Early & Medieval Church History: Julian of Norwich

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In an era where suffering was commonplace and despair rampant, Julian of Norwich, through a series of visions and writings, held up the suffering of Christ as evidence of love to nurture and comfort others, calling them to radical identification and unity with Christ. The only date given in our excerpts is in the opening remarks of the scribe, who tells us that Julian is “still alive in...1413,” although the introduction alludes to more specific dates given in other non-excerpted parts of Julian's writings<ref>Julian of Norwich, “An Anchoress of England,” in The Writings of Medieval Women: An Anthology, trans. Marcelle Thiebaux (New York: Garland Publishing, 1994), 446. </ref>. The introduction also notes that several manuscripts exist for her longer text, and one from her shorter text, indicating that the text is for the most part reliable—or if not reliable, at least difficult to prove otherwise.

Writing at the end of the 14th century, Julian would have been surrounded by death and chaos. The Bubonic plague brought widespread death and sickness throughout Europe as well as England, where her visions and writings were recorded. Political and military violence contributed to the chaotic climate, as her country was at the height of the Hundred Years War between France and England. Struggles for succession to the English throne called into question the continuity of temporal leadership. Even the world of faith that would have touched Julian most closely was in turmoil: The Great Schism established rival competing claims to the Roman Catholic Papacy, and the once solid authority of the church (its source, at least) was now in dispute. Perhaps it is not surprising that sealing one's self in a small, fragile cell anchored to a large, immobile, stone church to lead a life of contemplation and solitude became an ever more popular option among holy men and women of that age.

What is surprising, however, is that in this era of horrible suffering and disease, one might actually yearn for “bodily sickness” and “wounds,” or more strangely, have her desires granted for a time and received with great joy and wonder. Or that a woman, living under the auspices of an increasingly male-governed ecclesiastical system, would choose to speak of heavenly authority in such bold, feminine language. It also seems unusual that a woman who voluntarily separated herself from creation and civilization would find deep meaning in the concept of unity and “oneness” with Christ, and choose a city as a metaphor for God residing within each of us. Finally, having never borne nor raised her own children (that we know of), it is interesting to find Julian speak with such great authority of childbirth, breastfeeding, and the nurturing, motherly aspect of Christ's love.

The apparent contradiction of these recurring motifs in her writing at once identifies her as connected and sympathetic to her 14th century context, but also able to speak to it in a fresh and hopeful way—unwilling to accept the chaos and despair of her time, Julian takes each of these bleak facets of medieval existence and uses them for both comfort and rallying cry. If plagues and sickness are the order of the day, then let us “have more knowledge of the bodily pains of our Lord” so that we may also “have a greater knowledge and love of God in the bliss of Heaven<ref>Ibid., 447-448.</ref>.” There are echoes of Perpetua and the early martyrs of the church in this sentiment, although Julian (in characteristic complexity) still found it “loathsome to die<ref>Ibid., 447.</ref>.”

If the cities around us are prone to sin, corruption, and invasion, let us remember that the most important city is the one within us, a “vast stronghold” with Christ as its “bishop” and “king” where he makes his “most homelike home, and his everlasting dwelling<ref>Ibid., 460.</ref>.” Only in this city can be found the true security, righteousness, and permanence that are lacking in the world without. Here as well, there are obvious echoes of Augustine's City of God.

While Popes and Cardinals were fighting bitterly for control of the church, and while warring Kings perpetuated acts of violence and destruction, a fitting and Christlike example of leadership was difficult to find. Consequently, Julian reminds us of God's more feminine graces, and that “to the property of motherhood belongs nature, love, wisdom, and knowing”—essentially all the things lacking in the prevailing masculine institutions of leadership in her day<ref>Ibid., 456.</ref>. With this alternative image of God to balance and even supersede the temporal powers, we are able to confront the sin so readily visible in the world with Julian's famous vision-inspired assertion that “all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well<ref>Ibid., 452.</ref>.”

Julian's initial visions and subsequent development of them later in life almost seem to follow a rudimentary Scholastic pattern, beginning with faith and the acceptance of God's sovereignty (in her case, through divine revelation) and from there moving to a more deep understanding of God through writing, reflection, and commentary. At the same time, however, she does not follow the rigid and formulaic pattern of Thomas Aquinas—and in her mysticism perhaps presents a counterpoint and balance to a prevailing theological approach that can at times seem detached and distant from God. In Julian's writings, God is not a platonic “being,” vastly greater than anything we can imagine, but rather, our loving “maker” who “dwells in our soul” as we likewise dwell in God. Nor is it essential that God be proved ontologically or cosmologically, but rather that we simply be “knitted and 'oned' with him” so that we may “never be parted with him<ref>Ibid., 454.</ref>.”

It is worth noting of Julian's writings—in particular her choice of language in which to write—that while she chose to isolate herself from her people as an anchorite, she ultimately is better able to reach out to them and connect with them in subsequent generations, because she writes in middle English, the burgeoning common language of her people. It is unclear whether her choice of language is intentional or due to a lack of facility with the scholarly languages of the time, although the introduction suggests that despite her protestations she is likely well-enough educated<ref>Ibid., 443.</ref>. While countless ascetics from her time and before were content to pass their lives in solitary contemplation and prayer, the fact that Julian of Norwich carefully wrote out her visions, continued throughout her life to elaborate extensively on them, and then made them available to others, seems to indicate a care for her community and a fundamental desire to for God's love “to be better known than it is<ref>Ibid., 461.</ref>.”

Finally, in an environment of war and plague, it seems only natural to posit that families were torn apart, mothers bereft of their children, and children orphaned or otherwise deprived of the care and nurture commonly found in more stable societies. As with her metaphor of the city within our souls, Julian reminds her readers that in Christ we have all the love, care, and nurture we might need. To grieving mothers who have borne children only “to pain and to dying” she promises that “our true mother Jesus...bears us to joy and to endless living<ref>Ibid., 455.</ref>.” To those who—like hungry children—are in need of nourishment, she evokes “our precious mother Jesus” who “tenderly” feeds and sustains us with “the blessed sacrament” of himself<ref>Ibid., 456.</ref>. Even to those who wander and stray, like a mother Christ “allows her child to fall sometimes...for its own benefit” in order to instruct us and send us running back home<ref>Ibid., 457.</ref>. Through this profound imagery which touches every human born of a mother, Julian knits back together the fabric of a fraying and frightened society.

As I encountered Julian of Norwich, her story, her visions, and her deep confidence in God, my thoughts kept drifting to another woman mystic, more famous in “pop culture,” who happened to arrive on the medieval scene shortly after Julian. Joan of Arc, like the Julian, also received visions from God and spoke eloquently of her faith to the context of her time and place. While being burned at the stake as a heretic, Joan of Arc requested that a crucifix be held in front of her eyes, perhaps that she too might identify with Christ's suffering.

The striking difference between the two, however, is that while Julian of Norwich evokes the nurturing, peaceful, feminine qualities she attributes to Christ, Joan of Arc is more remembered for being a woman who adopted the masculine trappings of war, armor, and military command. It fascinates me to think that while Julian's bold use of feminine language for God never drew criticism from the church, Joan was ostensibly put to death as a heretic for wearing men's clothing. The case could also be made that secluded anchorites are far less threatening to temporal powers (church and otherwise) than women who crown kings and lead armies into battle. While both women were revered in their time, only the warrior was eventually canonized, and enjoys higher name recognition today. I wonder if this is emblematic of the choices we have made in Western civilization, and of the masculine values we still cling to in the aftermath of colonialism. I don't doubt that God spoke to both Julian and Joan, using each for important purposes in their respective contexts. But if we are to participate in bringing God's peace and good news to the nations today, I wonder if perhaps we could use a little bit more of the anchorite from England, and a little less of the warrior-maiden from France.

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