Remembering Julian of Norwich

Today (May 13th) is the Feast Day of Julian of Norwich, one of my favourite historic female role models.

Julian was an English anchoress who lived from 1342 to around 1416. As an anchoress, she voluntarily vowed to remain permanently enclosed in a cell adjacent to the Church of St. Julian (from which she gets her name), to devote her life to prayer. When she was struck by serious illness at the age of thirty, she received sixteen visions that centered on the crucifixion of Jesus. She later wrote about these visions in the text now known as Revelations of Divine Love. She is regarded as one of the most important Christian mystics and the first English woman identified as an author.

I had to read Julian’s Revelations as a part of a seminar in Medieval Literature  for my Master’s degree. I had the privilege of reading it in its original Old English, which is fun because it’s so different from modern English that feels like you’re reading a whole new language, but similar enough that you don’t have learn a whole new grammar to understand it. Out of all the texts I studied in university, this book has probably had one of the most profound and lasting effects on me. Julian’s visions of Christ are some of the most soothing words I have ever received.

Julian is best known for having received these words from Jesus:

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

She’s also well known for likening Christ to a mother:

And our Saviour is our very Mother in whom we be endlessly borne and never shall come out of him.

Julian’s vision of God is supremely loving and has no wrath in him whatsoever.

All in all, I just find Julian to be a kick-ass woman and remarkable role model. The first female English author! Devoting her life to prayer in a cell! Wow. What an inspiration.

If ever I were to get a tattoo (and I won’t — DON’T WORRY, MOM), it would almost certainly be that line from Julian’s Revelations about how all will be well. I even know where I would put it: along the edge of my foot, where I would see it every day as I put my feet on the floor to meet the morning. (The alternative text would be the passage from Revelation in the Bible where God says, “I am making all things new.”)

I am a person who needs regular reminders that this story of the universe ends well.  I am easily led to believe that the universe is a dark place and that God was careless when he decided to create anything, because there is just no way all this evil and suffering can be redeemed. I need regular reminders there is, in fact, a benevolent Storyteller behind the events of this world, and he has a glorious happy ending in mind, the likes of which we can barely begin to fathom.

Reflections on Julian’s Revelations: How Is it Possible that All Will be Well?

I don’t understand mysticism. Neither my Mennonite nor my Evangelical backgrounds leave much room for mysticism.

I don’t understand the visions Julian received. I have no way of knowing whether they were really from God, or just the mad ravings of a dying woman. All I can say is that they feel right. (And they don’t, in my understanding, contradict Scripture.)

Julian struggled with how it could be possible for all to be well when the church teaches that there are many souls who are eternally damned. I can relate to this struggle. She questions Jesus, saying: “There be many evil deeds done in our sight and so great harms take that it seems to us that it were impossible that ever it should come to a good end” (ch. 31).

But Jesus tells her that he has a great secret “deed” in mind that we cannot fathom, but which will manage to make all things well. Julian hints at universalism (i.e. that all people will ultimately experience  salvation), but suggests that God will accomplish this without contradicting the church’s teachings on damnation.

“But what the deed shall be and how it shall be done, there is no creature beneath Christ that knows it, nor shall know it till it is done,” Julian explains. * She refers to this great deed as God’s “privy counsel” or secret plan.

There are two parts to God’s plan for making all things well: The first involves “our Saviour and our salvation,” and “this blessed part is open, clear, fair, light, and plenteous, for all mankind that is of good will shall be included in this part.”* In other words, this is the part that is revealed to us in Scripture, in the doctrine of salvation for all members of the Church. The other part, however, “is hidden and spared from us, that is to say, all that is beside our salvation. And that is our Lord’s privy counsel.”*

When Julian wonders how this can be possible, Jesus reminds her,”That which is impossible to thee is not impossible to me. I shall save my word in all things (i.e. I won’t contradict my words regarding damnation) and I shall make all things well.”* He later promises her, “Thou shalt see thyself that all manner of things shall be well.”

I, too, am deeply comforted by this notion of a secret deed which Christ has hidden away, which will blow us all away and will make sense only when he has done it.

I don’t understand any of it, but I have decided to trust that however he does it, God will indeed make it so that all will be well.

And I’m grateful to that medieval anchoress for having the courage to share her revelations with the world.

*(All quotations are taken from Julian’s thirteenth revelation, and are my translation.)

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  1. Yay! Julian is just the best. Did you know she was not only the first woman to write in english, but the first theologian to write in English? I think that’s pretty cool. I like how you drew out her 13th revelation about how God will work all things through his own privy council. Thanks for the reminder to re read her agai
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  2. Thanks a lot for telling us about Julian. I have looked her up in the Internet and her theology looks really interesting and peculiar, if a bit unorthodox.
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  3. Very cool. Thanks for this!
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