Julian of Norwich
Life Through Julian’s Eyes
Julian, in common with other mystics of many faith paths, intuitively understood things about the universe that only now, in our time, have been confirmed by physicists. The interconnectedness of all of life, the unseen web that holds all in its delicate threads, the reality that we live in a universe where all is woven together in love: these are some of the knowings that infuse Julian’s teachings.
I know well that heaven and earth and all creation are great, generous and beautiful and good….he who created it created everything for love, and by the same love it is preserved, and always will be without end.
…God is everything which is good, as I see, and the goodness which everything has is God.
(Showings Eighth Chapter, Colledge & Walsh Paulist Press New York, Toronto, 1978)
When you, members of our Communion of Creative Fire, sent your reflections inspired by Julian, I saw that for each of you, the beauty of the earth and all that lives upon and within it, were diaphanous, revealing love, igniting the fire of joy.
Life took me to the barn this last month to nurse a hurt and sick ewe. Beautiful Daisy had gotten tangled in the electric fence netting. They were hard days - and still in the hardness there was a powerful sweetness in them as she allowed me to tend to her. I had many hours in the soft embrace of those sweet brown eyes. Normally our sheep are much more independent and only allow fleeting appreciation. But in this time she allowed me to stay with her, to give her water, and caress her face and under her neck. She is an-easy going, good natured and beautiful animal.
The metaphor of the netting (in which we get caught at some level at some time) and the suffering - and when and how to let go - (or call it an end) were all present to me even as I moved through it.
Then one morning Daisy turned her head from me - she wanted to face the wall. My will was to keep her with us - but as I listened it was not her will.
The path of love was to let her go. Let her go into the sweet embrace of the fabric of love from which she came.
Mary Ellen writes:
Here are some of my reflections which have been with me since my retreat mid-August. I am called to the words of Julian: "He works constantly to bring us to endless peace". And also to the words: "God wishes to be seen, and he wishes us to be sought, and he wishes to be expected, and he wishes to be trusted".
I have known all my life that the peace I so need and long for can be found only in God, and when I taste some of this peace, it is the most delicious and life-giving food. With God's loving presence and reassurance, I find my deepest self, and rest in God's Love.
And I am lifted in hope and gratitude with the second quote. I entered my recent retreat with those words of promise, and felt confident that God would reveal God's self to me in wondrous ways if I quietly sought and expected to see God. I felt strongly drawn into loving union with God, where I also experienced a oneness with all.
I prayed with modern-day mystics in the experience that all of creation is being lured towards a union with God in Love. In our suffering world, that trust brings healing.
And in my confidence that I would "see" God, my heart leapt when a scarlet cardinal who, until then, I had only heard, flew into my little garden and sat quietly for some moments on a branch across from me where we could gaze upon each other. "Yes,” said God, “I wish you to see me clearly."
On my last day, in my looking across a swampy pond in hopes of seeing a heron, my heart leapt again as the sudden movement of broad wings lifted a great heron from the water into the air, vibrant in strength and beauty. "Never doubt,” said God, “that I will respond to your longing". And peace fills my soul. It is a gift to share these reflections with the Women of the Communion.
Suzanne writes, and sends us a drawing:
Looking out from my window to the Gulf of Mexico, like Julian, I refresh and renew from the living springs of water. The manifestation of the love that she speaks of, is for me, rooted in nature and continues to amaze and bless me as I know it blesses all of you.
What I had to ponder repeatedly was Julian’s words: "God wishes to be seen, and he wishes to be sought, and he wishes to be expected, and he wishes to be trusted" Julian's creation-centered theology fed me abundantly.
I had that very experience in Providence Bay, Manitoulin Island… sitting on the deck where Monarch Butterflies were dancing in front of me, hearing an unidentifiable bird song and another bird friend answering.
Viewing the perennial flowers that were the same kind that my Mother had in her garden, hearing the sound of the powerful waves from the deck, and then from a couple of cottages over someone playing the accordion which brought back many beautiful healing memories of my Father entertaining us with his accordion, I felt in a warm unified field that held everything together with joy and goodness. My heavy grief of my parents’ passing was finally lifted.
I have to remember that God wishes to be sought, wishes to be seen, wishes to be expected...and I have to be awake to see this every day. I have to be still to come to new consciousness.
As a spiritual seeker I tasted stillness and experienced the benefits of stillness of the soul. The sacrament of the moment! In the silence I have learned to find my voice, reclaim my body, move without fear and reconnect with the Divine in Creation and to recognize it within the people around me. I can now embrace an all loving God, embrace Christ as Mother. Know sin as part of the learning process.
Julian is an anchor for me as I learn to honor the sacred feminine, reconnect with the powerful aspects of feminine wisdom that have been lost but are rebirthing.
I love and I appreciate Julian for her attitude of optimism in spite of the turmoil around her. She is a guide who helps me be open to the future and walk through the adventure with "optimism". In this process, or shall I say adventure, I am more open to the future since: “All Shall Be Well.”
Our time with Julian’s words, written for our guidance and comfort, is drawing to a close. Today I wondered what Julian herself would most want us to remember from her many teachings. Asking for her guidance, I combed through her Revelations of Divine Love seeking passages that seemed most important to our lives and to our call in the Communion of Creative Fire to weave a spirituality for our times.
(All of the selections are from the Long Text of Julian’s Revelations in Showings, Colledge & Walsh translation, Paulist Press, New York, Toronto, 1978.)
The first passage is stunning in its intimacy and tenderness:
I saw that (Jesus) is to us everything which is good and comforting for our help. He is our clothing who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces us and shelters us, surrounds us for his love, which is so tender that he may never desert us. And so in this sight I saw that he is everything which is good, as I understand. (Fifth Chapter)
The second continues the theme of intimate nearness, inviting us to respond in like manner:
For as the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the trunk, so are we, soul and body, clad and enclosed in the goodness of God. Yes, and more closely, for all these vanish and waste away; the goodness of God is always complete, and closer to us beyond any comparison.
For truly our lover desires the soul to adhere to him with all its power, and us always to adhere to his goodness. For of all the things that the heart can think, this pleases God most and soonest profits the soul. For it is so preciously loved by him who is highest that this surpasses the knowledge of all created beings.
... there is no created being who can know how much and how sweetly and how tenderly the Creator loves us. And therefore we can with his grace and his help persevere in spiritual contemplation, with endless wonder at this high, surpassing, immeasurable love which our Lord in his goodness has for us; and therefore we may with reverence ask from our lover all that we will, for our natural will is to have God, and God’s good will is to have us, and we can never stop willing or loving until we possess him in the fullness of joy. (Sixth Chapter)
In the third selection, Julian assures us that God is never angry and yearns that we would know the same peace:
…this was revealed, that our life is all founded and rooted in love, and without love we cannot live. And therefore to the soul which by God’s special grace sees so much of his great and wonderful goodness that we are endlessly united to him in love, it is the most impossible thing which could be that God might be angry, for anger and friendship are two contraries; for he dispels and destroys our wrath and makes us meek and mild--- we must necessarily believe that he is always one in love, meek and mild…
So I saw that God is our true peace; and he is our safe protector when we ourselves are in disquiet; and he constantly works to bring us into endless peace. And so when by the operation of mercy and grace we are made meek and mild, then we are wholly safe. Suddenly the soul is united to God, when she is truly pacified in herself, for in him is found no wrath. (Forty-Ninth Chapter)
In this fourth passage Julian reveals an astounding departure from the theology that would see our body and soul as separate, divided, opposing aspects of our being. Julian sees us as whole with God dwelling in our bodies:
And when our soul is breathed into our body, at which time we are made sensual, at once mercy and grace begin to work, having care of us and protecting us with pity and love, in which operation the Holy Spirit forms in our faith the hope that we shall return to our substance, into the power of Christ, increased and fulfilled through the Holy Spirit. So I understood that our sensuality is founded in nature, in mercy and in grace, and this foundation enables us to receive gifts which lead us to endless life.
For I saw very surely that our substance is in God, and I also saw that God is in our sensuality, for in the same instant and place in which our soul is made sensual, in that same instant and place exists the city of God, ordained for him without beginning. He comes into this city and will never depart from it, for God is never out of the soul, in which he will dwell blessedly without end. (Fifty-Fifth Chapter)
In this fifth passage, Julian summarizes her reflection on Jesus' love for us being like that of a mother for he bears us within himself and nourishes us with his own substance:
As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother...(Fifty-Ninth Chapter)
The sixth choice is a promise of protection in the stresses and danger of life, with a call to trust:
He did not say: You will not be troubled, you will not be belaboured, you will not be disquieted; but he said: You will not be overcome. God wants us to pay attention to these words, and always to be strong in faithful trust, in well-being and in woe, for he loves us and delights in us, and so he wishes us to love him and delight in him, and trust greatly in him, and all will be well. (Sixty-Eighth Chapter)
James Janda ends his play by having Julian speak directly to the audience these words of blessing and promise. They are words to take into our hearts as we end our months of Reflections on Julian’s writings:
I pray God grant you
All your good wishes,
desires and dreams---
it is all in the choosing,
It is all in the asking.
“I don't think Julian is for the young.” Father Robert Llewelyn, former chaplain to the Julian Shrine in Norwich, spoke with some hesitation in his voice, uncertainty in his gaze. “The young need discipline, structure, rules…. Julian is too …” I cannot recall the exact word he used… was it indulgent? non-judgemental? easy-going? But on that day in 1999, as I sat with him over tea and the remains of his ninetieth birthday cake, I thought I understood.
Revelations of Divine Love, Julian's recording of what she learned from Jesus in her one night of visions, is enhanced by a further twenty years of reflection on those teachings. What was she doing in those twenty years? Colledge and Walsh in their introduction to her Showings suggest that Julian was struggling to harmonize within herself two things in apparent oppositon: the loving teachings revealed to her in her visions and the harsher Church teachings about sin and punishment in which she had been raised.
Here are her words:
Good Lord, I see in you that you are very truth, and I know truly that we sin grievously all day and are very blameworthy; and I can neither reject my knowledge of this truth, nor see that any kind of blame is shown to us. How can this be? For I know by the ordinary teaching of Holy Church and by my own feeling that the blame of our sins continually hangs upon us, from the first man until the time that we come up into heaven.
This, then, was my astonishment, that I saw our Lord God showing no more blame to us than if we were as pure and as holy as the angels are in heaven. And between these two oppositions my reason was greatly afflicted by my blindness, and I could have no rest for fear that his blessed presence would pass from my sight, and I should be left in ignorance of how he may look on us in our sin. For either I ought to see in God that sin was all done away with, or else I ought to see in God how he sees it, by which I might truly know how it is fitting for me to see sin and the way in which we have blame.
….Ah, Lord Jesus, king of bliss, how shall I be comforted, who will tell me and teach me what I need to know, if I cannot at this time see it in you? ( Showings Colledge and Walsh Chapter Fifty)
Julian’s prayer was answered in a story that unfolded in clear images of a lord and his servant.
The lord sits in state, in rest and in peace. The servant stands before his lord, respectfully, ready to do his lord’s will. The lord looks on his servant very lovingly and sweetly and mildly. He sends him to a certain place to do his will.
Not only does the servant go, but he dashes off and runs at great speed, loving to do his lord’s will. And soon he falls into a dell and is greatly injured: and then he groans and moans and tosses about and writhes, but he cannot rise or help himself in any way.
And of all this, the greatest hurt which I saw him in was lack of consolation, for he could not turn his face to look on his loving lord, who was very close to him, in whom is all consolation; but like a man who was for the time extremely feeble and foolish, he paid heed to his feelings and his continuing distress…
Julian describes the servant’s suffering in great detail, then writes:
I was amazed that this servant could so meekly suffer all this woe; and I looked carefully to know if I could detect any fault in him, or if the lord would impute to him any kind of blame; and truly none was seen, for the only cause of his falling was his good will and his great desire….
And all this time his loving lord looks on him most tenderly….
Then the courteous lord said this: See my beloved servant, what harm and injuries he has had and accepted in my service for my love, yes, and for his good will. Is it not reasonable that l should reward him for his fright and his fear, his hurt and his injuries and all his woe?....
And in this an inward spiritual revelation of the lord’s meaning descended into my soul, in which I saw that this must necessarily be the case, that his great goodness and his own honour require that his beloved servant, whom he loved so much, should be highly and blessedly rewarded forever, above what he would have been if he had not fallen, yes, and so much that his falling and all the woe that he received from it will be turned into high surpassing honour and endless bliss. (Showings C&W Chapter Fifty-One)
Julian writes at length about this parable, unpeeling layers of meaning over the two decades of her reflections. She comes to see that this story is at the heart of what was revealed to her:
…in this marvellous example I have teaching within me, as it were the beginning of an ABC, whereby I may have some understanding of our Lord’s meaning, for the mysteries of the revelation are hidden in it…(Showings C&W Chapter Fifty-One)
And as we have already seen, when Julian sums her Lord’s meaning, she writes:
I was taught that love is our Lord’s meaning. (ShowingsC&W Chapter Eight-Six)
Drawing on these themes from her writings, playwright James Janda has Julian say:
Grounded in God where only mercy and truth can grow
neither wrath nor anger root here nor blame to us who slowly grow
in a medley of weal and woe in him who is ever meek ever mild who
wakes us from desperate sleeps with the touch of a child
he our bloodroot flower. (from Julian by James Janda)
So what do you think? Is Julian too soft for the young?
How might our lives be different if we as young children had known ourselves to be grounded in a God in whom only mercy and truth can grow, never wrath, nor anger, nor blame ?
“How should anything be amysse?”
The winter had been long, dark, frigid, lifeless. As I drove to the Galilee Retreat Centre on that morning in late February, 2002, the fog that veiled the frozen Ottawa River on my left and the road ahead slowly lifted, revealing trees on either side in their winter nakedness. Suddenly I was aware of beauty: each delicate twig was encased in ice, a crystal carapace that caught the rays of the morning sun, sparkling like cut glass, throwing joy through the air, across the soft roseate sky. Inside, I felt a surge of joy as my inner winter melted, as new, previously unimagined possibilities for travel, for poetry, for a fuller life danced within me.
I reached Galilee in a state of expectant joy. But what awaited me there was word of the overnight death of our beloved co-worker, Wendy McNamara. Her husband and two young adult sons, all of us who loved her, had walked the journey with her for over two years of cancer treatment, certain she would recover. She must get well. Any other outcome was unthinkable.
But the unthinkable is what happened.
Wendy had called her husband the previous morning from the hospital where she was having routine tests. She was crying, upset, so unlike our brave Wendy!
“The coffee here is awful!” she told Mike. “Come, and bring me some Tim Horton’s coffee.” So he did, and spent the day with her. That night, Wendy died.
I moved through the days that followed in a state of blank incomprehension. I felt betrayed by my own trust that she would recover. I felt, as Tennyson wrote, that “someone had blunder’d”. There was no time to grieve as I was preparing to offer the Julian play to some two hundred women in Ottawa. All my time and energy was needed to rehearse.
Moving through the familiar lines of James Janda’s script, I was stopped short by the words Jesus spoke to Julian:
I lead all to the end I ordained it to be from without beginning, by the same Might, Wisdom, and Love whereby I made it. How should anything be amiss?
Suddenly, I got it! This was not an error, not a blunder, but part of the guiding love that began with Wendy’s conception, and led to her death. The grief, the loss would not be assuaged by this, but the sense of betrayal was obliterated.
James Janda told me that the quotations he used from Julian’s writing in his script came from a 1927 edition ofRevelations of Divine Love by Dom Roger Huddleston (London: Burns, Oates and Washbourne). He had found the book in the New York Public Library.
Later, as I read newer translations of Julian’s writings, I realized I had misinterpreted the work “end”. It was not, as I had thought on that February day, a reference to death (for death is not an end of our love relationships) but rather means something more like “purpose”.
Brendan Doyle in Meditations with Julian of Norwich writes the passage this way:
I lead everything
towards the purpose I ordained it to
from without beginning,
By the same Power, Wisdom and Love
By which I created it.
How could anything be amiss? (p.39)
Marion Glasscoe's deliciously almost-Middle English translation reads this way:
I lede althing to the end I ordeynd it to fro withoute beginning
be the same might, wisdam and love that I made it.
How should anything be amysse? (Chapter Eleven, p. 19)
What is so heartening in this is the assurance of guidance towards our purpose, for many of us today the Holy Grail. We set forth on countless quests, seeking teachers, guides, seminars, webinars, books, programs, asking, asking, asking always: “Why am I here? What is my purpose in life?”
Even our poets put that question to us. Mary Oliver writes:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Rilke reminds us that … all living things in nature must unfold in their particular way and become themselves at any cost and despite all opposition.
Julian teaches us that the Love that embraces us also guides us towards that purpose.
We need to find, in the midst of our searching outside ourselves, time each day for some quiet listening to the inner voice, the Beloved of our Soul. In sacred space, in stillness, we ask, “What is the purpose to which you are guiding me?”
We might in that quiet time also look, as Jean Houston teaches, at the recurring patterns, the fractals, to which our life returns in each new endeavour. Is it healing? writing? leadership? exploring new ideas? creating community? guiding youth? conflict resolution? peace-making? cross-cultural reconciliation? Our purpose may be written in our own footsteps across the sands of our lives.
For Julian, the recurring fractal was teaching. It is what led her to devote twenty years to write for us her “Revelations of Love”, finding ever fresh ways to express what had been revealed to her in her night of visions, continuing to reflect, to deepen her understanding so she could teach us to trust in love. Seated at her window, which opened out to one of the busiest streets in Norwich, she was listener and teacher to those who came to her for guidance.
In my friend Wendy, I see now a similar fractal of teaching about the Love in which we are held. Wendy had at times been invited to give the homily at St. Joseph’s Parish in Ottawa. In her last talk, she had spoken with her unique infusion of gentle courage and power: “There is NOTHING you can do that will make God love you more than you are now loved!” She said that was the one message she wanted to leave with us for always.
I shall never forget her words. I know now that she was guided to fulfill the purpose ordained for her from without beginning. I believe the joy that surged through me after her death was a parting gift.
How should anything be amysse?
What for you is the symbol that best speaks of love? a newborn child in its mother’s arms? the beauty of the earth at sunrise? a faithful friend?
For Julian, love was most exquisitely expressed by the image of Jesus on the cross, suffering for love. For many of us, this is a stumbling block. We have come, in the seven centuries since Julian’s death, to distrust anything that appears to exalt suffering, to glorify pain. The dark side of Christian history has shown us the horrors of suffering, sometimes inflicted, often counselled, in God’s name.
So in these reflections, taken from Julian’s writings, I have skipped lightly over the heart of her Revelations of Divine Love: the fact that they came to her during one night of visions in her own near-death experience. She saw, in vivid detail, the crucified Jesus, and held long intimate conversations with him.
Revisiting those passages today, I am struck by two important things. First, that it was Julian’s own desire that drew these images to her, and second, this desire as she tells us came from her longing to know the depth of the love of the Christ for her. And that is what she discovered: the passionate, tender, unshakeable love in which she is held, in which each of us is held.
Julian is amazingly honest with us, with herself, when she tells us in her book that when she asked for this share in the suffering of Jesus, she did not know what she was asking:
This revelation of Christ’s pains filled me full of pains, for I know well that he suffered only once, but it was now his will to show it to me and fill me with recollection, as I had asked before. My mother, who was standing there with the others, held up her hand in front of my face to close my eyes, for she thought that I was already dead or had that moment died; and this greatly increased my sorrow, for despite all my pains, I did not want to be hindered from seeing, because of my love for him….in all this time that Christ was present to me, I felt no pain except for Christ’s pains; and then it came to me that I had little known what pain it was that I had asked for, for it seemed to me that my pains exceeded any mortal death….how could I suffer greater pain than to see him who is all my life, all my bliss and all my joy suffer? Here I felt truly that I loved Christ so much more than myself that I thought it would have been a great comfort to me if my body had died.
In this I saw part of the compassion of our Lady, St. Mary, for Christ and she were so united in love that the greatness of her love was the cause of the greatness of her pain.
Then there came a suggestion, seemingly friendly, to my reason. It was said to me: Look up to heaven to his Father…..I answered and said: “No I cannot, for you are my heaven.”
Thus I chose Jesus for my heaven, whom I saw only in pain at that time. No other heaven was pleasing to me than Jesus, who will be my bliss when I am there; and this has always been a comfort to me, that I chose Jesus as my heaven in all times of suffering and of sorrow. And that has taught me that I should always do so, and choose only him to be my heaven in well-being and in woe.
( Julian of Norwich Showings ( short text) Chapter Ten pp 142-3 in Colledge and Walsh ed. Paulist Press New York/Toronto 1978)
So Julian received her heart’s desire. But then the revelations took her beyond pain. Seeing that evil was defeated, she tells us,I laughed greatly, and that made those around me to laugh as well; and their laughter was pleasing to me. I thought that I wished that all my fellow Christians had seen what I saw. Then they would all have laughed with me. (Showings long text Colledge and Walsh Chapter Thirteen pp 201-2)
In the longer text, as she reflects further on her own experience of pain and joy, Julian reveals what she has learned. Any doubts we might have had about her being drawn to suffering for its own sake are quelled in this passage:
For it is God’s will that we do all in our power to preserve our consolation, for bliss lasts forevermore, and pain is passing, and will be reduced to nothing for those who will be saved (for Julian, this will be everyone as she understands her Lord’s “hints”…) Therefore it is not God’s will that when we feel pain we should pursue it in sorrow and mourning for it. But that suddenly we should pass it over, and preserve ourselves in the endless delight which is God.
(Showings long text Colledge and Walsh Chapter Fifteen p. 205)
In a later passage, Julian tells us that the delight and bliss is not only on our part:
And for my greater understanding, these blessed words were said: “See how I love you”, as if he had said, behold and see how I loved you so much, before I died for you, that I wanted to die for you. And now I have died for you, and willingly suffered what I could. And now all my bitter pain and my hard labour is turned into everlasting joy and bliss for me and for you. How could it now be that you would pray to me for anything pleasing to me which I would not very gladly grant to you? For my delight is in your holiness and in your endless joy and bliss in me.
Julian ends this revelation with the words:
This is the understanding, as simply as I can say it, of these blessed words: “See how I loved you.” Our Lord revealed this to make us glad and joyful.
(Showings long text Colledge and Walsh Chapter Twenty-Four p. 221)
On this quiet Sunday afternoon as rain washes the earth, as sun dries it, only to have rain again drench grass, pine needles, trees and whatever small creature stirs, I think of Julian. She wrote of a time of prayer when in swift succession consolation was followed by desolation, then consolation, then desolation, thirty three times! “It was a marvellous mix-up!” she comments.
That memory leads me to reflect that perhaps the fact of Julian is as important as her teachings in Revelations of Divine Love. That such a woman lived on this planet, seeking as we do to know God, to understand the meaning of life, to love more deeply: that is the gift.
Julian loved us, whom she would never know. She wrote her book for us, wanting to share with us all she had learned of God that we might share her joy:
Everything that I say about me I mean to apply to all my fellow Christians, for I am taught that this is what our Lord intends in this spiritual revelation. And therefore I pray you all for God’s sake, and I counsel you for your own profit, that you disregard the wretch (!!!) to whom it was shown, and that mightily, wisely, and meekly you contemplate upon God, who out of his courteous love and his endless goodness was willing to show it generally to the comfort of us all. For it is God’s will that you accept it with great joy and delight, as Jesus has shown it to you.
(Showings Longer Text Chapter Eight p. 191 transl. Colledge and Walsh Paulist Press New York, Toronto 1978)
Today I choose a few passages from Showings that speak of the way that all of life is held in love, that reveal how we especially are longed for and loved by the One whom Julian knew so intimately. The first passage begins with the now familiar image of the tiny ball (like a hazelnut) that represents all that is made:
And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: What can this be? I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God.
(Showings Longer Text Chapter Five p. 183 Colledge and Walsh)
…I know well that heaven and earth and all creation are great, generous and beautiful and good. But the reason why it seemed to my eyes so little was because I saw it in the presence of him who is the Creator. To any soul who sees the Creator of all things, all that is created seems very little…he who created it created everything for love, and by that same love it is preserved, and always will be without end…God is everything which is good, as I see, and the goodness which everything has is God. (Showings LT Chapter Eight p.190 Colledge and Walsh)
This final passage from Julian’s tenth chapter is remarkable for the expression of longing on Julian’s part and on the part of the One she seeks:
I saw him and sought him, for we are now so blind and so foolish that we can never seek God until the time when he in his goodness shows himself to us. And when by grace we see something of him, then we are moved by the same grace to seek with great desire to see him for our greater joy. So I saw him and sought him, and I had him and lacked him; and this is and should be our ordinary undertaking in this life, as I see it.
Once my understanding was let down into the bottom of the sea, and there I saw green hills and valleys, with the appearance of moss strewn with seaweed and gravel. Then I understood in this way: that if a man or woman were there under the wide waters, if s/he could see God, as God is continually with (us), s/he would be safe in soul and body, and come to no harm. And furthermore, s/he would have more consolation and strength than all this world can tell. For it is God’s will that we believe that we see him continually, though it seems to us that the sight be only partial; and through this belief he makes us always to gain more grace, for God wishes to be seen, and he wishes to be sought, and he wishes to be expected, and he wishes to be trusted.
(Showings LT Chapter Ten pp.193-4 Colledge and Walsh)
Prayer Oneth the Soul to God
In early February, over twenty years ago, I stand before an oak door, carved with a rounded top, beside the sanctuary in St. Julian’s Church in Norwich. I press my thumb down on the iron latch. When the door swings open, I enter the reconstructed anchorhold where Julian lived for the last forty years of her life.
The sense of her presence is so powerful that I have to sit down on the wooden bench beneath the mullioned window. I commune with this wise and kindly woman. Only later do I take in other aspects of the room. On the wall just inside the door, there is a small white card on which someone has printed in careful calligraphy Julian’s words: prayer oneth the soul to God.
What did Julian understand about prayer? What was revealed to her in the sacred intimacy of her night of “Showings”? Julian writes a great deal about prayer in the Longer Text of her Revelations of Divine Love. She writes for us, to us, that we might know the confidence and joy that she knew.
For many years, I found Julian’s writing difficult to read. I felt as though I were being spun around in circles. Until the invention of moveable type by Johann Gutenberg in 1450 (thirty years after Julian’s death), the compression of thought we associate with the written text was undeveloped. People wrote as they spoke, expressing an idea, repeating it, then underscoring it to be sure it was understood.
Moreover, Julian was writing at a time when the English language was just coming to birth. Her words and expressions are fresh, sometimes invented for her purposes.
I was slow to read and appreciate the full richness of her thought. In reparation, I offer Julian’s own words on prayer. From among the several different translations of Julian’s Showings, I choose Not for the Wise (Darton, Longman and Todd, London 1994), by Ritamary Bradley, Professor Emerita at St. Ambrose University in Iowa. This translation is based on Marion Glasscoe’s Middle English edition of A Revelation of Love.
Julian leads into the theme of Prayer by offering us assurance of how much we are loved:
Then I understood truly that all manner of thing is made ready for us
- by the great goodness of God
To the degree that whenever we are ourselves in peace and love
-we are, in fact, saved.
But since we may not have this in fullness while we are here
it behooves us always to live
- in sweet prayer
-in lovely longing,
with our Lord Jesus.
For he longs to bring us to fullness of joy…
God is love and teaches us to do as he does.
He wants us to be like him
-in wholeness of endless love
- for ourselves- and for our even-Christians.
Just as God’s love for us is never broken because of our sins,
In the same way God wills that our love
- for ourselves
- and for our even-Christians
Should never be broken.
This word that God said is an endless comfort:
“I keep you securely.”
(Chapter Forty: Fourteenth Showing)
After this, our Lord showed me about prayer.
In this showing I saw there are two conditions our Lord intends for it.
- one is that we pray aright;
-the other is that we have unwavering trust.
But oftentimes we do not trust completely,
for we are not sure that God hears us, as we think
- either because we are unworthy
- or because we feel absolutely nothing.
- for we are as sterile and dry oftentimes after our prayer as before.
And this, in our feeling and our folly, is the cause of our weakness.
At times I have felt this way myself.
Our Lord brought all of this (about trust) suddenly to my mind, and said:
“I am the ground of your beseeching.
- first, it is my will that you should have it;
- and since I make you to want it
- and you do ask for it,
How should it then be that you should not have what you ask?”
….where he says: “And you do ask for it”, he shows a very great pleasure,
and the endless reward he will give us for our petitioning.
And in the part where he says: “How should it then be that you should not have what you ask?” he is indicating that this is impossible.
For it is a most impossible thing that we should ask for
- mercy and grace
and not have it.
For all these things that our good Lord makes us to ask for, God has already ordained to give us from the beginning.
Glad and merry is Christ over our prayer.
He awaits it, and he wants it.
For with his grace
- he makes us like to himself
- in our hearts
-as we already are in our humanity.
This is his blessed will.
Here is what Christ says:
“Pray earnestly -though you have no taste for it, as you think.
"For it does you good
- though you do not feel that it does;
- though you see nothing;
- yes, even though you think you are powerless.
“For when you are dry and empty, sick and frail, then your prayer is most pleasing to me
-though there seems to you to be little pleasure in it.
And thus all your living is prayer in my sight.”
Thanking also belongs to prayer.
Thanking is a new, inward, knowing
Accompanied with great reverence and loving awe
- inclining us to do, with our whole strength, what the good Lord draws us towards;
- and inwardly
- to give thanks
- and to enjoy.
Sometimes, in its abundance, thanking breaks out into
words, and we say:
“Good Lord, grant us mercy. Blessed may you be!”
… (Chapter 41 Fourteenth Showing)
love was our lords mening
(from A Revelation of Love by Julian of Norwich, trans. Marion Glasscoe)
In the darkened room, the slides of the Hubble photographs radiate like jewels. There are perhaps a dozen or more, each dancing onto the large screen, then disappearing, each one stunning in its play of light on darkness, its brilliant colours, its unimagined beauty. But one image imprints itself deeply on my memory, so strongly that now, years later, I recall it vividly. It is a segment of sky somewhere in the universe where the black darkness is pierced with uncountable rose-pink lights.
“This photo shows an expanse of some trillions of miles in space,” the speaker tells us. “Look at the rosy colour that fills the darkness. This is the LOVE that fills the Universe.”
Julian of Norwich would never have seen a photograph, could not have imagined deep space or the wonders that the Hubble telescope offers us for our enchantment. Yet she too knew from her mystical experience that it is love that pervades the universe. She knew this absolutely. She trusted it despite her own experience, and that of her countrywomen and men in Fourteenth Century England, of intense suffering in a time of plague, endless war, religious persecution.
Julian does not give us this news of the centrality of love lightly, as one might share a passing feeling, a response to a moment of spiritual bliss. This is Julian’s carefully considered understanding of what she learned from her dialogues with Jesus, the Presence of Love in her life. She tells us clearly that it took fifteen years of reflection for her to finally know that love is at the centre of all that has been revealed to her, that love is her lords mening.
As Julian writes the final Chapter of her book, she seeks to summarize for us all that she understands from her visions, from two decades spent reflecting on them. She asks (as each one of us does when we look at our life): “What does it all mean?”
Here are the closing words in the Colledge and Walsh translation (Paulist Press 1978) of her Showings:
This book is begun by God’s gift and his grace, but it is not yet performed, as I see it. For charity, let us all join with God’s working in prayer, thanking, trusting, rejoicing, for so will our good Lord be entreated, by the understanding which I took in all his own intention, and in the sweet words where he says most happily: "I am the foundation of your beseeching."
For truly I saw and understood in our Lord’s meaning that he revealed it because he wants to have it better known than it is. In which knowledge he wants to give us grace to love him and to cleave to him, for he beholds his heavenly treasure with so great love on earth that he will give us more light and solace in heavenly joy, by drawing our hearts from the sorrow and the darkness which we are in.
And from the time that it was revealed, I desired many times to know in what was our Lord’s meaning. And fifteen years after and more, I was answered in spiritual understanding, and it was said: "What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same. But you will never know different, without end."
So I was taught that love is our Lord’s meaning. And I saw very certainly in this and in everything that before God made us he loved us, which love was never abated and never will be. And in this love he has done all his works, and in this love he 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 he created us was in him from without beginning. In this love we have our beginning, and all this shall we see in God without end. (Showings Chapter 86)
In Anne Baring’s magnificent book, The Dream of the Cosmos :A Quest for the Soul ( Archive Publishing, Dorset, England 2013) there is an account of a mystical experience. It gently weaves together Julian’s awareness of love at the heart of the universe with our present day visual awareness of a universe birthed and bathed in love. Baring offers Richard Bucke’s account of returning from a poetry reading and discussion with two friends on a night in 1872:
My mind, deeply under the influence of the ideas, images, and emotions called up by the reading and talk, was calm and peaceful. I was in a state of quiet, almost passive enjoyment, not actually thinking, but letting ideas, images, and emotions flow of themselves, as it were, through my mind. All at once, without warning of any kind, I found myself wrapped in a flame-coloured cloud. For an instant I thought of fire, an immense conflagration somewhere close by in that great city; the next I knew that the fire was within myself. Directly afterward there came upon me a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination impossible to describe.
Among other things, I did not merely come to believe, but I saw that the universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary, a living Presence; I became conscious in myself of eternal life. It was not a conviction that I would have eternal life, but a consciousness that I possessed eternal life then; I saw that all men are immortal; that the cosmic order is such that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all; that the foundation principle of the world, of all the worlds, is what we call love, and that the happiness of each and all is in the long run absolutely certain. ( in Baring, p. 443)
This experience, recorded six centuries after Julian wrote her Showings, echoes two of her great mystic teachings: “love is his meaning” and “all manner of thing shall be well.”
Al shal be wele, and al shal be wele,
And all manner of thyng shal be wele.
These words of Julian of Norwich, (here in Marion Glasscoe’s translation), echo in us with the familiarity of a loved song. We speak them to others, we say them to ourselves, words of comfort in times of fear or loss, anxiety or sadness. But what is their meaning, what is the context in which Julian heard them?
The words appear in the thirteenth revelation or “showing” that Julian received during her night of visions after a near-death experience. Julian became an anchoress and recorded her showings soon afterwards in what we know as the “Shorter Text”. She would spend the next twenty years in meditation and prayer, reflecting on what she experienced in that single night, writing the "Longer Text”.
Julian writes of being troubled by the suffering she sees and experiences. To her mind, the suffering is caused by sin, and this leads her to question why God allowed sin to happen when it might have been prevented, allowing us to live as Jesus lived.
Julian is not the first nor the only one to ponder these questions. The why of suffering haunts us today in the 21st century. What has changed since Julian’s time is our perception of God.
The horrors of the twentieth Century, especially the Holocaust, have led to a reconception of God, whom we see no longer as an all-powerful being, one that can prevent the pain caused by human choice, by our blindness, our fear, our inability to love as we wish to love. Instead we sense God as a Presence of Love that is vulnerable, that feels our pain, that will never let us go, never give up on us.
Etty Hillesum expressed this best, writing in Auschwitz shortly before her death in 1943:
I shall try to help you, God, to stop my strength ebbing away, though I cannot vouch for it in advance. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that you cannot help us, that we must help you to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days, also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of you, God, in ourselves. And in others as well. Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much you yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold you responsible. You cannot help us but we must help you and defend your dwelling place inside us to the end.
Like Etty, Julian entered into a reflective dialogue pondering God’s role in allowing suffering and sin. What I find alluring is Julian’s freedom as she explores these questions. She is confident in the love she experiences from God. She does not view sin (a word that for her embraces whatever causes suffering), either her own sin or that of others, with shame or fear or guilt.
Here is Julian’s reflection on her thirteenth revelation from the Longer Text:
“…Our Lord brought to my mind the longing that I had for him…and I saw that nothing hindered me but sin, and I saw that this is true of us all in general, and it seemed to me that if there had been no sin, we should all have been pure and as like our Lord as created us. And so in my folly before this time I often wondered why, through the great prescient wisdom of God, the beginning of sin was not prevented. For then it seemed to me that all should have been well.
“The impulse to think this was greatly to be shunned; and nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed on this account, unreasonably, lacking discretion. But Jesus, who in this vision informed me about everything needful to me, answered with these words and said: Sin is necessary, but all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.
"In this naked word 'sin', our Lord brought generally to my mind all which is not good, and the shameful contempt and the direst tribulation which he endured for us in this life, and his death and all his pains, and the passions, spiritual and bodily of all his creatures. For we are all in part troubled, and we shall be troubled, following our master Jesus until we are fully purged of our mortal flesh and all our inward affections which are not very good.
"And with the beholding of this, with all the pains that ever were or ever will be, I understood Christ's Passion for the greatest and surpassing pain. And yet this was shown to me in an instant and quickly turned into consolation. For our good Lord would not have the soul frightened by this ugly sight. But I did not see sin, for I believe that it has no kind of substance, no share in being, nor can it be recognized except by the pain caused by it. And it seems to me that this pain is something for a time, for it purges and makes us know ourselves and ask for mercy; for the Passion of our Lord is comfort to us against all this, and that is his blessed will. And because of the tender love which our good Lord has for all who will be saved, he comforts us 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.
“These words were revealed most tenderly, showing no kind of blame to me or to anyone who will be saved. So it would be most unkind of me to blame God or marvel at him on account of my sins, since he does not blame me for sin.
“And in these same words I saw hidden in God an exalted and wonderful mystery, which he will make plain and we shall know in heaven. In this knowledge we shall truly see the cause why he allowed sin to come, and in this sight we shall rejoice forever.”
from Julian of Norwich Showings: The Thirteenth Revelation (longer text) pp.224-226 Colledge and Walsh Paulist Press, New York, Toronto, 1978
Julian’s words of guidance in her book Revelations of Divine Love (also called Showings) were written out of love for us, whom she considered her “even Christians”, or “kindred spirits”. Five of these words lept out at me on a February day in 1992 when, entering the reconstructed anchorhold in the tiny Church of St. Julian in Norwich, I saw incised in a marble slab: Thou art enough to me.
Looking back to that moment now, I wonder that I did not immediately turn around and exit by the door through which I had just entered. Those five words struck me to the heart, challenging me to make a complete turn-around in my life, to let go of what I had until that moment considered necessary. I had left a place, a ministry and a friendship that had been the threefold source of my life’s happiness. Now I faced a future without all three. There was no way that I could accept that Julian’s unseen “Thou” could be enough.
I see now that I understood almost nothing of the One Julian addressed as “Thou” and even less of the meaning of “enough”. But later, as I prepared to offer Julian’s words to others through James Janda’s play, I found the context for those words:
For this is the loving yearning of the soul through the touch of the Holy Spirit, from the understanding which I have in this revelation: “God, of your goodness give me yourself,for you are enough for me, and I can ask for nothing which is less which can give you full worship. And if I ask anything which is less, always I am in want; but only in you do I have everything.”
(Colledge and Walsh, Chpt. 5, p. 184)
Look now at the same words in a different translation. Marion Glasscoe’s Julian of Norwich: A Revelation of Love is my personal favourite among the dozens of newer renderings of Julian’s “Showings” because it comes closest to the Middle English of Julian’s time (making my spell-check go into orbit):
For this is the kinde yernings of the soule by the touching of the Holy Ghost, as be the understondyng that I have in this shewing: “ God, of thy goodnesse, give me thyselfe; forthou art enow to me and I may nothing aske that is less that may be full worshippe to thee. And if I aske anything that is lesse, ever me wantith, but only in thee I have all.”
(Glasscoe Chpt.5 pp.7-8)
Julian is not asking us to set aside our desires; she is not saying that to find God we must relinquish everything for which we long. Quite the opposite. Julian is saying that the deepest yearning of our souls will only be satisfied when we know the One who both made us to yearn and can alone fill that yearning. What Julian found for herself, she wants us to know: Only in you (the one to whom we entrust our longings) do I have everything, or in the Glasscoe translation: only in thee I have all.
This is a startling revelation for Julian, for each of us. As she says in Janda's play:
Some of us believe that God is Almighty
And may do all,
And that God is All-Wisdom,
And can do all,
But that God is All-Love and will do all…..
There we stop short.
The Presence of Love that we in the 21st Century are coming to know as permeating all of life in the metaverse, as well as in the depths of our own souls, our very being, may be differently imaged for us than it was for Julian.
But our experience of that all-pervading Love within our lives is very like Julian’s. However we name that Love, however we call upon it, we can know ourselves held safe in its embrace. Our deepest yearnings are for Love, for knowing our life has meaning, that we matter to that Love, that our longings are not only understood, but even prompted by that same Love.
Our task then, is to journey within those longings to find how they are drawing us into the embrace of the One who can satisfy them, who can fill us with the kind of joy that might lead us one day to say with Julian: Thou art enough to me.
In that same passage, Julian goes on to say:
And these words of the goodness of God are very dear to the soul, and very close to touching our Lord’s will, for his goodness fills all his creatures and all his blessed works full, and endlessly overflows in them. For he is everlastingness, and he made us only for himself, and restored us by his precious Passion and always preserves us in his blessed love; and all this of his goodness.
(Colledge and Walsh, Chpt. 5, p. 184)
The Glasscoe text reads this way:
And these words are full lovesome to the soule and full nere touchen the will of God and his goodness; for his goodness comprehendith all his creatures and all his blissid works and overpassith without end, for he is the endleshede. And he hath made us only to himselfe and restorid us be his blissid passion and kepith us in his blissid love. And all this is of his goodness. (Glasscoe Chpt.5 p. 8)
May we stay safely, joyfully within that "blissid love".
God showed me in my palm
A little thing round as a ball
About the size of a hazelnut.
I looked at it with the eye of my
understanding and asked myself:
“What is this thing?”
And I was answered: “It is everything that is created.”
I wondered how it would survive since
It seemed so little it could suddenly disintegrate into nothing.
The answer came: “It endures and ever will endure, because God loves it.”
And so everything has being
because of God’s love.
(from Julian of Norwich a centering book by Brendan Doyle)
What Julian saw in her imagination, what she calls “the eye of my understanding”, the astronaut Edgar Mitchell saw with his own eyes as he travelled back from the moon to the earth. He later said, “My view of our planet was a glimpse of divinity.” It altered his life and led him to found the Institute of Noetic Sciences in California.
Look now at the photo that has become the major icon in our lifetime:
(Hubble photo of our earth from the moon)
Somehow Julian of Norwich “saw” the earth in her imagination in a way that has only become possible in our own time through scientific advances. The explosion of scientific knowledge in the 20th and 21st centuries has led to a new respect for and fascination with the “knowings” of mystics of earlier times. In Awakening Universe, Emerging Personhood, Mary Conrow Coelho speaks of the relevance of mystics for us today:
The contemplative tradition certainly provokes many questions about the nature of matter, the identity of the person, the meaning of the word God. It once seemed impossible to understand and accept the contemplative’s claims, given Western assumptions about matter and God. But now this has changed. Within the new story of the evolutionary universe and the new cosmology and new physics by which it is informed, the contemplative tradition finds a central place. (p. 126)
The new cosmology has brought the mystics closer to us, showing us that we, as holograms of the universe, contain knowings that they intuited in deep prayer and meditation. Now we see a mystic like Julian in a fresh and compelling light, as an elder sister who has been where we must go: into “the deeps of ourselves” as Jean Houston writes:
We only appear to be separate from the Infinite universe. The new physics shows that get beneath this seeming separateness and there is a deeper unity, a non-local connectivity to our universe. We live in a holographic universe where all is connected with all. In fact in my years as a student of spiritual traditions and psychologies, we find in virtually every tradition, especially the mystical forms of each, that when we enter into the deeps of our selves we always find that we are connecting into the flow that sustains the entire universe and therefore have access to the wisdom and knowing and skill and transformative powers that it contains.
“The wisdom of creation is directly accessible to us in our ordinary life experience as the hum of knowing-resonance at the core of our being.” When we relax into the center of “ordinary” existence, we penetrate into the depths, and the wisdom and profound intelligence out of which the universe arises as a continuous flow is disclosed as direct experience.
(Jean Houston, in a Reflection for the birth of our Communion of Creative Fire in February 2013)
Julian, as a spelunker in those inner caves, has given us trustworthy evidence of the love at the heart of the universe. Here are further thoughts from Revelations of Divine Love, the book she wrote for us:
And Jesus is our true Mother
in whom we are endlessly carried
and out of whom
we will never come.
(from Julian of Norwich by Brendan Doyle p.99)
This tender image perplexed me when I first encountered Julian’s writings in the 1990’s. By then I had become aware that any notion of “God” needed to include both mother and father, but Julian’s reference to Jesus as “Mother” was puzzling. Over the decades since then, I have come to understand that when Julian, in her near-fatal illness, experienced a tender compassionate love, a “mothering”, she named, as the source of that love, the one with whom her life was woven: Jesus.
Mother, for Julian, is a metaphor for love. In a 20th century Jungian sense, we might understand that Julian was encountering the feminine aspect of the Risen Christ. However we read her words, there is no mistaking the passionate love Julian experiences and trusts with her life:
The mother's service is nearest, readiest, and surest: nearest because it is most natural, readiest because it is most loving, and surest because it is truest. No one ever might or could perform this office fully, except only (Jesus). (Colledge and Walsh Chpt. 60, p. 297)
Our true Mother Jesus, he alone bears us for joy and for endless life...so he carries us within him in love and travail, until the full time when he wanted to suffer the sharpest thorns and cruel pains that ever were or will be, and at the last he died. And when he had finished, and had borne us so for bliss... he did not want to cease working; therefore, he must needs nourish us....our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with himself... the mother can lay her child tenderly to her breast, but our tender Mother Jesus can lead us easily into his blessed breast through his sweet open side... (Colledge and Walsh Chpt. 60, p. 298)
Julian tells us that we are held in love, for Love assured her that:
I lead everything
toward the purpose I ordained it to
from without beginning,
By the same Power, Wisdom and Love
By which I created it.
How could anything be amiss?
(from Julian of Norwich by Brendan Doyle p.39)
On our troubled, ailing, agonized planet with our twenty-first century awareness of the sufferings and sorrows of its inhabitants, it is easy to imagine earlier centuries as alluringly quiet and peaceful. If we picture Julian’s Fourteenth Century like that, we may dismiss her optimism, her profound trust in the Love that contains us, as naïve.
But Julian’s time was far from idyllic. She lived through three outbreaks of black plague that reduced the population of England by one-half; in her time the pre-Reformation Church was in schism, with two popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon! And into the windows of her anchorhold there would have wafted the smoke of the fires burning heretics in her city of Norwich.
Julian’s original manuscript has never been found, but there are later copies in the British Library and in the Paris Bibliotheque, the earliest dating from the late fifteenth century, some fifty years after her death. Her writings were forgotten, buried in the debris of a troubled historical time, amidst the destruction of the monasteries where such manuscripts would have been preserved. It was only in the twentieth century that her writings came to be widely known.
One of the earliest references to Julian’s words is in TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, in the final passage of “Little Gidding”:
Quick now, here, now, always –
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are infolded
Into the crown of knotted fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
It was Thomas Merton who brought Julian into 20th century awareness in these impassioned words:
Julian is without doubt one of the most wonderful of all Christian voices. She gets greater and greater in my eyes as I grow older, and whereas in the old days I used to be crazy about St. John of the Cross, I would not exchange him now for Julian if you gave me the world and the Indies and all the Spanish mystics rolled up in one bundle.
(Seeds of Destruction)
Theologian Margaret Brennan says of Julian: “It takes a kind of raw faith to believe in God’s goodness and love,” in a time of societal collapse.
For people of Julian’s time, the image of the crucified Jesus was one of great comfort, for it was a mirror of their own intense sufferings, and a promise of final deliverance into bliss. Present day theologians speculate that for the people of Julian’s time, the horrors of the Black Death would have eroded any trust in the body as a safe container for the soul.
Yet Julian writes powerfully of the body as a vehicle of grace, even in its “humblest needs”:
A man walks upright, and the food in his body is shut in as if in a well-made purse. When the time of his necessity comes, the purse is opened and then shut again, in most seemly fashion. And it is God who does this, as it is shown when he says that he comes down to us in our humblest needs. For he does not despise what he has made, nor does he disdain to serve us in the simplest natural functions of our body, for love of the soul which he created in his own likeness. For as the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the trunk, so are we, soul and body, clad and enclosed in the goodness of God. Yes, and more closely, for all these vanish and waste away; the goodness of God is always complete, and closer to us, beyond any comparison.
(Colledge and Walsh, Chpt. 6, p. 186)
In a later passage, Julian reflects on how “mercy and grace” are at work within us from the very start of life:
And when our soul is breathed into our body, at which time we are made sensual, at once mercy and grace begin to work, having care of us and protecting us with pity and love, in which operation the Holy Spirit forms in our faith the hope that we shall return up above to our substance, into the power of Christ, increased and fulfilled through the Holy Spirit.
So I understood that our sensuality is founded in nature, in mercy and in grace, and this foundation enables us to receive gifts which lead us to endless life. For I saw very surely that our substance is in God, and I also saw that God is in our sensuality, for in the same instant and place in which our soul is made sensual, in that same instant and place exists the city of God, ordained for him from without beginning. He comes into this city and will never depart from it, for God is never out of the soul, in which he will dwell blessedly without end.
(Colledge and Walsh, Chpt. 55, pp. 261, 2)
In my favourite passage about the closeness of God to our body, Julian compares the Holy One’s nearness to us to our clothing:
I saw that he is to us everything which is good and comforting for our help. He is our clothing, who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces us and shelters us, surrounds us for his love, which is so tender that he may never desert us. And so in this sight I saw that he is everything which is good....
(Colledge and Walsh, Chpt 5, p. 183)
The assurance of the tender love in which we are held and clothed is expressed in a passage where Julian writes of complaints she frequently hears at her open window from people who feel their prayers are not heard:
Often our trust is not full.
We are not certain that God hears us
because we consider ourselves worthless and as nothing.
This is ridiculous and the cause of our weakness.
I have felt this way myself.
Julian then tells us what God has said to her about prayer:
“I am the ground of your prayers.
First, it is my will that you have what you desire,
Later, I cause you to want it.
Later on, I cause you to pray for it and you do so.
How then can you not have what you desire? "
(Julian of Norwich a Centering Book by Brendan Doyle pp.67-68)
Julian of Norwich One
Of the three “godmothers” of our Communion of Creative Fire, Julian of Norwich is nearest to our time in history; yet, we know less about her than we do of Hildegard or Brigid.
In the wonderful manuscript she left us, Revelations of Divine Love, Julian’s desire was to share the tender passionate love she experienced in a near-death experience, a night of visions of the Crucified Jesus. Of Julian herself we know nothing at all, not even her name. She took the name “Julian” when she became an anchoress in the Church of Saints Julian and Edward in Norwich England in the late years of the 14th century.
And yet, of the three, it is Julian I know best, by heart. For this reason, I would like to begin our three months of reflections on Julian by writing of my own encounters with this beloved woman.
On a cold wet February day in 1992, I first visited Julian’s reconstructed cell in Norwich. I was on sabbatical in England, studying writing at the University of Sussex. My writing tutor, who had come from Magdalene College at Oxford, Geoff Hemstead, was a gift of wisdom and encouragement in my fledgling work.
At his suggestion that I should learn about Julian, I searched the University’s library where I found a 1901 edition of Julian’s “Revelations”. Editor Grace Warrack wrote in her introduction: From the first we find Julian holding her diverse threads of nature, mercy and grace for the fabric of love she is weaving...
That’s Julian. In a hazelnut shell.
But at the time, I still did not know her. Geoff began to urge me to visit Norwich, and to quiet his insistence, I wrote to the Julian Centre and booked a room for that February weekend. After a two-hour train journey from London, I was walking through the streets of Norwich, map in hand, seeking the Church and Visitors’ Centre.
Along King Street, turning right at Julian’s Alley, I found the tiny, perfect flint-stone church, a 1950’s reconstruction after the original was destroyed by a World War Two bombing. A plaque was set into the outer wall: Dame Julian of Norwich, Mystic, became an anchoress living in a cell attached to the south wall of this church soon after 1373, and here she wrote, "Revelations of Divine Love".
The Church was open. I went inside, walked up the centre aisle, saw a low wooden door to the right, with a sign welcoming visitors to the reconstructed anchorhold. I pressed the iron latch with my thumb and entered, thinking I’d take a few photos and leave.
I was stopped in my tracks. There was a presence in the room that I had to acknowledge. I sat down and began to tell this kindly wise woman about the pain that had brought me to England. She heard, and responded with words that sustained me for the rest of my sabbatical and guided me home. She has been my friend ever since.
That night in the guest house, I found a small book with a one-woman play about Julian. I copied down the information, ordered the play after I returned to Canada.
In 1999, I returned to Norwich. This time, as I made my way along Julian’s Alley towards the church, my attention was caught by a notice attached to the arched front door. As I drew nearer to read, my eyes focused on something so unexpected that it sent a shock of amazement through my being. I was reading my own name. As I came closer, the whole notice was legible: it was the announcement of the four performances I had come to Norwich to offer, the one-woman play on the life and writings of Julian, written by James Janda.
The interior of the church had been adapted for the event. The altar, with its reredos (which had survived the bombing), stood just behind a built - up stage area, adding some three feet to the height of the floor, to allow the audience seated in the church pews a clearer view. Felicity Maton, secretary to the Friends of Julian, who had made the arrangements for the event, explained the plans for lighting, and together we examined the props: the bed, a trunk, the stool and writing desk.
"Excuse me for a moment," I said to Felicity. "I need to greet someone."
I walked to the arched doorway at the right of the sanctuary, pushed my thumb down on the iron latch. The door to Julian's reconstructed cell swung inwards.
Inside, all was as I had remembered it, as I had seen it in memory many times over the past years. I sat down on the bench that was built against the far wall, under the windows that in Julian's time would have opened onto the street, but now looked out to the green grass and trees of the Church yard, edged with a gigantic bush of red roses.
I let my eyes rest on the marble slab that contained an image of the crucified Jesus. It bore the words that on my first visit had transfixed me, "Thou art enough to me." This time, my eyes lighted on the other words carved into the marble, "Lo, how I loved thee."
Yes. How you loved me, I repeated silently to the One who had brought me here, who had brought me on a far longer journey from emptiness to fullness over the past years, from the state of being without a ministry or a place to live, to the eruption in my life of a ministry so full and satisfying that I could hardly take it in.
On that earlier visit I had prayed to Julian, "Please, find me a work like yours, where I can speak to others of God's love." Now, in the palpable presence of Julian's spirit, I thanked this goodly woman who had changed my life.
I returned to Felicity after a few moments with a question, "What do you suggest I do about changing into costume?"
"Why don't you dress in Mother Julian's cell and emerge from there to begin the play?"
So that is how it was, for the four performances over the two weekends. At first I had to catch myself in the midst of my lines, distracted by the thought, "It is happening here, in the very place where Julian lived".
On the night of the third performance there was a difference. The wonder had not ceased, but the lack of reality was replaced by an intense awareness that was joyous. I felt the role with every aspect of my being, and in the midst of the first act, was so conscious of elation, that I tried to touch its source. It came to me soon enough.
That afternoon I had been invited to tea in the small apartment of Father Robert Llewellyn, an Anglican priest whose name I had seen liberally sprinkled through every bibliography of works on Julian. As we shared the last pieces of his ninetieth birthday cake, Father Robert told me of his assignment in 1976, to be a presence in the Julian Cell.
"For the first month, I spoke with no one," he recalled. "I just went morning and afternoon and sat in her cell, and prayed." After a month someone approached with a question, and gradually his work of listening and directing, mostly in aspects of prayer, began to grow.
Through Father Robert's efforts, a bookstore/study room and counselling room were created in a hall belonging to the Anglican convent next door. Now this "Julian Centre" attracts scholars and pilgrims who come to read about Julian, to ask about her teachings, to purchase books and souvenirs.
At the end of our visit, Father Robert asked if we might have fifteen minutes of silent prayer together. There were people he'd promised to pray for, and he suggested that prayers be offered for the performance scheduled for that evening, that it would reach people who would need Julian's message.
The lightness and joy I felt in the midst of that evening's performance were the fruit of that silent prayer with Father Robert. After the first act, Father Robert pressed my hand to his heart. "Thank you,” he said. “You have given us a gentle Julian. You have made her homely." With a smile he added, "I know in America, that is not a good word, but it is here."
My life and my work have become intertwined with the loving trust and homely wisdom of this woman whose teaching is meant for the ordinary days of our lives. Days like my second last in England in that summer of 1999, when I stood at the airline desk, one half hour before the departure of my flight from Gatwick to Ottawa, and was told the flight was closed.
In a moment of near panic, followed by a sense of utter despair, I said, "But what am I to do? I have nowhere to go." I was met with closed faces. Then from within me rose Julian's words: "He did not say `You shall not be tempest - tossed, you shall not be discomfited.' But He said, `You shall not be overcome.'"
I believed her. I turned my luggage cart around, trying to balance the seven-foot container of the tapestry, my luggage with costume and props, my weight of new books on Julian. I stood in the middle of Gatwick Airport and cried. Then, having finished with tears, I wheeled the cart outside and found a taxi, a hotel, and the peace to accept this reversal. I was not overcome.