Review: “The Showings of Julian of Norwich”

The Showings of Julian of Norwich

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.
(Crampton)

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 WilkinsonDan Wilkinson
Dan is a writer, graphic designer and IT specialist. He lives in Montana, is married and has two cats. He blogs at CoolingTwilight.com.

  • https://elizabeth-fullerton.squarespace.com/resume Elizabeth

    I adore the “the foundations of feminist theology, a hopeful universalism, and an understanding of God as pure love. Hers is a ‘radically optimistic theology’” as opposed to the common layman conclusion: well, you’re not Christian, then. You’re Unitarian Universalist.

    Lovely read. Thanks Dan!

    • http://coolingtwilight.com/ Dan Wilkinson

      Thanks! ;)

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    My Christianity was full of mysticism. It was very odd for me to meet Christians who did not have one iota of mystical experiences. But I learned that the majority of Christians don’t have these at all.

    I remember, that I could not imagine what filled the spiritual life of a believer if they were devoid of these experience — it seemed it must be all dry doctrine or desperate hope. Even to this day, it is hard for me to understand.

    That shows us, I think, the limits of our understandings due to our temperaments.

    I just did a post on a Hindu tale which is much like the Book of Job. In both of these, the heros are compensated for all their suffering by getting back what they lost. Heck Job got back 10 daughters prettier than the previous ones. Really?

    I find no way that suffering can be compensated by a god — maybe it is just my temperament. But even my mystical experiences brought me no such intuitions as Julians. Perhaps that shows that mystical experiences tell us more about our temperament than about the god we feel we commune with.

    • http://coolingtwilight.com/ Dan Wilkinson

      Thanks for that perspective Sabio. I can’t say that I haven’t had “one iota” of mystical experience, but I would say it’s certainly not the de facto way I know and practice my faith. I think you’re very right to suggest that our mystical experiences may tell us as much about ourselves as about god/God. But I’d hasten to add that that doesn’t mean they are without value or devoid of truth.

      • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

        Thanx Dan,

        I agree that mystical experiences are not without value or devoid of truth. Well, as long as you feel the same for:

        gastronomical experiences

        dancing experiences

        sexual experiences

        and the awe that comes when reaching a mountain peak.

        Heck, I even thing suffering is not without value or devoid of truth.

        But you see, keep saying all that and we gut the expression “without value or devoid of truth”.

        So maybe you were trying to say more.

        I don’t think you should though.

        And so, to me, I would not even think of tagging on that phrase to justify an experience.

        • http://coolingtwilight.com/ Dan Wilkinson

          I think life in general does contain value and truth. I guess I felt the need to add that qualifier because some (including myself) tend to dismiss mystical/supernatural experiences as perhaps not being as valuable and important as objective, concrete, physical experiences.

          • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

            Again, I don’t tend to think in ideal abstractions: Life and Truth, for instance. But I think rather specifically to try and keep things real. So I have not idea what you mean when you say “life in general does contain value and truth” — instead it seems you are just sending signals of some sort.

            I don’t think anyone would deny that internal, subjective mental states are not valuable or important. It all depends on how we use them and what we think they mean for us.

          • JenellYB

            He doesn’t get it, Sabio. I’ve had to come to realize and accept myself, those that have not had mystical experiences simply cannot go there, simply because only what we have personally experienced is ‘real’ for any of us. Someone that has never tasted a hot chili and therefore has never experienced the burn, the fieriness, cannot comprehend it from any amount of trying to describe or explain it. If we have both tasted hot chilis, we have common ground to speak of the experience, one that has not, does not. Same with mystic experiences.
            Dan, no offense or dismissal intended here, please. If you have not experienced, you’ve not experienced it, it is not real for you, and that is just as it is. The meaning within a mystical experience is as integral to the experience as the burn is to experiencing the hot chili pepper, we don’t have to “give it meaning” anymore than we have to “give the burn” to the experience of tasting the chili.

          • JenellYB

            Btw, Sabio, in contrast to your own experience as you note above, mystical experiences seemed part of my natural ‘reality’ from younger than I can remember, at least by age 4-5 that I can distinctly remember, but born into, and raised among those with as you put it, not one iota of mystical experiences. Was rather ‘uncomfortable’ from both my perspective and theirs at times, as might well be imagined. I learned early not to speak much of them, have only begun doing so more openly the past several decades.

          • http://coolingtwilight.com/ Dan Wilkinson

            I’m pretty sure I agree with what you’re saying here (and no offense taken). Every person’s experience is uniquely theirs, and I can’t (and shouldn’t) try to diminish the importance of someone else’s experience. But when a mystical experience contains revelation intended for a wider audience (as in the case of Julian’s Showings), I think it is appropriate to wrestle with these issues.

          • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

            Well said, Dan

          • JenellYB

            To your last part, absolutely yes! As I think I mentioned in another comment, we can neither accept nor reject the validity of claim of revelation by a writer (or speaker) based on the validity or not of that from any other. In each case in which we are presented something with claim of having been revealed to someone by God, it is not only appropriate, but essential that we discern carefully.
            I believe most ‘revelations’ of whatever truth or wisdom as might be experienced as received of God by anyone are of a nature intended for THAT person particularly. It may be something that is really only relevant to that person, of shown for whatever purpose is specific to that person. In that light, some of my own experiences have helped with understanding something, either about/within myself, others, or some situation. A few, I can only ‘take’ as having been remarkable experiences that assured my own faith, that I am no ‘alone’, that there really is some ‘other presence’ that is ‘real.’ That have solidified my own faith through experiences that FORCED me to accept that, by over coming my reasonable and intellectual attempts to explain them away. And, a few, for me, personally, have to go into the miraculous, in that I was by them protected/saved from some real physical harm, a real material danger. BUT, and here is the BIG but, as to whether what I just said, or if I were to describe any of such in greater detail, they were/are what they were/are for me, ad me alone. I could not, would not, ask, expect, let alone demand, any other ‘believe’ them or anything I drew from them as meaningful, by even the suggestion, you must believe it is what God did/told me BECAUSE I told you it is what God did/told me. I hope that makes sense.
            When we discern, whether in a matter from our own experience or that recounted by some other, whatever is conveyed, said, asserted, MUST stand on its own merit, as evident as a truth no matter where it was said or how someone claims it was received. Anytime someone says, you MUST believe what I say is true BECAUSE this is what God revealed to ME, on the authority of that person’s claim alone that “I said God said”, then you really need to just walk away.
            Whether discerning from scripture or any other source, if it doesn’t stand on its own merit, if it can’t stand on its own merit, then it doesn’t matter who supposedly said it. Truth stands on its own. And Wisdom is known by her children, wherever they encounter it.

          • http://coolingtwilight.com/ Dan Wilkinson

            Thank you very much for that personal — and wise — perspective. I really appreciate your thoughts on this subject.

          • JenellYB

            Dan, the real POW comes when you experience BOTH, in a synchronized manner. To be honest it was experiencing that a few times, as what it took for me to fully accept my own mystical experiences completely as being of more than just my own mind. And you can ask for that kind of ‘evidence.’ At least, I did, out of my own doubting myself, ok, God, or Holy Spirit, whoever you are, if you really ARE there, would you please prove it to me? Some of the ‘responses’ got pretty out there. I was quite deeply immersed at the time in study of the Sermon on the mount, and several other of Jesus’ rather enigmatic sayings, with a sense, there were spiritual truths, principle, spiritual ‘laws’ perhaps, at work in our lives .. asking for the Holy Spirit. What father, should his son ask him for an egg, would give him a scorpion? So, I ASKED. Well, by the time, over the course of a single say, someone had spontaneously gifted me with 1 egg by one person, 5 bagels by another person (she had bought a 6 pack to try bagels, never having tried them before, ate one, didn’t care for them), 2 freshly frozen nice flounder by another, and a brightly colored summer house dress covered in a design of big lilies by yet another, I was so giddy and high on pure excitement and joy, someone asked what I’d been drinking, cause maybe they’d like a glass.

  • http://johnshore.com/ John Shore

    This translation (Skinner’s) clearly points toward the deification of Mary:

    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 … .

    This translation (Starr’s) eliminates Mary altogether:

    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.

    Since Skinner’s translation accords with the Middle English, don’t we here have proof that Starr is more concerned with what she wants the text to say than she is with what the text actually does say? And doesn’t that mean we can and should dismiss her translation altogether?

    • http://coolingtwilight.com/ Dan Wilkinson

      I don’t think Mary is in view in this passage. Julian freely uses “mother” to describe Jesus and God. I think “her who is true mother of him” is speaking of God the father/mother, not Mary, and that Starr actually makes this more clear in her translation by changing the gender of the ME “hir” to “he.” So, no, I don’t read an agenda-driven translation here, I read it as a helpful clarification. But even if there was a translation mis-step here, I think it’s a bit rash to suggest we “dismiss her translation altogether”!

      • http://johnshore.com/ John Shore

        To my simple eyes, the “and of before “her who is true mother of him” is a clear indicator of a separate person distinct from God. And if it is, that’s more than just a translation “misstep.” That’s an assertion of the supremacy of Protestantism over Catholicism.

        • http://coolingtwilight.com/ Dan Wilkinson

          Upon further reading/thinking about this, I’m inclined to agree that Starr does elide Mary from this passage. But I don’t read a Protestant conspiracy here. Starr isn’t Protestant — she’s not even Christian. And she does hold Mary in high regard. Starr doesn’t try to downplay Julian’s visions of Mary. From Chapter 18:

          Next, I saw an aspect of the compassion of Our Lady Saint Mary. Christ and his mother were so one-ed in love that the power of her love caused the power of her pain. This helped me to realize the essence of natural love. By the grace of God, creatures have a natural love for their creator. Nowhere is this love more perfectly expressed or extravagantly revealed than in Christ’s sweet mother.

          And Starr writes in her book Mother of God Similar to Fire:

          Mary is the quintessential mother, the feminine face of the Holy One, fierce protector and gentle consoler. She is the inspiration, wisdom, vital essence of compassion and forgiveness. She reaches into the heart of the wounded world with tangible healing. She is Mother of the Divine, and Mother of us all.

    • JenellYB

      A good point to notice. When I reread that, and include the Crampton middle English version given in the comparisons, I’m going to have to lean toward agreeing with you, John, in what seems a reference to Mary here, over Dan’s suggested alternative just below. Though I don’t know I’d say that discredit the entirety of her writing. I haven’t read her, so am limited here. But, see my comment above, generally about what I’ve observed in quite a few 14th-15th century mystics, and in what little I have read of her, such as here, she does sound awfully consistent with some others as I observed above, possibly indicating influence of common teachings, common literature, at the time.

  • Steve

    If we dismiss Julian, then we must dismiss all the biblical writers who claimed to have received revelations from God.

    • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

      I think you are right, Steve, that we probably have to treat Julian and the biblical writers the same. We don’t have to “dismiss” them, however, but understand what they were doing.

      • Steve

        Exactly.

    • JenellYB

      Not to say one way or the other whether Julian’s writings are worth taking seriously, but, I must disagree completely that if we dismiss Julian (or insert here the name of any other presenting thoughts and ideas as being communications from God) then we must dismiss all the biblical writers who claimed to have received revelations from God.
      The validity of all or any of the biblical writers who claimed to have received revelations from God does not, cannot, hold or fall on the basis of accepting the validity of any other (Julian or any other) that makes such claim to things they write or say as having been revealed by God. There is no doubt much has been written and spoken, both past, and being written and spoken today, claimed to be revelation from God, that few to none would accept as being such. Whether by being under delusion, mental illness, or deliberate intent to deceive, there is no doubt much is falsely so claimed.
      I have not read enough of Julian to make, for now, any opinion on just what she was about. However, I have read some other of the 14th-15th century mystics, some widely read and much celebrated and studied, some less so, and there are some things about almost all of them that raise for me a question, that I don’t feel I have a satisfactory answer for. at least yet. Basically, my concern is about some common elements of ‘voice’, which includes style, tone, wording, phrasing, and some concepts, and ideas that are noticeably consistent and similar between them. The question that raises for me is, is that for that they were all articulating the same “spiritual voice,” or “God” as they were hearing it, it being “God” that was being consistent, OR, were they all reading, or hearing, being taught from, common literature within the Church that they were all thinking and speaking out of? By that last, I mean, such as many different people within one denomination, say, Baptist, or Pentecostal, having read and been taught from common literature, are going to sound a lot alike. So was Julian just writing out of what she had been taught as common literature within the church? I’ll try to add hers to my reading list, am interested in looking more closely at her work.
      The one 14th century mystic work that, on the other hand, stands apart in that regard, or at least, seems so to me, is The Cloud of Unknowing, for which we do not know the author.

    • Jill

      And dare we comment on the dreams and visions of the approved men of scripture: Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, etc? Really, all of it sounds batty outside of context (sometimes even in). But then, as I understand it, the church develops doctrine around such revelations that serves to normalize it.

      Julian’s message could sound as certifiable as any New Age spirit channeler, but if context provides her words with support, structure, foundation, it ought not be simply ignored as a ravings of zealous woman.


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