I have long been fascinated by Christian mysticism. Christian mysticism may be defined as “the sense of some form of contact with the divine or transcendent, often understood in Christian tradition as involving union with God. Mysticism played an important role in the history of Christian religion and emerged as a living influence in modern times.” My favorite Christian mystic writer is Julian of Norwich.
An Introduction to Julian of Norwich
Julian, which may not have been her real name (she lived as an anchoress at St. Julian’s Church in the town of Norwich), lived between 1342 and 1416. Her book The Revelations of Divine Love is the oldest surviving English book written by a woman. The “short text” of the book is based on visions she received on May 8th 1373 as she lay dying from a disease that caused her to have difficulty breathing and bouts of paralysis. She was thirty years old when the sickness reached its climax. Miraculously, she recovered from the disease, giving credit to the grace of God through her visions of Christ upon the cross.
Life as an Anchoress
Known as Dame Julian, she opted to live the life of an anchoress. That involved a symbolic “death,” during which she was given last rights by the priest. Then she was permanently walled into a single room, probably about 12’ x 12. It became her symbolic grave which she would never leave. The room was attached to the church. The room had three openings: one was for the maid assigned to her to deliver food and remove waste; one was very small and served the purpose of allowing her to view mass and receive the Eucharist; and one faced outward and allowed some view of the world and limited communication with those who might visit for prayer and counsel.
Along with prayer, meditation, and reflection, the anchoress would have been permitted some small artistic pass time, such as the making of (modest) lace. (Ancrene Wisse).
An extended edition, the “long text,” of The Revelations of Divine Love was written to include twenty years of Dame Julian’s revelation received through her study and prayer.
The Wisdom of Julian of Norwich
Here is a brief quote from Dame Julian. It is my favorite, and probably the best known. The quote involves a revelation of the universe through the eyes of our loving God:
“And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.
“In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second, that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.”
All the universe is upheld in the hand of God. Is it in danger? We need not fear, because God made it, God keeps it, and God loves it. Oh, what encouragement that is for this desperate time in which we live!
Here is a little more of her wisdom:
“God wills that we be not carried overly low because of sorrows and temptations that befall us, for it has ever been this way before the coming of miracles” (from Chapter 37).
“And in this he brought to mind the character of the good giver: a glad giver pays little attention to what he or she is giving, but her whole desire and her whole intention to what she is giving, but her whole desire and her whole intention is to please and comfort the one to whom she is giving it; if the recipient accepts the gift appreciatively and gratefully; then the courteous giver thinks nothing of all her expense and all her trouble because of the joy and delight that she feels at having pleased and comforted the one that she loves. This was revealed to me abundantly and in full” (from Chapter 23).
Julian of Norwich in 2023
Dame Julian lived through the plague of the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, the Peasants’ Revolt, and the Great Schism of the Catholic Church. I believe Julian of Norwich is a relevant author and writer for our age, perhaps even more than she was for her own. As we face crisis after crisis of pandemic, war, national unrest, and religious and political debates, her voice resonates through the centuries as a voice of hope and love.