Tag Archives: Julian of Norwich

The Huge High Wholeness of God

Mother Julian wrote, “These revelations were shewed to a simple creature that knew no letter, the year of our Lord 1373, the 8th day of May.” A contradiction in terms. If she knew no letters, how was she able to write that sentence? In her book The Way of Julian of Norwich, Sheila Upjohn provides a number of possible explanations. Firstly is the idea that Julian wrote in English but knew no Latin. In Fourteenth Century England Latin was the authoritative language of the Church. It would be a further nine years before John Wycliffe completed his translation of the Bible into English, for which, and for arguing that Scripture be the authoritative centre of Christianity, he was posthumously excommunicated and condemned as a heretic. If Julian knew no Latin she would have been regarded as functionally illiterate by the Church.  

Another theory is that at the time when Julian received her visions she was illiterate, but later learned to read and write English so that she might put to paper the message she had received. A contemporary of Julian, Margery Kempe, a mystic of the Christian tradition who lived in nearby King’s Lynn, is regarded as being the first woman to write an autobiography in English. However, we know that Kempe was unlettered. Her story was dictated to a scribe. If Julian describes herself as being unlettered, is it not possible that Revelations of Divine Love was also transcribed by dictation? 

Be that as it may, Julian was a woman, and in Fourteenth Century England this meant she had little status, regardless of her ability to read and write. Remarkably then for the time, although she is at pains to point out her lowly status, she is also firm in her belief that despite her gender she has the same right as any to speak of the goodness of God. The following is a modern translation from the first draft of Revelations of Divine Love.

God forbid that you should say or take it that I am a teacher, for I do not mean that, nor never meant it. I am an unlettered woman, poor and simple. But I know well that, what I say, I have it from the showing of Him who is a mighty teacher – and I tell it to you for love, for I would to God it were known, and my fellow Christians helped on to greater loathing of sin and a deeper love of God. But because I am a woman, must I therefore believe that I should not tell you of the goodness of God, when I saw at the same time that it was His Will that it should be known? 

This brought to my mind some passages from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. 

For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

1 Corinthians 1:25

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

1 Corinthians 1:27

God’s decision to impart His message to an unlettered woman in Fourteenth Century Norwich would undoubtedly appear as foolishness to the patriarchal hierarchy of the time, which was, ironically, dominated by the Church. This was why Julian and her subsequent followers kept her writings hidden from the authorities. In the same way God’s decision to place into the arms of a young, unmarried Jewish girl, “a Saviour who is Christ the Lord” was regarded as foolishness by the authorities of the time. This is the foolishness of which Paul speaks. It is foolishness as the world perceives it, not as God perceives it. 

The Annunciation (1898) by Henry Ossawa Tanner

Similarly, had the church authorities of Fourteenth Century Norwich discovered and read Julian’s writings, they undoubtedly would also have regarded as foolishness, if not outright heresy, her notions on the gender of God. 

As truly as God is our father, so, just as truly, God is our mother. And he showed this in everything, especially in those sweet words when he said: ‘It is I.’ That is to say: ‘It is I, the strength and goodness of fatherhood. It is I, the wisdom of motherhood’. 

Despite the insistence of much of the Church in clinging to gender exclusive language, gender is not, nor has ever been, something that has coloured my notions of God. I suppose “Parent, Offspring and Holy Entity” doesn’t have quite the poetic ring of “Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”  Moreover, I can’t help but feel that rumination on the nature of the Trinity is a particularly ineffective use of time and energy when “capital crimes, chewed, swallowed and digested, before us lie.” Though that may depend on one’s understanding of the role of church. Are we, as Christian’s called to affect social justice or to seek out our own redemption and salvation? Are the two mutually exclusive? 

A few years ago a young lesbian couple joined my walking group. With a shared interest in photography we soon became friends. As I have come to know them I have seen how much dedication and devotion they have to each other, certainly way more than I could muster in any of the failed relationships I have left in my wake. They will be moving from Manchester soon and I will miss them. They have brought friendship and joy to my life. 

What I take from these passages of Mother Julian’s then, is how important it is for me to be aware of God’s presence in the world around me, the huge high wholeness of God, whether manifest as father, mother, brother, sister, friend, neighbour, colleague, gay, straight, or stranger. Demarcation by gender is, mostly, absent. 

Julian of Norwich

#lentbookclub is a loose association of people who broadly fall under the spiritual umbrella of Christianity. During the reflective season of Lent, we are invited to read a specific book, chosen by group consent, and comment about this on social media. The group is open to everyone, those who identify as ‘Christian’ in whatever manner, and those who do not.

For Lent 2021 we are reading The Way of Julian of Norwich by Sheila Upjohn. I am supplementing my reading, by way of contrast, with Pantheologies: Gods, Worlds, Monsters by Mary-Jane Rubinstein.

What little is known of Julian comes mostly from her own writings. She was an anchoress who lived in the city of Norwich in the fourteenth century. In the spring of 1373 she became seriously ill. During her illness she received a series of ‘shewings’ during which Jesus Christ appeared to her and spoke with her. Having recovered from her illness she chose to live a life of seclusion in a small ‘cell’ adjacent to St Julian’s Church, where she meditated on her experiences and wrote about them. Her book A Revelation of Divine Love is thought to be the first written by a woman in the English language. 

Julian of Norwich

Week 1
Contemplation of a God who is with us in our defecation is a great way to start Lent, I think. Especially after all those pancakes. It brings to mind Earnest Becker’s comment about human’s being gods who shit. Here is the appropriate passage (no pun intended, honestly) from Chapter Six of A Revelation of Divine Love

A man walks upright, and the food in his body is sealed as in a well-made purse. When the time of his necessity comes, it is opened and sealed again most properly. And that it is God who does this is shown where he says that he comes down to the lowest part of our need. For he does not despise what he has made, nor does he disdain to serve our humblest earthly needs. For he loves the soul he has made in his likeness. 

Recently, I have been watching the Russell T Davies drama It’s a Sin, set in the gay scene of 1980’s London. It struck me that the scenes where the humanity of the characters shone through most palpably were those in which they or their friends had succumbed to the ravages of AIDS, and were confronted by an inevitable death. Here in the lowest point of their need did they find an outpouring of service, compassion, devotion and love. It also struck me that, regardless of gender and sexual preference, we all share in this aspect of our humanity, coming to terms with the shame of our lowest needs, confronted by an inevitable death. The vision of Julian is that in our greatest need God is not only with us, but loves us. 

Lent Book Group can be found at https://www.facebook.com/groups/LentBookClub