Julian of Norwich freaks me out. Are her writings actual supernatural revelations from God as conveyed to a 14th-century English woman? Or merely fever-induced hallucinations that should be set aside in favor of a safer orthodoxy? Reading Julian and pondering these possibilities leaves me with a sense of unease and exhilaration not far removed from the feeling induced by that delicious pause at the top of a roller coaster.
What weight should we give to the spiritual visions of a woman living in the Middle Ages? If someone today had such experiences, we’d refer her to a psychiatrist, not pore over her words seeking spiritual truth. Does God really reveal himself in such ways? Is there divine truth contained in these 600-year-old words?
Mystical versions of Christianity confound me — they’re simply not part of my personal experience — and I think it’s wise to evaluate such accounts of the supernatural with a generous dose of skepticism. But despite my misgivings, Julian’s thoughts still resonate with me, as they have with so many others over the centuries. Her words merit critical reflection and offer important challenges to common conceptions of God.
Julian’s biography is thin — we don’t even know her real name, only that she was born in England in the mid-14th century, and that, at the age of 30, she was taken ill, and while near-death she experienced sixteen visions, or “showings” from God. She went on to become an anchoress, dedicating her life to God through meditation and prayer, and eventually she recorded the details of the showings and her reflections on them in Revelations of Divine Love — the first book written by a woman in English.
Mirabai Starr now brings us a fresh translation of Julian’s writings in The Showings of Julian of Norwich: A New Translation (Hampton Roads, 2013). Starr’s translation is eminently readable, ably accomplishing the delicate task of bridging time, culture and language. Though she has been criticized for being too inclusive (substituting “my fellow spiritual seekers” for “my even Christians” and “Beloved” for “Lord”) the version brought to us by Starr is still deeply Christian, albeit Christian in a way that — by remaining true to Julian’s optimistic vision — stands at odds with many of the priorities of the modern Church.
Translations are subjective undertakings, as much art as science. Words that seem to capture the very essence of the author’s mind for one person will come off as stilted sacrilege to another. Starr achieves her goal of “transfom[ing] a Middle English text into an accessible teaching for contemporary sensibilities,” (xxi) but in doing so she necessarily sacrifices some of the beauty — and perhaps some of the nuanced meaning — of the original text.
In order to let you see some of these subtleties for yourself, I’m providing three texts in my quotations below: the first from Starr’s new book, the second from John Skinner’s 1997 translation, Revelation of Love (Image Books) and the last in the original Middle English as found in The Shewings of Julian Norwich (Medieval Institute Publications), edited by Georgia Ronan Crampton.
In Julian’s writings, we find the foundations of feminist theology, a hopeful universalism, and an understanding of God as pure love. Hers is a “radically optimistic theology” — in the words of this 14th-century mystic we find ideas that the modern Christian church — and indeed all of humanity — would do well to heed. Conceiving of God in a way that is decidedly at odds with the patriarchal institutional church, a church consumed by legalism and penitence and punishment, Julian struggles to reconcile her plague- and poverty-ridden world with the divine beauty and mercy that has been revealed to her.
This is a universal, timeless question: how can God, who is the very embodiment of love, allow sin and suffering into the world? Julian finds her answer in the promise of Jesus in Chapter 27, one of the most famous lines from her writings:
But in this showing, Jesus gave me all that I needed. “Sin is inevitable,” he said, “yet all will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well.” (Starr)
But Jesus, who in this vision had informed me of all that I needed, answered with these words, saying: “Sin is necessary, but all shall be well. All shall be well; and all manner of thing shall be well.” (Skinner)
But Jesus, that in this vision enformid me of all that me nedyth, answerid by this word, and seyd: Synne is behovabil, but al shal be wel, and al shal be wel, and al manner of thyng shal be wele. (Crampton)
Julian is assured that God will reconcile all things to him and that, though we may suffer now, and though we inevitably find ourselves sinning, God doesn’t respond with anger and judgment, but rather with love. In Chapter 46 she writes:
And so, as I contemplated the showings, it seemed necessary to me to see and understand that we do miss the mark. We do many things that we should stop doing and leave things undone that we ought to do. We deserve some blame and castigation for this. Still, notwithstanding all this, I saw that in truth our Beloved is never angry, nor ever shall be, for he is God. He is good; he is life; he is truth; he is love; he is peace. His power, wisdom, and loving-kindness leave no room for anger. (Starr)
And thus in all this beholding I thought I needed to see and know that we are sinners who do many evil things that we ought to avoid, and leave many good deeds undone that we ought to do. So that we deserve both pain and wrath. And not withstanding all this, I saw quite plainly that our Lord was never wroth nor ever shall be, for he is God: he is good, he is life, he is truth, he is love, he is peace; while his charity and his unity suffers him not to be wroth. (Skinner)
And thus in al this beholdyng methowte it behovyd nedys to sen and to knowen that we arn synners, and don many evill that we owten to leven, and levyn many good dedes ondon that we owten to don, wherfore we deserve peyne and wreth. And notwithstondyng al this, I saw sothfastly that our Lord was never wreth ne never shall. For He is God – good, life, trueth, love, peas. His charite and His unite suffrith Hym not to be wroth. (Crampton)
This all-encompassing, unfettered love is seen by Julian as the love a mother feels for her child. From Chapter 60:
This beautiful word “mother” is so sweet and kind in itself that it cannot be attributed to anyone but God. Only he who is our true Mother and source of all life may rightfully be called by this name. Nature, love, wisdom, and knowledge are all attributes of the Mother, which is God. (Starr)
This fair word full of love, mother, it is so sweet and so kind and comes from the self so that it may not in truth be said but only of him, and of her who is true mother of him and of all. The property of true motherhood is kind love, wisdom, and knowing and it is good. (Skinner)
This fair, lovely word Modir, it is so swete and so kynd of the self that it may ne verily be seid of none but of Him and to hir that is very Moder of Hym and of all. To the properte of Moderhede longyth kinde love, wisdam, and knowing, and it is good. (Crampton)
For Julian, God’s love for his (or her) creation isn’t arbitrary, it isn’t in spite of our sin and shortcomings. Rather, it is because he has made as we are and rejoices in us for who we are. From Chapter 67:
What could make us rejoice more than to see that God rejoices in us? I realized that if the blessed Trinity could have made the human soul any better, any more beautiful, with any more dignity than it was made, he would not have been wholly satisfied. As it is, he created our soul to be as lovely, as good, and as precious as he could make it, and so he is endlessly pleased with us. He wants our hearts to be lifted above the depths of this world and all the empty sorrows we suffer here and rejoice in God. (Starr)
And what may make us rejoice in God more than to see in him that he rejoices in us, the highest of all his works? For I saw in the same showing that if the blissful Trinity might have made the human soul any better, any fairer, any nobler than it was made, he would not have been fully pleased with the making of the human soul. And he wants our hearts to be raised mightily above the deepness of the earth and all vain sorrows and rejoice in him. (Skinner)
And what may maken us more to enjoyen in God than to sen in Hym that He enjoyeth heghest of al his werkes? For I saw in the same shewing that if the blisfull Trinite myte have made manys soule ony better, ony fairer, ony noblyer than it was made, He shuld not have be full plesid with the makyng of manys soule. And He will that our herts ben mytyly reysid above the depeness of the erth and al vayne sorows, and enjoyen in Him. (Crampton)
It is on the basis of this endless love that Julian envisions a final consummation of all things, a universal reconciliation with God in which we all receive his blessing and love. From Chapter 71:
The blessed face that our Beloved turns toward us is a happy one — joyous and sweet. He sees us lost in love-longing, and he wants to see a smile on our souls, because our delight is his reward. And so I hope that he draws our outer expression inward and makes us all one with him and with each other, in everlasting joy. (Starr)
Glad and merry and sweet is the blissful face of our Lord as he looks upon our souls. For, as ever we live, he holds us continually in his love-longing, and he wants our souls to look for him cheerfully, to give him his reward. And so I hope by his grace that he has, and will ever more so, draw in our outward looking toward his inward looking and make us all at one with him and each of us with the other, in true lasting joy that is Jesus. (Skinner)
Glad and mery and sweete is the blisfull lovely cher of our Lord to our souleis. For He havith us ever lifand in lovelongeing, and He will our soule be in glad chere to Him to gevin Him His mede. And thus I hope with His grace He hath, and more shall, draw in the utter chere to the inner cher, and maken us all at one with Him, and ech of us with other in trew lestand joye that is Jhesus.
This is a radical and subversive theology for the 21st century — one can only imagine the startling freshness of such theological insights in the 14th century. It is a credit to the singularness of Julian’s understanding that 600 years later we are still pondering her words.
I certainly don’t know what to make of Julian and her Showings. Maybe she was crazy, or maybe she did have a direct revelation from God. This ambivalence is shared by C.S. Lewis, who writes:
I have been reading this week the ‘Revelations’ of Mother Julian of Norwich (14th century); not always so profitable as I had expected, but well worth reading … My mood changes about this. Sometimes it seems mere drivel … But then at other times it has the unanswerable, illogical convincingness of things heard in a dream …
(from Yours, Jack, HarperOne, p. 64)
It’s easy to ignore and dismiss “things heard in a dream,” but in the case of Julian of Norwich, we would be wise to carefully consider the truth she may have to give us, especially now that it is more accessible than ever through Starr’s translation.
Dan is the Executive Editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians blog. He is a writer, graphic designer and IT specialist. He lives in Montana, is married and has three cats.