coming to terms with her experience of a God of love who is actually at work, in all things, in each moment, for their making well. Just as Julian’s stunning mystical experiences in 1373 launched her into a lifetime of prayer, reflection, and inner struggle, so reading her Revelations can do much more than provide momentary consolation. It can catalyze a lifelong process of transformation in God that is not only theologically coherent but psychologically sensitive and spiritually credible. Living with Julian invites us to an increasing compassion for God in Jesus, ourselves, and others, knowing Jesus in the felt texture of our own lives and the lives of those around. As our hurt is gradually eased by this, and by what Julian calls the “sweet, secret working” of the Holy Spirit that is the essence of prayer, we become more able to share in God’s own life and to release ourselves to God’s activity, all around us, for the redemption of this world.
The Rev. Robert Fruehwirth is associate rector at St. Michael’s Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. Previously, he worked at the Julian Centre in Norwich, England, and for years had been a member of the Order of Julian of Norwich. His new book, The Drawing of This Love: Growing in Faith with Julian of Norwich, will be released by Canterbury Press this August.
Images were provided by the author.