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A Mystic for Our Times

Julian of Norwich

A Mystic for Our Times
Sunday, May 10, 2020

Recently I have again been reading Lady Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), one of my all-time favorite mystics. Each time I return to her writings, I always find something new.

Julian experienced her sixteen visions, or “showings” as she called them, all on one May night in 1373 when she was very sick and near death. As a priest held a crucifix in front of her, Julian saw Jesus suffering on the cross and heard him speaking to her for several hours. Like all mystics, she realized that what Jesus was saying about himself, he was simultaneously saying about all of reality. That is what unitive consciousness allows you to see.

Afterwards, Julian felt the need to go apart and reflect on her profound experience. She asked the bishop to enclose her in an anchor-hold, built against the side of St. Julian’s Church in Norwich, England. Julian was later named after that church. We do not know her real name, since she never signed her writing. (Talk about loss of ego!) The anchor-hold had a window into the church that allowed Julian to attend Mass and another window so she could counsel and pray over people who came to visit her. Such anchor-holds were found all over 13th– and 14th-century Europe.

Julian first wrote a short text about the showings, but then she patiently spent twenty years in contemplation and prayer, trusting God to help her discern the deeper meanings to be found in the visions. Finally, she wrote a longer text, titled Revelations of Divine Love. Julian’s interpretation of her God-experience is unlike the religious views common for most of history up to her time. It is not based in sin, shame, guilt, fear of God or hell. Instead, it is full of delight, freedom, intimacy, and cosmic hope. How did she retain such freedom, we ask?  Maybe and precisely because she was not a priest, ordained to speak the party line?

As I read her words this time, what strikes me is the similarity between Julian’s time and our own. Here is how author, scholar, and Episcopal priest Mary Earle describes Julian’s fourteenth-century context:

Julian lived at a time of vast social, [religious,] and political upheaval, incessant wars, and sweeping epidemics. Norwich, with a population of around 25,000 by 1330 . . . was struck viciously by the plague known as the Black Death. At its peak in the late 1340s in England, it killed approximately three-fourths of the population of Norwich. A young girl at this time, Julian was certainly affected in untold ways by this devastation. When the plague returned, she was about nineteen. . . . [1]

In her anchor-hold, Julian may have recognized the potential spiritual benefits of “social distancing” during a time of crisis, such as the awakened ability through solitude to be personally present to divine love. Yet we must remember that she also let God’s love flow right through her to those on the street requesting her counsel, and to us through her writings.

References:
[1] Mary C. Earle, Julian of Norwich: Selections from Revelations of Divine Love—Annotated & Explained (SkyLight Paths: 2013), xx—xxi.  

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Intimacy: The Divine Ambush, disc 7 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), CD, MP3 Download.

Image credit: Revelations of Divine Love (detail), mid-15th century, (Add MS 37790) f. 97r from The British Library Manuscript, The British Library, London, England.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Julian [of Norwich] experienced . . . sixteen visions, or “showings” as she called them, all on one May night in 1373 when she was very sick and near death. As a priest held a crucifix in front of her, Julian saw Jesus suffering on the cross and heard him speaking to her for several hours . . . then she patiently spent twenty years as an anchorite in contemplation and prayer, trusting God to help her discern the deeper meanings to be found in the visions. Finally, she wrote a long [text] titled Revelations of Divine Love. —Richard Rohr
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