May 8 – Julian of Norwich

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Julian of Norwich, person of prayer

(born 1342, died shortly after 1416)

If people knew how useful diseases are for the soul’s discipline, wrote one medieval mystic, they would purchase them in the marketplace. That was certainly the view of the English mystic, theologian and author of the Revelations of Divine Love, St. Julian of Norwich.

While still a young lay woman, Julian asked God for three gifts: a profound experience of the passion of Christ, a physical illness, and the three ‘wounds’ of contrition, compassion, and earnest longing for God.  She was granted them, but the first and the third came to her through physical illness.  In her book, she records that when she was thirty, ‘God sent me a physical illness in which I lay for three days and three nights.  On the fourth night I took all the rites of holy church and did not think that I would live until morning.’  Propped up in bed, losing both feeling and sight, Julian saw the crucifix set before her as surrounded by a ‘universal light’; and in an access of compassion for the dying Jesus had a vision of the ‘red blood trickling down from under the garland, just as I thought it would have done when the garland of thorns was thrust on His blessed head.’ In turn, she understood that ‘both God and man together suffered for me’ and ‘that it was he who showed it to me, without intermediary’. Simultaneously with this ‘bodily sight’ she experienced ‘a spiritual vision of His matchless love’, alone creating and sustaining the whole world.

Julian recovered from her apparently mortal illness, spending the rest of her life reflecting on these  visions, which she gradually recognised as ‘full of deep secrets’ and ‘inner significance’.  For many years an anchoress (an enclosed hermit) at what is now St. Julian’s church in Norwich, she wrote a short and a longer account of her visions and interpretations.  Her theology centred around two principles: the all-embracing and all-powerful love of God, and the perfectly physical nature of the incarnate Christ. The first allows us to see that though sin and evil exist in the fallen world, they have no ultimate reality, having been destroyed by Christ’s death and resurrection—‘Ah wretched sin!…You are nothing.  For I saw that God is everything; I did not see you’. The second enables the complete identification of humans, irrevocably identified in physical bodies, with Christ—‘our saviour is our true Mother, in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.’ Her evocation of God as the Mother who endlessly generates and re-creates us through Her/His own suffering, nourishes us spiritually, and disciplines us for our own training, remains her distinctive contribution to Christian spirituality.

We tend to think of diseases as always and only bad; to be cured if possible and resented if not. Julian and her contemporaries, often beset by illnesses they were powerless to cure, nevertheless succeeded in bringing good out of evil through their identification with both the suffering, and the salvation, of Christ.

Contributed by Phillippa Maddern