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)
Julian 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. 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)