Sunday 3 August 2008

Julian of Norwich - Seminar

Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich, a visionary mystic, her life can be broken down into three periods: life before the visions; the visions; and life after the visions. From a historical or biographical perspective, there exists little data to help understand our author. What little evidence we have about her is derived from her own writings, both the longer and shorter texts and some court documents. Today in fact we still know very little about Julian of Norwich's life, before or even after her visions. Though there is a lot of academic debate about her, her life and many aspects of both, we can in fact only draw a few authoritative conclusions from her own writings and some legal documents from her time. We can piece together some information from the accounts of her visions both the Longer and Shorter texts. What we do know or know to be close to appropriate dates are as follows:

1343: December, born somewhere around New Year's.
1373: May13th, Received first revelation.
1380: 2nd Revelation

1388: Fifteen years of reflection since first revelation
1390: Further understanding (Thus the Longer Text)
1413: Still living, based on court documents of Wills being bequeathed to her.

So with these sketchy materials we have little specific information. Compared to some of our other authors there is relatively little personal information to get an understa
nding of our author from.

Perhaps one other historical detail worthy of mention is some background of Norwich. I would like to state that historically, Norwich at that time was the second largest city in England. It was second only to London, in size, and population, as well as wealth and social development. But even with how little we know about this woman outside of her own writings, there is currently immense interest in her and her words. Steven Fanning in his book Mystics of the Christian Tradition puts it is this way: "Julian's interpretation of her revelations has drawn intense modern interest, for she presents a view of God this is personal and unique, brimming with optimism and couched in simple and direct language." In fact that is one of the points we will focus on later while looking at our specific selections, that she presents God as both our Father and Mother, but specifically Christ as Mother and Ideal mother for us who are children of God in faith. In fact that theme of Christ as Mother, is a focus in most of the commentaries and outside sources I have found. Mary Ford-Grabowsky in the book she edited, Sacred Voices: Essential Women's Wisdom Through the Ages; states: "Julian's spirituality of the motherhood of God has made her one of the most popular mystics of our time, as she was in the fourteenth century. In a daring departure from the dominant language of her era, she portrays the three masculine persons of the Christian Trinity (Father, Son, and Spirit) as a nursing mother overflowing with kindness and love." We will notice this theme of the motherhood of God, again and again as we examine our writings. But before we get to that specific task, I would like to bring up some speculation about Julian's credentials. Cooledge & Walsh in A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich: Part 1, do a very critical analysis of Julian's life, and times, both of her writings and other contemporary historical documents, such as court Wills, and other papers. They state that Julian had a very high level of academic training and they draw this conclusion from the fact that her works, both the shorter and longer texts, have extensive quotes from the bible as well as other Christian authors that precede her. They surmise: "Before she began to compose the shorter text, Julian already knew all of the Vulgate; especially, she can be seen to be deeply familiar with all four gospels, the Pauline and Johannine epistles and Hebrews, the Psalms, the sapiential books and Deutero-Isaias. We can only make conjectures about how she acquired her Latin and her learning, for she is as reticent about this as over every other part of her external life;" Again here we see hr unwillingness to discuss her life before becoming a hermit in the cell at the Church of Norwich. Cooledge & Walsh conclude that Julian possessed a high level of academic training, which they find in evidence, through her extensive quotes of the bible ad other authors that proceed her. This will to either privacy or secrecy may impede a biographical examination, but her writings lay open and ready for examination.

Before we b
egin just a note of textual correction of the textbook, on page footnote 69 states that this is from chapters 55 and 56 of the longer text. Yet in the three different translations I looked at the selections are actually from chapters 59 and 60.Let us now turn to our specific texts and begin to examine them. The texts are taken from two different versions of the same book, now known as the Longer or Shorter text depending on which is used. The Shorter was written after reflection upon her 16 Showings or Visions or Revelations depending on the term you are most comfortable with. Our first excerpt comes from the shorter text, and the other is from the Longer text. The Longer text was written after further understanding was given to Julian around the year 1390, close to 30 years after the initial revelations. Even though she later wrote a much expanded and revised version of her understanding of the revelations and their meaning, there is little evidence that there was ever doubt of their authenticity. Steven Fanning states in Mystics of the Christian Tradition; "Nonetheless, it is obvious that she never doubted the truth of her revelations and she was confident that somehow the infinite love and power of God would be able to make all things well." So now let us proceed to the texts themselves.

he first except we are to look at is part of her first showing/revelation. The first showing acts like a prologue to the other fifteen, it shows us her understanding of spiritual quest, and her understanding of God. It also introduces us to the concept of God as Mother. This is in strong contrast to Clare of Assai, who on page 166 of our text presents a strong masculine image of Christ as Bridegroom. In this first excerpt Julian shows us that she desired to be close to God. She hungered for Him and she sought gifts from God. She was deliberate and intentional about seeking God, and specifically sought answers to specific prayers. She sought to be brought to the point of death, so that she might experience God's closeness in a new and profound way. Through this experience she sought, sickness, Christ's Passion, and the seeking of 3 wounds. It appears that all of her prayers were answered and beyond her expectations. In this first revelation she had an understanding of six things as seen on the bottom of page 191, and top of page 192, she has an understanding of the following:

1. His (Jesus) Passion
2. The Virgin Mary

3. Divinity
4. The goodness of creation
5. Everything is made for love
6. God is good, and that which is good is of God.

Yet even after seeing all this, she desired more as she states at the end of this section: "Rejoicing in what I saw and wishing, as much as I dared, to see more, it that were God's will, or to see for a longer time what I had already seen …"

We now move on to our final two excerpts, which are both from the longer version of the text. The first is on the Trinity, which is one of our theme's from Tyson's introduction. She begins with a short statement, on page 191, but one of profound theological truth, "God the blessed Trinity, who is everlasting being, just as He is eternal from without beginning, just so was it His eternal purpose to create human nature," here we see her understanding of the triune God, and the Godhead. In the next paragraph we have the introduction of the concept of God as our Mother, yet she also has the idea of God as our spouse. In the next paragraph we have many new concepts, she states "I saw and understood these three properties: the property of fatherhood, and the property of motherhood, and the property o
f the lordship in one God." Julian presents us with her view of how the different aspects of the Trinity interact with us, and us with them. The first aspect, the Father, is our protection and bliss. Her understanding interprets Christ, as brother, mother and savior. Finally, the Holy Spirit is a reward and gift. These are more than concepts to Julian, who outlines the different ways that each of these aspects of the Trinity interact with us. On page 193 she states that that the trinity as Father, Mother and Lord as our nature.

In the next paragraph she focuses again on how the different aspects of the Trinity interact with humankind. She states on page 193: "And our substance is in our Father, God almighty, and our substance is in our Mother, God of all wisdom, and our substance is in our Lord God, the Holy Spirit, all goodness, for our substance is whole in each person of the trinity, who is one God." Even though her language is new, and she introduces us to the concept of God as mother, her theology is sound, unlike other authors like Master Eckhart who was sanctioned by the church for his writings and interpretations, Julian was never under such scrutiny. Julian's writings were accepted by the Church of her time. She appears to push the boundaries on what was acceptable in her time, and stretch the thoughts of her contemporaries and even some modern readers. Yet she always stays true to the
God, and sound doctrine.

Then we come to our final selection. Here again we see a strong focus on the trinity, and especially different roles for each person of the trinity. Julian states "Our Father wills, our Mother works, and our good Lord the Holy Spirit confirms" We see a strong focus here on different roles, but each significant in how the trinity work in our life. As we have noted Julian's writings focus primarily on the trinity, but not just the trinity, specifically her understanding of the trinity. Which is now and expanded.

I see Julian as a mystic who stretches me to see an aspect of God that I had seldom approached before. (What is that) The American Catholic Priest, Sociologist and author Andrew M. Greeley always refers to God as "She", and though I enjoyed his writings it was always hard for me to relate to a female mother, because of my own family situation. Yet through these readings, I can now have an appreciation for such language and can even see a need to approach God as both Mother and Father, Christ as Brother, savior and Mother. As far as contributions to the concept of spirituality within the Christian tradition, Julian has stretched me most. She presents a close, intimate personal God, a God she experiences as both Father and Mother, and a God who is active in her life. Her visions only serve to draw her deeper into relationship with God, and seeking God even more. Therefore I would like to leave you with a quote about Julian and her writings. Austin Cooper in his introduction to Julian of Norwich, reflections on Selected Texts; states: "She comes across these centuries as a great Christian woman who has much to teach us and whose message reminds us of the beauty and joy that are inseparable from the Christian faith." And that is what I would like for you to take from today's readings, a renewed joy and sense of beauty, in God, Creation and in the spirituality we are pursuing.


  1. Mystics of the Christian Tradition; Steven Fanning, Routledge, New York, 2001, p.125
  2. Sacred Voices: Essential Women's Wisdom Through the Ages; Ed. Mary Ford-Grabowsky, HarperCollins, San Francisco, 2002, p.91
  3. A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich: Part 1, Cooledge & Walsh, Universa Press, Wetterren, Belgin, 1978, p. 43
  4. Mystics of the Christian Tradition; Steven Fanning, Routledge, New York, 2001, p.126
  5. Invitation to Christian Spirituality: An Ecumenical Anthology. Tyson, John R. New York: Oxford UP, 1999, p.192
  6. Invitation to Christian Spirituality: An Ecumenical Anthology. Tyson, John R. New York: Oxford UP, 1999, p.192
  7. Invitation to Christian Spirituality: An Ecumenical Anthology. Tyson, John R. New York: Oxford UP, 1999, p.192
  8. Invitation to Christian Spirituality: An Ecumenical Anthology. Tyson, John R. New York: Oxford UP, 1999, p.193
  9. Invitation to Christian Spirituality: An Ecumenical Anthology. Tyson, John R. New York: Oxford UP, 1999, p.194
  10. Julian of Norwich, reflections on Selected Texts; Austin Cooper OMI, Twenty-third Publications, Mystic, Connecticut, 1988, p.4


Tyson, John R. Invitation to Christian Spirituality: An Ecumenical Anthology. New York: Oxford UP, 1999

Cooper, Austin OMI Julian of Norwich, reflections on Selected Texts
Twenty-third Publications, Mystic, Connecticut, 1988

Fanning, Steven Mystics of the Christian Tradition;
Routledge, New York, 2001

Ford-Grabowsky, Mary Sacred Voices: Essential Women's Wisdom Through the Ages; HarperCollins, San Francisco, 2002, p.91

Cooledge & Walsh A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich: Part 1, Universa Press, Wetterren, Belgin, 1978, p. 43

(First written for RS 383 Shapers of the Roman Catholic Tradition in the winter of 2003.)

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