Julian of Norwich

February 4, 2008


The Anchoress known as Julian of Norwich was born in late 1342, and may have lived well into the fifteenth century, dying around 1412. We know very few details about her life; in fact, we do not know even know her real name. At some point in her life she became an anchoress — a vowed solitary who lived a life devoted to prayer and meditation, confined to a cell adjoining a church. In her case, Julian’s cell adjoined the church of St. Julian in Norwich, from which we get her pseudonym. Virtually nothing is known about her aside from what she writes in her remarkable book, but even there she reveals little about herself, preferring instead to talk about her “courteous” God. In her work (the first book written by a woman in English), Julian recounts an amazing series of visions she had while suffering from a life-threatening illness; as she reflects on the meaning of her visions, she reveals a profound level of mystical wisdom and insight that, over six hundred years later, remains on the cutting edge of Christian theology.

In May 1373 when Julian was “thirty and one-half years old,” she became sick enough that a priest was summoned to come and issue her last rites. While on her supposed deathbed, he held a cross before her face and instructed her to gaze upon Christ for comfort. When she did so, she realized that she saw real, flowing blood on the corpus; this was the beginning a series of vivid, profound visions or “showings” — sixteen different revelations in which Christ, Mary, heaven, even hell and “the fiend” were shown to her. Shortly after this singular mystical experience she recovered from her illness, and subsequently wrote about her experience in a book that evolved over the following two decades. It appears she wrote a short text not long after the events of May 1373, and a longer text, completed twenty years later, filled with poetic and vividly rendered reflection on the theological meaning of her showings, centered on the lavish nature of Divine love.

The Church of St. Julian, Norwich, England

Today, Julian is best known for her optimism; she is most-often quoted for saying “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” (which was Christ’s response to her when she wondered about why sin had to exist). A lesser known but equally lovely quote: “The fullness of joy is to behold God in all.” Julian is also celebrated for naming both God and Christ as “mother.” More than a cute theological ploy, she articulates a fully-formed spirituality of the motherhood of God, yet always within the parameters of an orthodox appreciation of the Christian faith. In this way, Julian anticipates (by six centuries!) the best and most creative expressions of feminist Christian theology as has emerged in our time.

One of the loveliest stories from Julian’s series of visions involves a time when she was asked to hold something little, no bigger than a hazelnut. When she asks God what this is, she is told “It is everything that is made.” She marvels that this thing could even continue to exist, so small and delicate it appears. She then comes to understand that this little thing exists — and continues to do so — because God loves it. “In this little thing, I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second is that God loves it. The third is that God keeps it.” Note the Trinitarian nature of Julian’s insight; indeed, Trinitarian imagery abounds throughout her writing.

Inside Julian’s restored cell. In her day the room would have been very simple with no altar or crucifix.

God made it, God loves it, and God keeps it. This sums up Julian’s optimistic, visionary theology — a theology where the love of God is expressed not in terms of law and duty, but in terms of joy and heartfelt compassion.

Excerpts are from the M. L. Del Mastro translation of Julian’s Revelation of Divine Love.

For further reading:

Editions of Julian’s book, translated into modern English:

Julian of Norwich, Revelation of Love, tr. John Skinner

Julian of Norwich, The Revelation of Divine Love in Sixteen Showings, tr. M.L. del Mastro

Julian of Norwich, Showing of Love, tr. Julia Bolton Holloway

Julian of Norwich, A Lesson of Love: The Revelations of Julian of Norwich, tr. Fr. John-Julian OJN

Julian of Norwich, Showings, tr. Edmund Colledge OSA and James Walsh SJ

Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, tr. Clifton Wolters

Editions of Julian’s book, in middle English:

Julian of Norwich, A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich, ed. Edmund Colledge OSA and James Walsh SJ

Julian of Norwich, A Revelation of Love, ed. Marion Glasscoe

Julian of Norwich, Showing of Love: Extant Texts and Translation, ed. Sr. Anna Maria Reynolds CP and Julia Bolton Holloway

Julian of Norwich, The Showings of Julian of Norwich, ed. Denise Baker

Books about Julian (popular/devotional):

Ritamary Bradley, Julian’s Way: A Practical Commentary on Julian of Norwich

C. Hugh Hildesley, Journeying with Julian

Robert Llewelyn, All Shall Be Well: The Spirituality of Julian of Norwich for Today

Robert Llewelyn, ed., Julian: Woman of Our Day

Paul Molinari, Julian of Norwich: The Teaching of a 14th Century English Mystic

Ambrose Tinsley, OSB, A Neighbour Kind and Known: The Spirituality of Julian of Norwich

Sheila Upjohn, In Search of Julian of Norwich

Sheila Upjohn, Why Julian Now? A Voyage of Discovery

Books about Julian (academic/scholarly):

Christopher Abbott, Julian of Norwich: Autobiography and Theology

Denise Nowakowski Baker, Julian of Norwich’s Showings: From Vision to Book

Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt, Julian of Norwich and the Mystical Body Politic of Christ

Kerrie Hide, Gifted Origins to Graced Fulfillment: The Soteriology of Julian of Norwich

Grace Jantzen, Julian of Norwich: Mystic and Theologian

Kenneth Leech, Julian Reconsidered

Kevin J. Magill, Julian of Norwich: Mystic or Visionary?

Jane Maynard, Transfiguring Loss: Julian of Norwich as a Guide for Survivors of Traumatic Grief

Sandra J. McEntire, ed., Julian of Norwich: A Book of Essays

Joan M. Nuth, Wisdom’s Daughter: The Theology of Julian of Norwich

Margaret Ann Palliser, Christ Our Mother of Mercy: Divine Mercy and Compassion in the Theology of the Shewings of Julian of Norwich

Brant Pelphrey, Julian of Norwich: Christ Our Mother (The Way of the Christian Mystics, volume 7)

Brant Pelphrey, Love was His Meaning: The Theology and Mysticism of Julian of Norwich