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Julian of Norwich, Part I: The Mystic in the Anchor-Hold

Monday, July 20, 2015

Mystics and Non-Dual Thinkers: Week 2

Julian of Norwich, Part I
Monday, July 20, 2015

Lady Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) is one of my favorite mystics. I return to her writings again and again, every few months, and always discover something new. Julian experienced her “showings,” as she called them, all on one night (May 8 or perhaps May 13, 1373) when she was very sick and near death. As a priest held a crucifix in front of her, Julian saw Jesus suffering and heard him speaking to her for some 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.

This was such a profound experience that Julian eventually 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 looking into the church that allowed Julian to attend Mass in the sanctuary and another window so she could counsel and pray over people who came to her on the street. You can still visit it today, as I was once privileged to do. Such anchor-holds were found all over 13th and 14th century Europe. There, holy people lived in solitude and contemplation, while still offering council and prayer for others. Nicholas Von Der Flue illustrates the same pattern in Switzerland.

Julian felt the need to go apart and reflect on her profound experiences. It took her twenty years to find a language that the larger Church could understand, and then it took us over 600 years to finally take her seriously. People like Julian don’t want to engage in oppositional thinking, and they don’t need to prove they’re right, so they often become hermits. They go apart to find a way to experience their truth in a healing, transformative way. Julian first wrote a short text about the showings, but feeling it did not do her experience justice, she rewrote it as a longer text, entitled Revelations of Divine Love (this is the first book written in what we now call English by a woman). Julian’s interpretation is unlike the religious views common for most of history up to her time. It is not based in sin, shame, guilt, or fear of God or hell. Instead, it is full of delight, freedom, intimacy, and cosmic hope.

Our modern sensibilities may see parts of Julian’s vision as gory, such as the blood flowing down Jesus’ face, but to Julian it was simply God’s outflowing love. Mystics tend to understand all things symbolically much more than the rest of humanity. She saw the flow as the love that first flows between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Deus ad intra). This is the love that, if we allow it, flows from God through us to others and back to God (Deus ad extra). This is the love that enabled the risen Jesus to return to his physical body, now unlimited by space or time, without any regret or recrimination—while still, proudly, carrying his wounds. “Our wounds are our glory,” as Julian puts it. This is the utterly counterintuitive message of the risen Jesus, and Julian got it!

Whether our wounds are caused by others or by our own mistakes, Julian frames it all as grace, saying, First the fall, and then the recovery from the fall, and both are the mercy of God.” Julian’s showings helped her to understand that it is in falling down that we learn almost everything that matters spiritually. Humans come to full consciousness precisely by shadowboxing, facing their own contradictions, and making friends with their own mistakes and failings. As Lady Julian put it in her Middle English, “Sin is behovely!” No wonder it took us 600 years of largely dualistic thinking to begin to take her seriously.

Adapted from Following the Mystics Through the Narrow Gate, disc 7 (CD, DVD, MP3 download);
Intimacy: The Divine Ambush, disc 7 (CD, MP3 download);
Immortal Diamond: The Search For Our True Self,
p. 85;
Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, p. 39;
Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, pp. xx, 136

Gateway to Silence:
“Nothing can come between God and the soul.” —Julian of Norwich

Photograph (detail) by pedrojperez
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