Lady Julian of Norwich
Some thoughts of a remarkable lady
My Reader training involves studying
church history, including that of men and women whose lives have been
profoundly affected by their knowledge of and faith in Jesus Christ and
the effect these have had on other people. Lady Julian of Norwich is
someone who has grabbed my attention.
Lady Julian, 1342 - c1416, is named after the church where she resided during the latter part of her life. Her own name is unknown.
Little is known about this remarkable lady. Bubonic plague, the ‘black death’, swept through Norwich three times during her life; few, if any, families would have remained unaffected and all would have known great hardship through the loss of many relatives, friends and neighbours. Indeed, if Julian had married (which probably would have been around the age of fifteen) then she could have lost both husband and children.
Whatever her family circumstances, Julian had sufficient education to become the first woman known to have written a book in English, The Revelations of Divine Love.
Julian would have heard many sermons on two themes which were dominant at that time: Death and Judgement and, secondly, the Passion and Death of Jesus. Death was known personally through the outbreaks of plague and perhaps the hundred years war with France (1337-1453). Death and the judgement of God could be expected for those who failed the judgement. Some preachers stressed hell as a place while others saw it as a state, but both views omitted God.
Julian’s abundant love for her Lord God gave her much joy, inner peace, gratitude and courage. Her desire to know her Lord more intimately led her to beg God to give her three remarkable gifts which ultimately led to her living a life of solitude and contemplation, holed up in a cell attached to St. Julian’s Church, Norwich. Firstly, Julian wanted a recollection of Christ’s Passion, so she could suffer with Jesus alongside Mary Magdalene and the others who loved him during those final hours of his earthly life. She wanted to truly understand the Passion of Christ.
Secondly, she desired a physical sickness at the age of thirty - to experience the fullness of dying to the point of death, that she and those around her would believe her to be dead, without actually dying. Thus, she could receive all the rites of the Church and be fully cleansed by the mercy of God and go on to lead a more consecrated life to His Glory.
These gifts Julian asked for conditionally - if it be God’s will to grant them to her.
She soon forgot them but remembered the third - asked for unconditionally - three (internal) wounds. Julian developed a strong desire to receive the wounds of (a) true contrition, (b) natural compassion and (c) unshakeable longing for God.
During Lent 1373 Julian would have contemplated the events of Holy Week and the passion of Christ fervently before celebrating Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday; the time when she made her annual confession and communion. In early May, at the age of thirty and a half, Julian became very ill, receiving the last rites on the fourth day. Three days later, 8 May, her mother reached out to close her daughter’s eyes, eyes that were looking up at a crucifix held above her face by her curate who thought it might comfort Julian at the last.
Believing her death imminent, Julian suddenly felt well and began having a series of sixteen visions which answered those early requests desiring to ‘witness’ the Passion of Christ. These she wrote down and after meditating on them for twenty years, she wrote a longer text, her book Revelations of Divine Love.
From a tender age, Julian’s faith told her that Jesus had suffered on the cross for her. "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life." (John 3:16) Her love for Jesus drew her to want to understand His suffering much more vividly and intimately.
Julian, very close to death on 8th May 1373, felt a sudden change in her health. All her pain vanished and she felt well. God, in the ensuing hours, led Julian through a series of 16 ‘showings’ (visions). In the first, she had desired to share a recollection of Christ’s Passion. She saw the red blood trickling down from the garland just as it was at Jesus' Passion when the thorns were pressed onto His Blessed head. Julian felt, powerfully, that He who suffered for her was both God and man.
Each time Jesus appeared in a showing, the Trinity flooded her heart with joy. Julian interpreted the Trinity as God our Maker, our Keeper, our everlasting Lover, our endless source of Joy and Bliss.
At the same time as the head bleeding, God showed Julian a spiritual vision of His simple loving. God is our clothing, wrapping us and holding us in His love, which is so tender and will never leave us. Julian understood this to mean that God is everything that is good. This picture then developed into a small object, a hazelnut, in the palm of her hand. It was round as a ball. Asking God what it was, she knew that ‘it is all that is made". It was so small it could have disappeared; but Julian understood that it would continue always because God loves it, just as everything is loved and has its being by the love of God.
The hazelnut, which represents everything we can see and touch, has three characteristics: God made it, God loves it and God keeps it. God is therefore, Maker, Lover and Keeper of all. Until Julian could be so close to her God that nothing separated them, she knew she couldn’t have perfect rest and happiness.
Aspects of Jesus’ passion and death are revealed in the first eight visions. Julian saw that God (Jesus) suffered, what He suffered and for whom He suffered, and knew we should view with contrition (remorse) and compassion the cruel pain that He suffered. Instead of witnessing His dying, Julian saw Jesus’ expression change to joy and she too became glad and filled with happiness. She understood Jesus meant that in this life we are to suffer on the cross with Him, in our pain, our sorrow and our dying and if we will remain there, with His help and His grace, we too will be changed and be with Him in heaven.
In a later vision Julian realised that sin stood in the way of her yearning for God. Without sin we would have been pure and like God, and all would have been well. Through many and various scenes Jesus constantly reassured Julian "that all would be well, and all manner of things would be well".
Julian encourages us to keep on praying, to keep on thanking, trusting, rejoicing - in God and others knowing that life is not absurd but has a divine purpose.
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