For the feast day of Julian of Norwich: May 8th, 2012.
A conservative Christian site for women named her as one of the “Top 10 Bad Girls of the [Christian] Faith.” There’s a semi-cloistered community of Episcopal monks and nuns named after her in the United States. Feminists think she’s the bee’s knees. She’s captivated thousands, if not millions, since her death in 1417.
She’s Dame Julian of Norwich, Christian medieval mystic and anchoress.
Julian was born in Norwich, England around November 1342. She was also born into a tumultuous time in England’s history. There was the Black Plague sweeping through Europe, Lollards were running around stirring up trouble, peasants were revolting, and there was
even a Papal schism brewing. This was a time of religious and societal strife. People were revolting. The Church was revolting on itself. Sickness was rampant.
The world as Julian knew it was tearing apart at the seams.
However, when Julian was 30 years old in 1372, she became very ill (Some sources say she suffered from botulism because in her writings, she notes that parts of her body are “dead” and she cannot feel them). At the point of what she believes to be her death, Julian sends for a curate. When the curate arrives, he instructs her to look upon a crucifix as she dies. However, instead of death, Julian is met with visions of the Crucified Christ, visions that she writes down and revises over several years. After her healing and visions, Julian becomes an anchoress (a woman who renounces life in the “outside world” and lives in a small room attached to a church) in order to seek Christ. In her writings she offers an optimistic portrait of a loving Savior, despite the turmoil of the world around her.
So what does a woman who elected a life of celibacy, bricked onto the side of a Medieval church have to do with modern Christianity? Lots.
Granted, I think Julian is a little light on sin in her writings (she thinks it’s no big deal), but she did something that many of us today seem to forget. She recognized God’s love for us. In her writings, Christ loves, cares for, and nurtures His followers through a close relationship and through the Eucharist. God is not just a father in Julian’s writings, but He also takes on feminine qualities (Julian tends to get heat for this) such as binding His children to him and making sure that His children find root in Him. Julian showed us how God loves us through Christ, even in a context that is drastically bleak. Even though the world was in pieces, Julian famously states that “All shall be well” in Christ. And I’ll let you in on a secret, I’ve caught myself repeating this to myself when things look too stressful to handle. Perhaps this medieval anchoress had the right idea about the provision of our Lord.
Whether you see Julian of Norwich as a theological bad girl that was light on sin and a little too heavy on divine feminine images or you think she has something right, we can’t deny her impact on modern Christian thought. After all, it’s believed that she was the first woman to write a book in English. And though she lived in a time where women had little say in the theological discourse, Julian bravely wrote down what she saw in the midst of illness. She sought the Lord, even to the point of renouncing the outside world in order to do so. Though we all may not be called to be celibate anchoresses (or for the gents: anchorites), active in vowed religious life, or even ministers, we can all arrive at our own anchorhold and actively seek the Living Christ.
Want more? Check out these books about Julian of Norwich:
Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography by Amy Frykholm, Paraclete Press.
The Showings of Julian of Norwich (the text of the visions experienced during her illness), ed. Denise N. Baker, A Norton Critical Edition.
For those who want “normal English:” Revelations of Divine Love, ed. Simon Parke, Amazon Kindle Store (only 99 cents!).
The Complete Julian by Fr. John Julian, Paraclete Press. (I haven’t read this personally, but it’s a Paraclete Press book, so it can’t be bad. The summary is also impressive).