Ever enjoy a movie, conversation, walk, or pizza? You can thank Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth century mystic who invented the word. She was also the first woman to write a book in English, though Revelations of Divine Love wasn’t published until 300 years after her death.
We can thank Julian for much more than her creative, playful writing style. She showed us God’s maternal tenderness, God’s refusal to blame or shame, God’s forgiving and open arms. Some of her main themes are introduced below, an overview which should entice readers to learn more. But first, a brief biography.
Throughout Julian’s lifetime (1343 –1420), waves of plague swept through Europe, eventually killing close to half the population. Some scholars speculate that Julian’s husband and child or children were killed by this disease devastating her native England. At the age of thirty, Julian grew critically ill. A priest held up a crucifix to the dying woman and said, “Gaze into the eyes of your Beloved. You’ll fly straight into his arms.”
But God apparently had other plans. On her deathbed, Julian had a series of visions which invigorated the rest of her life, eventually recorded in her book, also called Showings. She recovered, and continued to unfold the meaning of these revelations.
For the next 47 years, she lived in an anchorhold, a room attached to a church with one window opening onto the street and one into the church. (Her never leaving this room sounds like the 14th century version of pandemic lockdown!) At the time there were more than 200 anchoresses in England, and her city Norwich was the second largest and busiest in the country. Two helpers, Sarah and Alice brought clothes and food, emptied the chamber pot. Julian’s generous and authentic lifestyle was held in high esteem; many sought counsel at her outer window. Her only companion? A cat.
It’s a disservice to focus on Julian’s living conditions: she moves beyond her own specific context of plague, to reassure people of all times that God is larger; God is sovereign. “Everything that is made is as nothing, compared with almighty God.” (Ch. 5) Evil is the illusion of separation from God, and God triumphs over evil. “That love of God is hard and marvelous. It cannot and will not be broken because of our sins.” God places no blame.
No one developed the idea of God’s motherhood like Julian until the end of the twentieth century. Far ahead of her time, she saw gender fluidity in God. “As truly as God is our Father, so truly God is our Mother.” (Ch. 59) By creating us, Julian said, Jesus is our true Mother. Second, Jesus takes on human nature, the motherhood of grace. Then, by doing the vigorous, natural work of mothers, Jesus keeps us alive: motherhood in action. It’s not sentimentalized motherhood, but hard sacrifice and daily service.
If anyone ever learned dour and punitive images of God, Julian presents another, more positive side. She has a generous, affirming view of the human condition: “Our birthright is never-ending joy,” she says. It’s logical—if separation from God causes our sadness, Julian reaffirms in different ways: “Between God and the soul, there is no between.”
Julian lived over 70 years, and endured the plague, the hundred years’ war, papal schism, assassinations of a king and archbishop. But her extensive writing never mentions those disasters. Instead, her focus is on the marvelous love of One who doesn’t punish, who is free of anger, full of tenderness, and who wants us to trust that eternal grace, thus becoming radiantly unafraid.
Excerpted from an article on Julian which appears in May/June Liguori Magazine, p. 20, Liguorian.org