Julian of Norwich
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Julian of Norwich

 
James Martin, SJ wrote a text called: My Life with the Saints (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2006), and while he didn’t write a chapter about Julian of Norwich, one thing that colors his book is that his particular insights about those saints about which he does write are based on his daily living and praying with these particular heroes and heroines.  Julian’s contributions to our understandings of prayer and mysticism have been significant.  To understand Julian of Norwich (1343-1423) as a 14th century English mystic may require we try to situate ourselves in her world a bit, and pray along with her to our loving God.  Evelyn Underhill tells us that the English mystics of the fourteenth century form a tight group beginning with Richard Rolle, who died in 1349, and ended with Julian who seems to have completed her Revelations in 1393.  Other works, like The Cloud of Unknowing and the Scale of Perfection, seem to have been written by other English recluses, one male and one female.  All wrote in the vernacular though they knew Latin, and all were marked by Christocentric emotion.  Some of that may have been borrowed from early Franciscan mysticism or the Medieval mystics, but the English mystics made it their own.  They were colored by devotional and artistic influences, and many of Julian’s writings are describing images of art.  Such was the landscape of Christian culture in Western Europe at the time.  Rolle reminded them to meditate on Scripture, esp. the psalms, and music was a part of their prayer.  Julian as well as Rolle exhibited a rugged individualism in terms of spirituality yet maintained an obedience to Holy Mother Church as central.  The author of The Cloud of Unknowing was a contemplative, loving silence and tranquility, but also one who engaged in mystical philosophy.  Walter Hilton wrote the Scale of Perfection, but addressed it to an anchoress.  Using deep psychological understandings, it became a guide book for how-to approach prayer for decades.  Underhill sees Julian as the last in this line, but also the one who benefits from all her predecessors.  
 
julian-of-norwich
 
Julian was known first as an English girl, who was born in Norfolk and identified simply as “the youth of Our Lady”.   We do not know her original name.  As a youth, she was beset with an illness and wished for an early death.  When she began to see visions, however, especially of the Passion of Christ, she decided she should live a solitary life, reading and praying near the city of Norwich, which in her days was a center of theological activity.  She was literate, and well versed in English and Latin rhetoric, so she may have come from an upper class family and she is considered to be the first woman of letters in England.  Since this young English woman felt drawn to the solitary life, she took up residence as an anchorite in the hermitage near St. Julian of Conisford’s Church outside of Norfolk.   Once she began to live in the hermitage outside the church, people began to refer to her as Julian, the name of its patroness.  Today, Julian of Norwich is regarded as one of the most significant saints and mystics of the 14th century.
 
Julian referred to her visions as “showings” and often recounted them in written form.  These “showings” were often accompanied by suffering and true joy.  She writes:
 
               These revelations were showed to a simple uneducated creature
               living in mortal flesh in the year of our Lord 1373 on the eighth day of May.    
               (when she would have been 30 years old)
 
               This creature had desired beforehand three gifts of God by his grace.  
               The first was to enter into the spirit of Christ’s passion.  
               The second was bodily sickness in youth.  
               The third was to have from God the gift of three wounds…
               the wound of true contrition, the wound of natural compassion,
               and the wound of full-hearted longing for God.
 
Somehow I understand at least one or two of her choices here.  I have long been attracted to what was going on in the mind of Christ at Gethsemane.  He prayed that the “cup” be passed from him if it could, but then he acquiesced to “Thy will be done”.  He was suffering acutely in that garden and artists have even depicted his tears in blood.  He knew what was coming.  In my studies and prayer and in some of life’s experiences, I have discovered that suffering for others is never far from love.  Jesus may have been trying to show us that in Gethsemane.  Julian wanted to enter into that mystery.  She also asked for true contrition, for unlike the Christ, we are all in dire need of that since sin surrounds us so.    
 
Julian’s first “showings” occurred in 1373.  She wrote them down and they became known as her “short text”.  Twenty years later, with a great deal more maturity and wisdom, she revisited the same experiences and re-wrote the showings in an expanded version, and referred to them as the “long text”.  
 
Jesus as Mother
 
Julian is unique for her understanding of God as parent, including God as mother as well as Father.  She especially identifies Christ with motherhood.  A recent reading in the lectionary from Third Isaiah (66:10-14c) elaborates how tender and intimate a mother’s relationship is with her child and suggest that God’s relationship is similar but with far more intensity:
 
       Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad because of her, all you who love her; 
       exult, exult with her all you who were  mourning over her!  
       Oh, that you may suck fully of the milk of her comfort, 
       that you may nurse with delight at her abundant breasts!  
       For thus says the Lord: 
       Lo, I will spread prosperity over Jerusalem like a river, 
       and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing torrent.  
       As nurslings, you shall be carried in her arms, and fondled in her lap; 
       as a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; 
       in Jerusalem you shall find your comfort.  
       When you see this your heart shall rejoice and your bodies flourish 
       like the grass; the Lord’s power shall be known to his servants.
 
Julian is not the only saint or mystic that refers to God as mother, but as Brendan Doyle in his book of Meditations with Julian of Norwich, tells us:
 
               no one has developed this theme more deeply or more broadly  than has
               Julian of Norwich.  She ascribes motherhood to God, to the Trinity, to Christ
               and to the Church.  She says, for example, that “in our making, God Almighty
               is our loving Father and God all wisdom is our loving mother.”  We were
               created “by the motherhood of love, a mother’s love which never leaves us”
               she declares. 
 
Harvey Egan, in his Anthology of Christian Mysticism, also tells us that:
 
 
               Julian’s acute experience of the feminine side of God puts her in touch with
               The Motherhood of the Trinity and of Christ..…her trinitarian and incarnational
               mysticisms ground her experience of and insight into the reality that “as truly
               as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother.”  And Christ is our true
               Mother because all things were created in and for Christ, because he took on
               human nature and died for us, now feeds us, and allows us to rest upon his
               breast to gaze into his open wound to “show us there a part of the Godhead
               and the joys of heaven.”
 
Julian found God found in nature and employed a creation-centered theology.  She used a lot of romantic feminine imagery, and turned to nature as a backdrop for many of her explanations.   Sometimes one will be surprised by her insightfulness.  One of her more famous “Showings” is a story about a simple hazelnut:
 
God showed me in my palm
a little thing round as a ball
about the size of a hazelnut.
I looked at it with the eye of my
understanding and asked myself:
“What is this thing?”
       
And I was answered: “It is everything that 
is created.”
 
I wondered how it could survive since
it seemed so little it could suddenly
disintegrate into nothing.
 
The answer came: “It endures and ever will
endure, because God loves it.”
 
And so everything has being
because of God’s love.
 
Obedience to Church
 
Even if Julian in the 14th century sounds like a feminist of sorts, and some of her insights appear to be radical for her day, she was never far away from being totally obedient to the Church.  For her, the Trinity and the Incarnation and the Church were all part of the same dynamic.
 

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Pope Francis

Mysticism, according to its historical and psychological definitions, it that direct intuition or experience of God; a mystic is a person who has, to a greater or less degree, such a direct experience – one whose religion and life are centered not merely on accepted belief or practice, but on that which the person regards as first hand personal knowledge.                    

Evelyn Underhill