As stated in previous posts, during my spiritual direction training I shared for the first time with my small group that I had a “saints” posse. If you haven’t already read them, click here for Part One, and here for Part Two. Today I will be discussing the third saint in my posse, Julian of Norwich.
Around the time my daughter was born I found a bookmark that read “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” This quote introduced me to the 14th cen. English mystic, Julian of Norwich. I loved the rhythmic cadence and repetition of the words and I clung to its hopeful message. I began to read about her and instantly felt such resonance with her writings about the image of God and her understanding of suffering. I also felt a kinship with her being a “cat lady!”
Julian voice speaks to us across the ages and is especially relevant to us today during the Covid 19 pandemic. Three waves of the bubonic plague swept through Norwich during her lifetime. She surely lost many family members and friends to the plague and counseled countless others in her spiritual direction ministry. Matthew Fox notes in Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic and Beyond, “She is a special chaperone for those navigating a time of pandemic…Julian knew something about fostering a spirituality that can survive the trauma of a pandemic. While others all about her were freaking out about nature gone awry, Julian kept her spiritual and intellectual composure staying grounded and true to her belief in the goodness of life, creation, and humanity and in no uncertain terms, inviting others to do the same.”
When Julian was 30, she contracted a serious illness and had a near death experience. What followed were 16 visions in which she encountered Christ. She wrote down everything she saw and the things that God said. She came to believe the visions were not just for her, but for all of humanity and continued to write and edit the manuscripts her whole life. The Benedictines protected her manuscripts until Revelations of Divine Love was finally published in1670. Julian was the first woman to write a book in the English language.
We do not know her actual name, but Julian is named after the church where she was an anchoress. She lived most of her life in a small stone room, an anchorhold, attached to the St. Julian of Norwich church in Norwich, England.. Julian knew all about “sheltering in place” but was not a hermit. She had a window that looked out on the street where she offered spiritual direction. Julian is often depicted in artwork accompanied by cats. Many people used cats for pest control, but Julian must have been a bit of “cat lady” for her furry companions to be included in her portraits.
Like Hildegard von Bingen, Julian also recognized the Divine Feminine. She saw motherly aspects not only in God, but in all of the trinity. I was a new mother when I read her work and this Mother-Child relationship really resonated with me. Julian wrote that just as a mother is not repelled or angry with a messy, fussy toddler, but scoops it up, cleans and kisses the little one – that is how God responds to us. God…”wants us to behave as a child would when he is upset or afraid: rush with all our might into the arms of the Mother.”
In the tradition of all creation mystics, Julian saw the divine presence in all things. “We are not just made by God, we are made of God” One of my favorite scriptures is Psalm 96: 11,12 “Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it. Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.” Julian echoes this by saying, “God rejoices in his creation and creation rejoices in God. They are endlessly marvelous to each other. In the act of marveling, we behold our God – our Beloved – our Maker – utterly exalted.”
“Our Beloved wants us to trust that he is always with us…He dwells eternally with us inside our own souls, directing and protecting us.” One of the most comforting things Julian writes about is that “nothing can come between God and the soul.” This reassurance that our Creator is with us in good times and bad times, was something I needed to hear many times. “The place which God takes in our soul he will never vacate, for in us is his home of homes, and it is the greatest delight for him to dwell there. . . . The soul who contemplates this is made like the one who is contemplated.” Julian called this Divine union “oneing.”
During the Bubonic Plague, people did not understand how the disease was transmitted and began to believe that humankind’s sinfulness was being punished by God. Through her visions, the Divine revealed to Julian that although humans often err and miss the mark, God was never angry at us for our failings. “Your God would never punish you for being a human being: this life itself is your penance…But it is also more than that: it is a crucible for transformation. Each trial, every loss, is an opportunity for you to meet suffering with love and make of it an offering, a prayer. The minute you lift your pain like a candle the darkness vanishes, and mercy comes rushing in to heal you.”
Richard Rohr spoke about the power of powerlessness in his November 15, 2015 CAC Daily Meditation. “The only way to give everyone equal and universal access to God is to base salvation/enlightenment on woundedness instead of self-created trophies. If we are honest, this utterly levels the playing field. Julian of Norwich, my favorite English mystic, understood the great turn around and said proudly: “Our wounds are our very trophies!” They are the “holes in the soul” where the Light and the Life can break through. Exactly as Leonard Cohen’s Anthem puts it: “Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”
Notes – Statue of Julian of Norwich, Norwich Cathedral, by David Holgate FSDC rocketjohn, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons