The Complete Julian of Norwich
Translated, with additional material, by Fr. John-Julian, OJN
Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2009
Review by Carl McColman
Here is a 450-page feast for the serious Julian of Norwich fan. Fr. John-Julian, the founder and former superior of the Anglican Order of Julian of Norwich, combines his own poetic translation of the “long text”of Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love with extensive introductory material, annotations, and appendices. The 60-page introduction considers the key themes in Julian’s theology, including optimism, mysticism, prayer, and the love of God. A section called “All About Julian” offers insight into the world of fourteenth century England when Julian lived, along with a careful analysis of the events surrounding Julian’s visions — her sickness, her reception of last rites, the time of day when her mystical experiences occurred, and so forth. The actual text and annotations are set on opposite pages, rather than as footnotes or endnotes, making it much easier to use the annotations while studying Julian’s own words. The appendices offer a closer look at a variety of interesting aspects to Julian’s work, from her Trinitarian emphasis to her concept of “God in a Point” to, of course, her consideration of God-as-Mother. And for you hardcore Julian geeks, Fr. John-Julian explains just who Saint John of Beverley is, and what “behovabil” really means.
If that last sentence leaves you scratching your head, then you probably aren’t a “Julian geek” (at least not yet) and this book may not be for you. An annotated text of mysticism is rather like a study Bible: it’s wonderful for those who want to (and are ready to) really dig deep in their study of the text, but its very strength can also be a weakness for those who simply want to read the text devotionally. At the bookstore where I work, whenever a customer wants me to recommend a Bible, I always ask “are you looking for study, or for devotional reading?” and I make my recommendation based on what the person says. Generally speaking, someone who’s new to the Bible is probably going to be overwhelmed by a study Bible, unless they are reading it as part of a class assignment. I believe it makes perfect sense to read the text devotionally first, and later go back to do the kind of in-depth study required to truly master it. What holds for the Bible is just as true for mystical writings. Newcomers to Julian simply need to read her words. Of course, on an initial reading one may not understand everything. That’s okay — there’s always time to go back and approach the text academically later. But if we read Julian (or any of the great mystics) strictly from a “study” perspective at first, I believe we are at greater risk of shutting ourselves off from the transformational spiritual power in the text. In other words, studying a text analytically is a great way to maintain distance from the text, which is the wrong way to read the mystics — at least, or especially, at first.
So if you are just beginning to read Julian, I’d suggest you go with a basic translated text, such as the John Skinner translation, Revelation of Love. Read her first in a spirit of devotion, contemplation, and lectio divina. But if you fall in love with Julian half as much as I did, you’ll want to learn more — and that’s when you’ll find The Complete Julian to be a delight.
One complaint I have about this book is, ironically, the same gripe I have with my own newly-released book: and that is, simply, that the title isn’t entirely accurate. My Big Book of Christian Mysticism is not really very big, and this book is hardly “complete.” No book on Julian could claim completeness without featuring all four of the most important early manuscripts (the only book that comes close to that is Showing of Love: Extant Texts and Translation, edited by Sister Anna Maria Reynolds, C.P. and Julia Bolton Holloway — but that book is not readily available in the USA nor is it, at a price of €191 plus shipping, particularly affordable for the average person). The Complete Julian, however, is extensive, and certainly makes a valuable contribution to Julian studies. It should have simply been called “The Annotated Julian.” It’s a treasure to have such an annotated edition available. Anyone who wants to study Julian will want this book.