Archive for October, 2016

That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His suffering, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:10,11)

st-julian-of-norwich-churchJulian of Norwich (1342-1416) is the fourth in our series on 14th Century Christian Women Mystics. We do not know much about Julian’s early life. In fact, we are not even sure of her name. She is called Julian because she was attached to St. Julian’s Church. Our knowledge of her comes mainly through her writings. It’s possible that she was born to a wealthy family near Norwich. She may have received her education from the Benedictine nuns in the area. Her writings reflect a knowledge of theology, rhetoric, Latin, and the Classics.

Since there were plague epidemics in the 14th century, Julian may have lost her family in the plagues and/or become a widow. As a young woman, Julian became an anchorite (sometimes called anchoress) at St. Julian’s church. When she was 30 years old she experienced a series of visions that she wrote down in a book called, Revelations of Divine Love.

We can deduce more about how Julian lived her life from a study of religious life during the Middle Ages, especially that of those who devoted their lives to God. While there may have been fewer women than men who dedicated themselves to God during the Medieval Age, they were not less influential.

The women lived in two kinds of communities – as part of a convent (nuns) or in a private community (anchorites). Some women lived alone in hermitages. There were over 130 communities in the 14th and 15th centuries in England with over half of them having fewer than 10 members.

There were seven to eight hundred anchorites in England. These women lived in a room attached to a church. The room was not more than 12 x 12 and contained sparse furniture. There were often only two or three small windows and a door. One window was in the wall that was shared with the church. This way the anchorite could participate in religious services and receive communion. There was at least one window through which she could communicate with the outside and receive sustenance. The door was usually closed and locked after the priest said a prayer of dedication for the woman’s life of contemplation. Many anchorites remained in that room for the rest of their lives.

No matter which type of community the women lived in, convent, anchorhold, or hermitage, they were chiefly characterized by their desire to be alone with God. Yet, even the women who lived alone had an impact on the neighboring community because they began to be known for their piety and love. They not only spent time in contemplation but served others who came to visit them through prayer, counseling, reconciling, settling political conflicts, and teaching. Like Julian, Catherine, Birgitta, and Margery the anchorites were asked to share their spiritual insights and wisdom orally and in writing.

Many of the Medieval church men spent their time in scholarly works. Their disputations are largely forgotten today, read only by a few students in seminaries. But the works of the Medieval female mystics continue to be transcribed, translated, and published in many languages throughout the world. Many of their works are considered masterpieces.

Julian has the honor of being the first published author in all of English literature.st-julian-statue She follows Catherine of Siena (1347-1380, blog post 10-20-16). Catherine was the first woman to be published in the Italian dialect. Birgitta of Sweden (1303 -1373, blog post 9-12-16) is also an acclaimed author of many books. Margery Kempe (1373-1440, blog post 10-10-16) is the earliest known English autobiographer. All of these women were influential in their day.

What all of these women had in common was a spiritual experience that led to a strong devotional life. Their contemplations had strong theological and practical outcomes. They all had “revelations” or “dreams” or “visions” which did not add to official doctrine, but worked alongside the teachings of the church or the Bible to explain to the people in lay terms how to live a life of prayer and service. Because these teachers were women they were able to fill an emotional void left by the dry teaching of the men. They were able to help the everyday person approach God.

Julian became famous for her mystical visions. A mystical experience is a very real experience. We have all had spiritual experiences that we know are real, but cannot prove. We have all felt the special nearness of God during stressful times. Many of us have heard “that still small voice” on occasion during life-changing situations. We cannot discount the work of the Holy Spirit. The result of a genuine experience is peace.

(For more insight into mysticism see my post on July 20, 2016. There you will find examples from the Bible and history, and guidelines on how to judge whether or not a dream or vision is genuine.)

While at the anchorage Julian became deathly ill. When she was receiving the last rites an amazing thing happened – she received fifteen “showings” or revelations. She saw Jesus in heaven. She was also comforted with the words of Jesus, “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” At this time Julian received compassion, joy, a sense of the awfulness of sin, and the comfort of the grace of God. The following night she received her sixteenth and vision.

Julian’s sixteen visions were written down in a book, Revelations of Divine Love, the first book in English written by a woman. Julian referred to her book as “Showings”.  In it she talks about God the Father, Jesus Christ’s love for the world and the Holy Spirit.

An example of her writing is in the following passage that explains how Jesus Christ the Son of God became a man like us in order to save us.

For the same virtues which we have received from our substance, given to us in nature by the goodness of God, the same virtues by the operation of mercy are given to us in grace, renewed through the Holy Spirit; and these virtues and gifts are treasured for us in Jesus Christ…. In this union he was perfect man, for Christ, having joined in himself every man who will be saved, is perfect man. (p. 292)

Though Julian lived in an anchorhold her influence spread far and wide. Even Margery Kempe sought Julian out for her blessing. People were able to visit Julian and talk to her through her window receiving counsel and wisdom. All of the time the Julian had alone allowed her to write her book. She wrote a shorter version at first. Then after years of prayer and contemplation she wrote a longer version including the many teachings that God had given her.

Julian lived for thirty-three years after her recovery from her illness. She often wrestled with the meaning of her visions. She wrote her “Showings” in an attempt to share God’s message to her with her fellow Christians. Her writings show the depth and breadth of God’s love and are still powerful and gripping reading today. On the last page of her writing is this prayer:

Thanks be to God. Here ends the book of Julian the anchorite of Norwich, on whose soul may God have mercy. May Jesus grant us this. Amen. So ends the revelation of love of the Blessed Trinity, shown by our savior Jesus Christ for our endless comfort and solace, and also that we may rejoice in him in the passing journey of this life. Amen. Jesus. Amen. (p. 343)


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catherine_of_sienaCatherine of Siena (1347-1380), fourteenth century Christian mystic and writer, lived during a time of decline in the world. There were plagues, economic disasters, and political corruption. The Church was in turmoil. There were two popes in Catherine’s time, one in Avignon and one in Rome. Catherine was called by God to mediate conflicts in the Church and Society. Catherine became an advisor to political leaders and popes.

Catherine was named a Doctor of the Church in 1970 by Pope Paul VI. She was the first woman to be published in the Italian dialect. Her writings are still published and read by many in many languages. How did this come about?

Catherine was born in 1347 in Siena, the twenty-fourth child of Giacomo and Lapa Benincasa. Giacomo was a prosperous dyer and they had a very large home. At age six, Catherine had a remarkable experience. On the way home from visiting a sister she had a vision of heaven. At age seven she took a vow to devote her life to Christ. She refused all of her mother’s marriage plans for her and devoted her life to solitude and prayer. At age sixteen she joined the third order of the Dominican laywomen called the Mantellate. These women went throughout the streets in their familiar black and white robes serving the poor. They also maintained a highly contemplative life.

About this time the dreaded Black Plague had been killing thousands of people. Catherine fearlessly nursed the sickest people. While administering to the needs of her patients she also gave them spiritual advice. Her personal charm and down home wisdom won many friends for her.

Her piety convinced many that she was truly a woman of God to follow. Of course, this made enemies for her too. Some thought of her as just a fanatic. Later, when she had some influence among the church leaders she would be accused of just being a political manipulator. And many did not understand her mysticism.

But Catherine had the ability to discern the state of a soul and she witnessed to manycatherine-of-siena-body lost people and won many to Christ. People began to flock to her for advice. Word of her wisdom got to Avignon and the cardinals invited her to come and speak to them. Actually they were hoping to use her as an envoy to Rome to convince the people there to renounce the pope in Rome and to follow the pope in Avignon. But Catherine believed that the papacy belonged in Rome and worked to that end for the rest of her short life. She literally wore herself out and died at age 33 in Rome. (There are more details about this in my first post on Catherine of Siena, November 20, 2012.)

In this post let us look at another aspect of her life – her mysticism and her writing. Catherine led a very active life – full of travels, counseling, and writing. She kept several scribes busy writing letters and several longer works. One work is the “Dialogue”. This was a theological work written in 1377-1378 as a conversation between the “Eternal Father” (God the Father) and a “human soul” (Catherine). Using this method of dialogue, Catherine gives us her theology. The “Eternal Father” exhorts the soul to prayer, works of charity, virtue, and obedience. In the following passage Catherine explains our need for an atoning Savior:

Wherefore I have told you that I have made a Bridge of My Word, of My only-begotten Son, and this is the truth. I wish that you, My children, should know that the road was broken by the sin and disobedience of Adam, in such a way, that no one could arrive at Eternal Life. Wherefore men did not render Me glory in the way in which they ought to have, as they did not participate in that Good for which I had created them, and My truth was not fulfilled. This truth is that I have created man to My own image and similitude, in order that he might have Eternal Life, and might partake of Me, and taste My supreme and eternal sweetness and goodness. But, after sin had closed Heaven and bolted the doors of mercy, the soul of man produced thorns and prickly brambles, and My creature found in himself rebellion against himself.

And the flesh immediately began to war against the Spirit, and, losing the state of inno- cence, became a foul animal, and all created things rebelled against man, whereas they would have been obedient to him, had he remained in the state in which I had placed him. He, not remaining therein, transgressed My obedience, and merited eternal death in soul and body. And, as soon as he had sinned, a tempestuous flood arose, which ever buffets him with its waves, bringing him weariness and trouble from himself, the devil, and the world. Every one was drowned in the flood, because no one, with his own justice alone, could arrive at Eternal Life. And so, wishing to remedy your great evils, I have given you the Bridge of My Son, in order that, passing across the flood, you may not be drowned, which flood is the tempestuous sea of this dark life. See, therefore, under what obligations the creature is to Me, and how ignorant he is, not to take the remedy which I have offered, but to be willing to drown.

The “I” in the dialogue is God the Father explaining why man cannot reach Him without His provision. The provision is a “bridge” – the Lord Jesus Christ. The soul can only come back to God through Christ. It is interesting that Catherine also shows how sinful, ignorant men choose to go their own way and refuse God’s merciful provision. Only the humble soul will turn to God and accept God’s way for salvation.

There are many other theological themes covered – the Trinity, Humanity, Self-Knowledge, and Humility to name a few. Catherine’s use of imagery, metaphor, and everyday scenes from life make her works easy to read. We can appreciate her writing all the more when we realize that she suffered slander, ridicule, and violence throughout her life. She was often weak from fasting, yet she persevered. She did not teach her followers anything that she was not ready to live up to herself.

Catherine’s theology is still relevant today. She identified with Christ and this gave her the courage to persevere in her calling. Her theology is grounded in her denial of her self and total willingness to give God the glory for everything. We admire her for her courage, strong-willed determination, and obedience to God no matter what. Catherine calls us to lives of humility, grace, holiness, love and discipleship.



















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Sometimes when the said creature was at sermons where Germans and other men preached, teaching the laws of God, sudden sorrow and heaviness filling her heart caused her to complain with mournful expression at their lack of understanding, desiring to be refreshed with some crumb of spiritual understanding of her most trusted and most entirely beloved sovereign, Christ Jesus, whose melodious voice, sweetest of all savours, softly sounding in her soul, said, ‘I shall preach to you and teach you myself, for your will and your desire are acceptable to me.’
Then her soul was so delectably fed with the sweet converse of our Lord, and so margery-kempe-illuminationfulfilled with his love, that like a drunk she turned herself first on one side and then on the other, with great weeping and sobbing, powerless to keep herself steady because of the unquenchable fire of love which burned very strongly in her soul. Then many people were amazed at her, asking her what was wrong with her; to which she, like a creature all wounded with love, and in whom reason had failed, cried with a loud voice: ‘The Passion of Christ slays me.’
The good women, feeling sorry for her sorrows and astonished at her weeping and crying, loved her much the more as a result. And therefore they, wanting to cheer her up after her spiriitual labour, through sings and tokens – for she did not understand their language – prayed her, and in a way compelled her, to come home with them, not wanting her to leave them.
Then our Lord sent her grace to have great love and great favour from many persons in Rome, both religious men and others. Some religious came to such of her countrymen as loved her and said, ‘This woman has sown much good seed in Rome since she came here; that is to say, shown a good example to the people, through which they love God more than they did before.’
One time this creature was in a church at Rome where the body of St. Jerome lies buried, which was miraculously translated from Bethlehem to that place and is now held in great reverence there, beside the place where St. Laurence lies buried. To this creature’s inward sight St. Jerome appeared and said to her soul, ‘Blessed are you, daughter, in the weeping that you weep for people’s sins, for many shall be saved hereby. And daughter, don’t be at all afraid, for it is a singular and a special gift that God has given you – a well of tears which man shall never take from you.’
With such manner of conversing he highly comforted her spirits. And he also gave great praise and thanks to God for the grace that he wrought in her soul, for unless she had had such spiritual comfortings it would have been impossible for her to have borne the shames and wonderings which she suffered patiently and meekly for the grace that God showed in her.
  (The Book of Margery Kempe, pages 135,136)
My friends, after taking several weeks off from looking at the lives of Medieval Christian women mystics, we now return to the 14th century. There are some very special women who lived during this century, Julian of Norwich, Bridget of Sweden (see post Sept. 12, 2016), Catherine of Siena, Dorothea of Montau, and Margery Kempe. Of these women, the most controversial is no doubt Margery Kempe. Her story is very intriguing, but she is worth studying because she was the very first English woman to write an autobiography. Her book gives us a good picture of Medieval life.
After reading the lengthy quote above, I’m sure many questions came into your mind. I don’t usually quote at such great length, but this time I want you to judge for yourselves.
Margery Kempe (1373 to 1440) lived in the prosperous medieval port of King’s Lynn in Norfolk. She married John Kempe and had fourteen children. Later in life she and her husband agreed to live separately. This was often done during the Middle Ages. The Church taught that celibacy was holier than marital relations. After the “purpose” for marital relations was fulfilled – having children – couples often moved apart. Some joined religious communities and spent the rest of their lives in serving Christ by working among the poor.
Being a married woman, Margery could not become a nun. So she chose to go on pilgrimages. Her longest pilgrimage was a journey to Jerusalem via Rome. In the quote from her book above, we see that some people seemed to have been blessed by her stay among them.
Margery began to have visions. She believed that Jesus spoke to her directly. Often in her visions she was an eyewitness to the events in the Gospels. Because she saw the damnation of souls she would weep as she had the visions. This weeping would be extreme and many times she would interrupt the sermons of the priests as they preached. Naturally she drew a lot of attention to herself. Some said she was a saint; others said she was putting on an act; still others said she had a demon.
When her husband became old and infirm, Margery returned home to care for him. On her way back to England she was arrested and examined as a heretic. At her examination however she revealed her thoroughly orthodox faith and she was able to continue on her way home.
At home one of Margery’s sons listened to her pleading and turned from his sinful ways to Christ. He married a good woman and they gave much comfort to Margery as she aged. Eventually both Margery’s husband and son died.
Margery traveled again and finally as an old women (she says 60) she returned home to Lynn to stay. She was met with mixed feelings. Some praised her piety; some censured her. Margery decided to write her autobiography, becoming the first English woman to do so. Below is a picture of a page of the only copy of her book in existence now put online by the British Library.

Because she could not read or write, Margery found a confessor to write her book. She wrote 89 chapters with the help of one scribe. Some time later with a new confessor she added 10 chapters.
So, what are we to make of Margery Kempe? She was a very intriguing woman. When she faced an examination by the Archbishop of York, Margery was secure enough in her own faith to reply boldly to the archbishop when questioned. The archbishop said very roughly to her, “Why do you weep so, woman?” She answered, “Sir, you shall wish some day that you had wept as sorely as I.” (p. 163) She was basically telling him that he needed to repent of his sins. The archbishop then examined her as to the Articles of Faith and she passed with flying colors. He did not know what else to do with her but let her go.
But what about the other extra-biblical things? What about her talking with dead saints or even talking with Jesus or Mary? What are we to make of her hysterics and her loud weeping? Were these real or a product of her imagination?
Margery saw her tears as prayers. She was weeping for sinners. She was weeping because of the suffering that Christ underwent for her sake and for all sinners. She wept because so many did not repent.
In the end, I believe that I will get to meet this extraordinary woman in Heaven. I have questions about some of her visions, but her sincerity is not in doubt. We must remember what the times were like. Mysticism was popular. She may seem strange to us today but she did not seem so to the many whose lives she touched.


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It is virtually certain that Oxford developed around a mid-Saxon monastic church (the predecessor of the present Cathedral) at a major crossing over the Thames, and that the first head of the church was a princess named Frideswide.

John Blair: “Saint Frideswide: Patron of Oxford”

Dear Readers,

As I mentioned in my last post (9/14/16) I have had an opportunity to visit London and Oxford. While in Oxford I toured the famous Christ Church. Harry Potter fans will recognize the Great Hall. The pictures in this post were taken by me during the tour.


But even more exciting to me was the fact that the church gives credit for its original founding to a woman – St. Frideswide. Our tour guide emphasized St. Frideswide during our entire tour. Frideswide established the original monastery there around the turn of the eighth century.


Most of the present cathedral was built at the end of the twelfth century as a priory church for the Augustinian Canons who lived there. More additions were completed through the centuries. Christ Church still functions as a college in Oxford.

This shrine to St. Frideswide was built in 1289 but broken up in 1538 when the Reformer’s criticized praying to saints. Parts of the shrine were discovered in a well in the nineteenth century and restored to the church. The beautiful chapel and shrine were finished as we see them in this picture in 2002.



A beautiful stained glass window (by Edward Burne-Jones, 1858) graces the end of the Latin Chapel – the area in Christ Church commemorating Frideswide’s story.


There is a special chair in cathedrals for the archbishop to sit in when he visits. Above this special chair is another memorial to St. Frideswide. The women seated to her right and left are St. Catherine and St. Cecilia – two women who were also well known for their faithful acts of piety and charity. Both were also persecuted for their faith. Notice below the women an image of an Ox crossing a Ford!


Frideswide, (also called Frithuswith, or Fritha as she was known to family and friends), was born around 650 AD. She was born a princess to King Didan of Oxford and Queen Sefrida. Sefrida was a very godly woman, known for her charitable works. Her parents, Didan and Sefrida loved her very much.

Frideswide was carefully brought up by a governess, a holy woman named Elgitha. Frideswide began to love and honor God under Elgitha’s teaching and her life took a spiritual direction from an early age. She was a gifted student and within six months had learned the entire Psalter.

After her mother died Frideswide lived in Oxford with her father. She persuaded him to give her some land so that she could build a church.

The period between 650 and 720 was the age of the great monasteries. Many were founded by kings and princes, and in our story a princess. These were “double” monasteries, where men and women both lived and worshipped and served. At this time the monasteries were mostly self-governing. It would be many years before the monasteries were consolidated under the rule of the organized church.

Frideswide and twelve other women formed a convent. Her fame spread not only as a pious woman, but it was known that she was rich and beautiful. This attracted Aelfgar, the Earl of Leicester and he pressed his suit for her hand.

Here is where the story gets interesting. Frideswide refused to get married. She desired only to serve Christ for the rest of her life. This made Aelfgar angry and he decided to take Frideswide by force. He traveled to the forest where she was living. He was struck blind as he neared Frideswide! Only after he repented and asked for her forgiveness was his sight restored. In another version of the story, Aelfgar sent two messengers ahead with flattering words and his offer of marriage. Frideswide rebuffed them and they returned to Oxford to report to Prince Aelfgar. They were struck blind as they entered the city.

Like other “legends” the story is probably embellished, but no doubt there is a kernel of truth in the various accounts of Frideswide’s life. Something certainly happened to convince Aelfgar to leave Frideswide alone. God certainly blessed Frideswide and the community with her service to them.

Here is one account of the story according to William of Malmesbury (c. 1125) from John Blair’s book, “Saint Frideswide: Patron of Oxford” (p. 29, 30).

In old times there was in the city of Oxford a monastery of nuns, where rests the most holy virgin Frideswide. A kings’ daughter, she spurned a king’s bed, avowing her chastity to the Lord Christ. But the king had set his heart upon marrying the virgin, and when prayers and flatteries had been spent in vain he prepared to take her by force. Frideswide learnt of this and fled into a wood. No refuge could be secret from the lover, no coldness of heart could deter him: he followed the fugitive. So once again, when the young man’s frenzy became plain, with God’s help she entered Oxford at dead of night by means of hidden ways. By morning the persistent lover had hastened there too, and the girl, now despairing of flight and too weary to go any further, prayed to God for protection for herself and punishment for her persecutor. As he passed through the town gates with this thegns, a heaven-sent blow struck him blind. Understanding the wrongfulness of his persistence, he placated Frideswide by means of messengers and recovered his sight as quickly as he had lost it. Thus it came about that kings of England are afraid to enter or lodge in that town: it is said to bring ruin, and they all shrink from the danger of putting it to the test. So the woman, secure in her maidenly victory, established a monastery there where she ended her days, submitting to her bridegroom’s call.*

In the time of king Aethelred, the Danes, doomed to be slain, fled into that monastery and were consumed by fire together with the buildings through the insatiable anger of the English. But soon the sanctuary was purified by the king’s penance, the monastery rebuilt, old lands returned, new possessions added. In our own time** only a few clerks remained there, who lived as they pleased so Roger bishop of Salisbury gave the place to Wimund, a canon of excellent learning and no mean holiness. He toiling fruitfully at the task entrusted to him, established there for God many canons to live according to the rule.***

*This “bridegroom” is the Lord Jesus Christ.

** c. 1125

***The canons lived under the rule of St. Augustine.

Frideswide lived happily at Oxford for many years. She eventually retired to Binsey, where she built a chapel. She prayed for water and a spring appeared. You can visit that site today. She eventually died on October 19, 727. She was buried at St. Mary’s church.

I was happy to be able to climb up the tower of St. Mary’s. Here is a view from there.



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