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Women of Prayer and Justice – Session 5: Blessed Julian of Norwich (1342-c1416)

Prepared by
Eleanor Lincoln, CSJ and Catherine Litecky, CSJ
Women at the Well Ministry, St. Paul, MN

“So I was taught
that LOVE is our Lord’s meaning…
that before God made us [God ] LOVED us,
which LOVE was never abated and never will be.
And in this LOVE [God] has done all … works,
and in this LOVE
[God] has made all things profitable to us,
and in this LOVE our life is everlasting.
In our creation we had beginning,
but the LOVE in which [God] created us was …
from without beginning.
In this LOVE we have our beginning,
and all this shall we see in God without end.”

Julian of Norwich, Showings (Paulist Press, 1978, p. 342-3, Adapted)

Beginning this retreat with these words of Julian of Norwich, but with no illustration of her, is intentional. We know this vibrant woman only by her powerful words. We know little about her life in 14th-century England except that she was the first woman to write a book in the English language. But we do know that, through her writing, she had an intense and intimate relationship with her loving Creator.

Showings is her reflection on the sixteen revelations or “showings” of God’s love which came to her while she was on her sickbed. In Showings (sometimes entitled Revelations of Divine Love) she describes the showings and then shares with us fifteen or twenty years of praying about her experiences.

What has come to be called “the short text” presents Julian’s immediate description of the revelations of Jesus in his passion; the “long text” results from her many years of prayerful and theological reflection on the meaning of her experiences.

The passage quoted at the beginning of this session summarizes all that she learned: “that love is our Lord’s meaning.”

Quietly read the passage and let the meaning of God’s love enter your heart. What does this line say to you: “In this Love we have our beginning”?

From learning how much God loved her, Julian realized that God “delighted” in her. She says this over and over again in various ways. Her experience of God’s delight can help us to be aware of how much God loves us. With her we can praise God for loving and delighting in us. God delights in us and loves us when we are busy as well as when we have “time.”

Gratefully repeat these words three times, putting the emphasis each time on a different word: “God delights in me. God delights in me. God delights in me.”

Julian teaches us that prayer not a complicated process separate from daily living, that prayer need not be a matter of “if I had more time.” She encourages us to experience God and ourselves as we are, whatever we may be doing.

In Chapter I of Showings she writes “as representative” of her “fellow Christians” (134). In the last chapter she tells us that the book “begun by God’s gift and grace” is “not yet performed” (342), that is, it is yet to be lived out–by Julian and by us. She prays that “this book many not come except into the hands of those who wish to be [God’s] faithful lovers” (343).

What do we know about Julian’s life?

We know that she lived in one of the most calamitous periods in human history. Barbara Tuchman, historian, in a book subtitled “the Calamitous Fourteenth Century” calls Julian’s age “a violent, tormented, bewildered, suffering, and disintegrating age, a time, as many thought, of Satan triumphant” (A Distant Mirror, Knopf, 1978).

England suffered the greatest political problems in its history during the years encompassing all of Julian’s lifetime. The monarchy was in turbulence with rampant power and greed. Julian witnessed the Peasants’ Revolt (1371) against oppression by secular and church leaders. No doubt Julian encouraged, supported, and counseled people in their suffering.

Problems in the church must have affected people of faith like Julian, as they did St. Catherine of Siena who worked toward reconciliation in the church. During the century in which both of them lived the papacy underwent political, economic, and ecclesial chaos because of the Great Schism (1378-1417) with multiple popes and three papal factions. The Bishop of Norwich engaged in unholy dealings in connection with the Great Schism and the Peasants’ Revolt. Arrogant and a harsh administrator, he was ruthless and merciless in quelling the revolt. He was Julian’s bishop! However, Julian, aware of tensions, was a prophet, a loving critic of “Holy Church,” who distinguished between “God’s kingdom on earth” and the evils of the hierarchy.

The greatest calamity of all during Julian’s lifetime came in the form of a devastating plague. The Black Death killed at least one-third of the population of Europe as it swept from South to North in 1347, reaching Norwich in 1349 when Julian was a child of seven. When Julian was in her twenties, two other waves swept through Norwich, killing as many as 50% of its population.

People were ignorant of how epidemics spread so they saw pestilence as an affliction sent by God for the sins of society. Sins such as war, greed, adultery, blasphemy, falsehood, luxury, and usury resulted, among other evils, in oppression of those who were poor. As a consequence, there developed a spirituality of suffering.

As a young woman Julian was surrounded by death and immersed in the mystery of suffering. She probably developed what we call today a survivor mentality. She prayed for sickness for herself, and it was her sickbed experience of the revelations of Jesus that she describes in Showings. This was probably in 1373. The only person she mentions at her sick bed, besides a priest, was her mother. She says at the beginning of Showings that these revelations took place when she was “30 and 1/2” on the thirteenth day of May, 1373.

The first showing came after three days and nights on her sickbed. She tells us that having received the last rites of Holy Church, she saw the figure of the suffering Christ on the crucifix become alive before her eyes. Fourteen other showings followed in rapid succession in a few hours with the sixteenth coming on the following night.

What was Julian’s story before this night? We know Julian and her mother survived. But who had died? Julian writes so much about motherhood that we can conjecture that she was a mother. Most women married very early so she may have had a husband and children who died of the plague.

After her sickbed experience and the “showings,” Julian determined to become an anchoress, a life mostly for the many widows of that time who lived lives of solitude and prayer. It is a well-established tradition that she lived in an anchor hold attached to the Church of St. Julian in Norwich.

Julian’s name is taken from this church; no one knows her given name but she is often called Lady or Dame (further evidence of widowhood). She lived and prayed in one or two rooms attached to the church. One window opened into the church so she could participate in services. The other window opened onto the street, letting her listen to stories of the poor and suffering to whom she gave solace and spiritual counsel. We know that she spent the last half of her life, probably fifty years, in this place.

All but the foundations of this anchorage were destroyed during the time of the Dissolution of Monasteries under Henry VIII, but the building now restored has become a place of pilgrimage. The church and the attached rooms are located on a busy thoroughfare just up from the harbor in a bustling city which was one of the chief ports of England during the Middle Ages.

It was here that Julian wrote her one and great book, Showings. In her writings we see her as an outstanding theologian, moving from experience to theology. We can come to know her intimately as a person because of her incredible story of God’s revelation of love. Whether because of or in spite of the misery of her time, her theology is tremendously optimistic!

Her spirituality and theology is in essence revealed through her understandings:

that God delights in her;

that God created all as infinitely good and loves even the smallest thing;

that the Lord is the ground of her beseeching (praying) and therefore

that prayer is the only true stance before a loving and merciful God;

that God is our Mother;

that love is the meaning of life in spite of, even because of, sin;

that “all shall be well” because God loves us and all creation.

Think, with wonder and prayer, about each of these tremendous realizations. Which one says the most to you? Which one or two of them has most closely touched your life and spirituality? Which other one would you most like to live by? Pray to know Julian’s meaning.

Julian lived in world which produced extreme forms of piety with bodily penances and concentration upon morbid details imagined about Jesus’ death. It is at this time and in this environment that she elaborated a guide for spiritual living that is optimistic and appreciative of material creation. In her years of reflection on her “visions of understanding” she developed a spirituality/theology which emphasizes God’s love for and appreciation of the essential goodness of the human person and natural creation.

Julian recognized and enjoyed the delight which creator and creature are meant to take in each other. Her optimism influences the way she speaks of the relationship between God and the human person and God and material creation. Her view of these gives her an understanding of sin and sinfulness.

In the 13th “Showing” God says to Julian: “Behold and see, for by the same power, wisdom and goodness that I have done all this, by the same power, wisdom and goodness I shall make all things well which are not well, and you will see it” (176).

For a confident, optimistic spirit like Julian, sin was truly a puzzle. Naturally there was tension between her perception of a loving God and the fact of sin in the world and in herself, for she was aware of own sinfulness.

“I will make all things well which are not well and you shall see it” (176) became the motif of her theology and the key phrase popularly associated with her. Because Julian’s was a life of prayer and compassion, she knew “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things will be well.”

The most extensive discussion of this can be found in the 13th “Showing” when Julian asks why, through the great wisdom of God, “the beginning of sin was not prevented” for then “all would have been well” (224). Christ’s answer is that “sin is necessary” BUT“all shall be well.”

She learns that this is because sin is actually “no thing.” Having already been shown God’s love and goodness and delight in all creatures, Julian does not “see” sin so realizes that sin has “no kind of substance, no share in being, nor can it be recognized” except by the pain it causes (225).

This pain, Julian learns, “purges and makes us know ourselves and ask for mercy…. Because of the tender love which our good Lord has for all who will be saved, he comforts readily and sweetly meaning this: It is true that sin is the cause of all this pain, but all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well” (225). Julian is overwhelmed by Christ’s compassion for us BECAUSE of sin.

Creation-centered theology has no room for original sin, and this is really Julian’s stance. She is aware that her optimism might not set well with her contemporaries or that some might question her orthodoxy–although none did. She attempts to anticipate certain objections by admonishing her readers to refrain from delving too deeply into the mysteries of faith. When she tries to reconcile her understanding of the goodness of God with the medieval Church’s traditional understanding of sin and punishment, she seems unable to do other than state her conviction in the reality of God’s goodness. She takes refuge in the mysteries of God which are beyond explanation.

In trying to understand the paradox between love and sin, Julian realizes that becoming too sorrowful about sin means that we fail to “recognize God’s exalted, wonderful wisdom, or the power and goodness of the blessed Trinity” (232). Christ tells her to accept this truth in faith and trust, and in the end she “will see, truly, in fulness of joy” (232).

Julian’s message reflects the essence of Christian hope and optimism; that God wants us to be at peace in our soul and at peace in love, disregarding every disturbance which could hinder our true rejoicing in God. If the troubled 14th century needed this message, the troubled 21st century needs it as well. It is Julian’s view of Creation that accounts for her “all shall be well” theology.

Like her contemporary, Catherine of Siena, with her assertion that all the way to heaven is heaven, Julian views earth not merely as a proving ground nor “waiting room” for heaven, but rather as on-going experience. She suggests that what we do here in terms of knowing and loving prepares us to enjoy the fullest experience of God’s presence. Therefore, with great consistency she uses material and sensual joys like feasting, family relationships, friendship, laughter, and melody as metaphors for heavenly fulfillment.

As one who probably lost part or all of her family to the Black Death, Julian uses the analogy of family relationships in her view of God. Her insistence on the motherhood of God sets her apart from most writers on prayer written before or since her time.

She came to understand through the 14th “Showing” that “our soul is created to be God’s dwelling place, and the dwelling of our soul is God.” She continues in an amazing vein: “And I saw no difference between God and our substance, but, as it were all God; … God is God, and our substance is a creature in God.” This realization leads her to a further insight: “For the almighty truth of the Trinity is our Father, for he made us and keeps us in him. And the deep wisdom of the Trinity is our Mother, in whom we are enclosed. And the high goodness of the Trinity is our Lord, and in him we are enclosed and he in us” (285). We are “enclosed” in God as a child is enclosed in its mother. We are enclosed in the truth, wisdom, and goodness that is God.

In this 14th “Showing” Julian discourses at length on the theme of Jesus as our Mother, a theme which she develops imaginatively rather than logically in many chapters of her book (chapters 52-64).

She points out that Jesus is our Mother in our first creation because he gives us being and also our Mother in the second creation (redemption) in that he not only gives us newer, superior life but that he also nourishes that new life from his own body, the Eucharist.

The Motherhood of God, for Julian, is inclusive rather than exclusive of all other titles: “I contemplated the work of all the blessed Trinity, in which contemplation I saw and understood these properties: the property of the fatherhood, the property of the motherhood, and the property of the Lordship in one God” (293).

She says that “God all-wisdom is our loving Mother” (293). In the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament Sophia is personified as the female wisdom figure who co-exists with the Creator. And the New Testament sees in Christ the wisdom of God incarnate. Julian clarifies the idea of Christ’s divine motherhood by referring to the wisdom theme: “I am he, the wisdom and the lovingness of motherhood” (296).

Jesus, according to Julian’s insights, is a wise mother who watches carefully over us by kindling our understanding. She describes Jesus with many maternal phrases: “our precious Mother Jesus,”“our precious Mother Christ,” “our courteous Mother,” “our tender Mother Jesus,”“our loving Mother,” and, the most frequent, “our true Mother.”

“This fair lovely word ‘mother’ is so sweet and so kind in itself that it cannot truly be said of anyone or to anyone except of him and to him who is the true Mother of life and of all things. To the property of motherhood belong nature, love, wisdom and knowledge, and this is God”(298-99). From words such as these we can surmise that Julian must have had and/or have been a wonderful mother!

Julian came out of a tradition before her that recognized God as mother. As a lay woman in the 14th century, a time when the laity did not read the Bible, Julian she did not cite sources but scholars have found key quotations to support the image of God as mother, as, for instance in Isaiah 49:15: “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you.” Or in the New Testament: “How often have I wanted to gather your children together as a mother bird collects her young under her wings…” (Luke 13:34).

No wonder Julian’s message to us is about love. We need her today to remind us that, no matter what the sin or evil, all will eventually “be well” if we trust in God’s love for all creation. God, our mother, loves us intimately and infinitely!

As you conclude your retreat with Blessed Julian, try to enter into her joyous, loving surrender to God. Reread slowly and reflectively her words (as found in italics throughout this retreat). Someday you may want to pray over the book, Showings (The Classics of Western Spirituality, Paulist Press, 1978).

Click to go to the next Women of Prayer and Justice retreat:
Hildegard of Bingen

Session 1: Dorothy Day
Session 2: Therese of Lisieux
Session 3: Teresa of Avila
Session 4: St. Catherine of Siena
Session 5: Blessed Julian of Norwich
Session 6: St. Hildegard of Bingen