Let the Earth Keep Silence
Julian of Norwich's Timeless Message
There is so much we don't know about the visionary of Norwich, England, who lived in the fourteenth century and who wrote the first book in the English language to be penned by a woman. We don't know her name, where she was from or what her family life was like. We can only guess at her education or when she died. Even the date of her extraordinary mystical experience is up for grabs, thanks to the ambiguity that can be embedded in a handwritten manuscript.
In script, a "V" and an "X" are not so very different—so if one manuscript mentions May VIII, and another May XIII, we can assume that less than precise penmanship on the part of some long-forgotten scribe means that today we don't know if Julian received her visions on the 8th or the 13th day of May.
No worries, though. Anglican calendars typically remember Julian on the 8th, while Roman calendars prefer the 13th. I just make a point to remember the mystic of Norwich on both days and leave it at that. After all, the date of her life-changing encounter with Christ, and Mary, and even the fiend matters little when compared to the spiritual and theological insights contained in her visions.
We call the woman "Julian of Norwich," because at some point—probably after her visionary experience—she became a consecrated solitary, living alone in a cell adjacent to the Church of St. Julian in Norwich. That church is dedicated to a 3rd or 4th century saint, the first bishop of Le Mans, France. But it will forever be associated with the anonymous woman who dwelled within its walls a millennium after its patronal saint lived; indeed, today the church is a shrine for the mystic, a haven of rest and silence in a bustling modern English city.
Why all this fuss over someone almost totally consigned to medieval obscurity? Because of her words, of course. Shortly after her visions, she recounted them in a relatively short manuscript, but she reworked it and expanded it, once and perhaps more than once, resulting in a "long text" alongside her earlier "short text." Both versions of her story include detailed information on her visions, but the long text gives more interpretive, theological detail, presumably the fruit of years of meditation and reflection on the meaning of her visionary encounter.
Her best known line, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well" has become part of our larger cultural lexicon, thanks to T. S. Eliot, who nicked the line for his poem "Little Gidding." This line is spoken by Christ himself in Julian's vision, reassuring her that even though such a thing as sin exists, "all shall be well"—in God, even the worst elements of life will ultimately be healed. But lest we accuse Julian of universalism, she repeatedly affirms all "the teaching of holy church" and leaves it to a "secret" in God as to just how all things shall be made well.
Julian is also renowned for her clever wordplay in which she deconstructs the masculine gender of God. "As truly as God is our father, so truly is God our mother," she bluntly states, making her (like some other medieval mystical women) sort of an honorary foremother of feminist theology in our day. But Julian doesn't just settle for a God in drag: her depictions of God are not only both maternal and paternal, but also sensual, anchored in natural imagery, and deeply trinitarian. "Truth sees God, and wisdom beholds God. And of these two come the third, and that is a marvelous, holy delight in God, which is love." Truth leads to a Pauline, intellectual apprehension of God, while wisdom ushers in a Johannine contemplation ("beholding") of God—and the fruit of both of these is delightful love.
Carl McColman is a Lay Cistercian, a blogger (www.anamchara.com) and the author of The Big Book of Christian Mysticism.