Barbara Lumley, New South Wales Regional Meeting.
In 1910, in London, during the transfer of the Sloane Collection to the British Museum, a book was discovered which caused great excitement. It was very old, being a copy of a book written by Julian of Norwich, a mystic and anchoress of the 14th century, the first book written in English by a woman.
It had, no doubt been hidden at the time of Henry VIII’s destructive onslaught on religious property.
The find attracted much interest. Over the years there were many publications written about it, from devotional books through to Ph.D.’s. An Order of Julian was established in America, numerous Julian Groups focusing on silent prayer, sprang up over the UK, USA and as far as Australia! Julian’s cell, attached to St. Julian’s Church in Norwich was reconstructed, having been badly bombed during WWII. This became a shrine, looked after by members of the Julian Centre. An annual lecture on Julian is given there each year. Men and women have come from all over the world, to sit quietly in her cell, to pray, to be healed and to receive help. I was one such woman back in 1989.
It had all started ten years before when I was reading Medieval History at the ANU in Canberra. Sitting in the quietness of the library, a reference to the English Fourteenth Century Mystics, especially a Julian of Norwich, jumped out at me giving me an unexpected jolt, and I knew this was something I had to follow up.
There was no one else there the day I visited St. Julian’s church in Norwich. I let myself in and sat in her cell trying to imagine what it must have been like for her. What had prompted her to take on this unusual way of life? Medieval society would have understood that an Anchoress, after a requiem Mass and extreme unction by the local Bishop, was now dead to the world and ‘entombed’ for the rest of her life. Julian lived there for over forty years. It was also understood she would devote her life to prayer, especially for the local community. The original cell would have had two windows, one allowing access to the services held in the church, the other facing the main road to the coast. Contemporary accounts reveal that Julian was widely respected as a holy person who offered counsel and comfort to many people who came to this window in those very troubled times. On leaving the church, I bought a copy of her book, “The Revelation of Divine Love in Sixteen Showings made to Dame Julian of Norwich”.
It took me some time to come to grips with the contents. Six and a half centuries separate her world from mine. To begin with, hers was a sacred world whereas mine is very secular. Women then had very few rights or freedom. Some daughters of wealthy families might be lucky enough to receive an education but it would never be as comprehensive as that of sons. A more obvious difference was that it was a world dominated by suffering and the theology of the time very much reflected this reality.
All we know of Julian is what she chose to write in this book. She tells us she had been a devout lover of God from an early age and prayed that she might enter into a deeper intimacy with Christ and share his suffering. On the night of 8th May, 1373, at the age of thirty, these prayers were answered. It was believed by herself and those of her family and friends present that she was about to die, and a priest was sent for. Instead, over a period of perhaps 24 hours she experienced what all mystics struggle to adequately express, a direct experience of the divine presence which changes lives forever.
This encounter was in the form of sixteen visions, or ‘showings’, with the suffering of Christ having central place. At the end of the showings, Julian was healed. She wrote down these ’showings’ in what is referred to as ‘The Shorter Version’. The ‘Longer Version’ of her book was written after 20 years living as an Anchoress where she had time, solitude and silence to search for meaning and what it was that God was trying to teach her. It became clear to me that living as an Anchoress was the only way, as a 14th century woman, Julian could convey through prayer, discernment and the written word, God’s teaching on love which she felt He had called her to do.
Both Thomas Merton and Grace Jantzen, the feminist theologian and Quaker, believed her to be a theological genius of ‘astonishing complexity’. Jantzen concluded that Julian was an ‘integrated theologian’, in that daily life, religious experience and theological reflection were all part of the whole. Julian’s criteria for understanding doctrines had to include natural reason, the Church’s common teaching and Grace, and that God was the source of all three. Experiential encounters with the Divine were important but no more important than the other two. It was a safeguard against fanciful thinking.
Julian remained a faithful daughter of ‘holy Church’ for all her life. However, it does become clear that by teachings she meant those from the monastic spiritual tradition rather than the Scholastic philosophical system of the universities and clerical elite.
In her long search for meaning, she ‘saw’ that God had no ‘wrath’ in him and therefore no blame nor punishment were attached to his creatures. Nor did she ‘see’ hell or purgatory. In God there was no anger, instead only love and compassion which we too must practice. The practices of the church however, must have troubled her greatly and much time was given in asking God for an explanation of sin which was only ever partially answered. She came to understand that sin is a’ blindness’. Prayer was the key to transformation making the soul one with God and His will and it is God who teaches us to pray.
Julian was the first theologian to understand that the Godhead was both Father and Mother.
However, the overriding message of the Showings was that God’s meaning has been and always will be love. She finishes her longer version with these words:
“I desired frequently to understand what our Lord’s meaning was, and more than fifteen years afterward I was answered by a spiritual understanding that said, ‘Do you want to understand your Lord’s meaning in this experience? Understand it well: love was His meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did He show you? Love. Why did He show it? For love…’ Thus was I taught that love is our Lord’s meaning and I saw most certainly…that before God made us He loved us.”
It does seem to me that my life would have been the poorer without Julian as a friend and companion for all these years.
Grace Jantzen, Julian of Norwich, SPCK, G.B. 1987