Julian of Norwich: A Different View of Life
All shall be well, and all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.
Julian of Norwich lived most of her life sealed inside a room and yet held a very positive and upbeat Christian view of life. Julian was the author of Revelations of Divine Love, the first English-language book written by a woman. Yes, she was the first woman to write a book in English!
Julian lived a large part of her life as an Anchoress in a secluded room in a church in Norwich, England. The church she lived in is now called St. Julian’s church and is still in existence today. An Anchoress (or Anchorite) committed their lives to serve Jesus and agreed to be sealed in a room attached to a church for the balance of their lives. In theory, their only human contact would be as they received, food, water, and other items through a small opening. Their rooms would have windows so they could see the outside world. Their only companion would be a cat—this was a practical necessity to keep small rodents away.
Julian’s view of life came from a small window.
While anchorites were confined to a life of seclusion, in reality, they ministered and were connected to their local community through these windows. They offered prayers to those needing comfort or advice to those who were troubled. Locally, they were an important part of town. A common saying in these towns was: “if you want to know the latest news, you either speak to the local barkeep or the town’s Anchorite.”
Norwich, during Julian’s time, was second only to London in terms of commerce and religious activity. Julian wasn’t alone in her life as an Anchoress. Of the sixty-three churches in Norwich, thirty-six had an Anchorite in residence. Julian became the most famous.
Her book, Revelations of Divine Love, written late in the 14th century, did not receive much fame until 1670 when it was finally published. It continued to be reintroduced over the next few centuries and can still be bought today on Amazon.
Because there are no references to her in the local priory, Julian is believed to have been a young, widowed mother and not a nun. Little else exists that gives much background about her.
Much of what we know comes from her writings.
Prior to writing Revelations of Divine Love, and perhaps after the death of her family, she prayed that she could experience the same pain that Jesus had on the cross. Later, she became deathly ill for seven days. During this period, she had sixteen visions from God. The most famous is called the walnut vision. From these visions, she wrote her book.
Her theology of a loving God and the condition of humankind is often used in theological schools as an alternate view of the essence of God and humankind. Her most famous quote: All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be exceedingly well, reflects this condition of a loving God.
Julian believed that sin would always be overcome and that, while humankind would be tempted and travailed, God would never let us become overtaken by sin. She believed that sin itself was worse than hell but that it’s value eventually led to an acceptance of God and a certainty of God’s love.
She also saw God similar to a parent. She even referred to Jesus’s role as part of the trinity as the mother who is loving, merciful, and wise.
Julian contended that God saw humankind’s potential as perfect and waits for the day when we mature to the point where sin and evil no longer affect us. She described this attachment by God to humankind by saying, God is nearer to us than our own soul. This is certainly a positive view of our relationship with God.
Recognition well deserved
It was only in the 20th century that Julian of Norwich became a darling of scholars and theologians. Even then, her fame seldom escaped beyond the halls of academia. We can theorize that her writings remained in her secluded room and were only discovered after her death. Any promotion of her ideas would have necessarily come later when others discovered her writing. Maybe the original document or book was put in a church warehouse and was later stumbled upon by a researcher before finally being published in 1670.
The Catholic church has not made her a saint, but she is included in the studies of the Catechism. In theological schools, she is part of Church history classes.
But there she resides in relative obscurity.
Revelations of Divine Love does not have a high Amazon ranking, partially because of Julian’s relatively small fame and because the book is very dense. It is more a book of reflection that is to be savored and not devoured. It is the kind of book where you read a paragraph and can meditate on just that paragraph for the whole day, like a companion who has given you an intriguing but difficult question.
But what if Julian’s theology is right?
That God is filled with love for humankind. That God will constantly pursue us and never give up on us. That the very essence of God is love. That God doesn’t judge or condemn, but instead provides hope and love.
It gives me hope—not only for myself—but for humankind. Reading her book can be hard, but perhaps a few of her quotes will give you a deeper understanding of Julian of Norwich. Just click this link, and you will be transported to a different and optimistic theology.
Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman