That shocking woman from Norwich
Posted by Simon Parke, 07 May 2021, 1.41pm
She was like one of those serial killers when the neighbours discover the awful truth.
‘Always kept himself to himself, that one.’ That’s what they say.
And Julian, one of the foremost women in English history, she kept herself to herself as well – particularly after she chose to be sealed in a cell, attached to St Julian’s church in Norwich.
She became an anchoress, one anchored to a place. A funeral service was sung at her bricking-in, as the door was sealed-up, bricked-up, stone by stone – because she would die there, she’d not be walking out.
She’d be carried out; this was, in a manner, her tomb – though maybe also a throne, an unlikely throne.
Sometimes what appears like death is life in disguise.
It was here in the cell that she prayed; here she saw folk who came to her window for counselling. ‘If Carlsberg did counselling services…’
Though she received only four legacies by way of thanks over the years; she was clearly not famous in Norwich; and perhaps other anchoresses were more popular than her.
But it was here, in secret and in obscurity, she became the first woman to write a book in English. Chaucer and Langland were doing for the men, and Julian was doing it for the women, though more truthfully, she was doing it for everyone, after she was given sixteen visions on her deathbed.
That was a terrible night and she tells us about it in her book. She was so rough, so ill, so wasted, that her mother had declared her dead. She was definitely dead.
The priest, though, said she wasn’t dead yet – but soon would be and gave her the last rites, holding the cross before her.
And then, when everyone had given up, including Julian – along came the visions, the revelations, the showings, given on May 8th 1373. Also given to Julian were forty more years of life to reflect on them, to live them, to understand them, to write them down.
The Revelations of Divine Love – the first book written by a woman in English.
She reminds me of Jesus, in a way. I mean, in terms of character, they were very different. Jesus was much happier with anger, for a start. Julian didn’t do that. But there’s one big similarity – they were both discrete but magnificent subversives.
Jesus would often say that he did not come to abolish the law or the prophets; that not a jot or tittle was under threat from him – but, in truth, he drove a convoy of camels through them. He left nothing standing, including the Temple.
And likewise, Julian paid endless lip service to Mother Church, declaring herself a faithful child of the received faith. But in her own sweet way – and it was sweet, you see, there’s no bitterness in Julian – she didn’t leave much standing either.
What she particularly dismantled was the church’s vision of God, who in those days was not a figure you’d want in, or anywhere near, your church.
He was psychotic, unpredictable, in constant need of calming down, in constant need of placating – ‘buy an indulgence, make a confession, feel terrible, whip yourself, starve yourself to death – anorexia mirabilis! - it’s worth a try, it’s the sort of thing God likes. He might just give you a break’...
So, Julian was very shocked when her visions revealed no wrath in God at all; no judgement and no blame. ‘I found no wrath in God,’ she says. And breathe.
But what was she to do with this news?
Her Bishop, the bishop of Norwich, Henry Despenser, was constantly furious. He had to lead some services, of course, it goes with the job; but he was never happier than when killing the Scots or the French. And this was Julian’s mentor.
Though really, he was only mimicking the endless rage of his God. Guilt and fear - these were the pillars of the church. Guilt and fear! They brought in the money.
They kept the faithful in order. They gave priests their authority: ‘Te absolvo’.
But what if God wasn’t angry?
You can see why Julian had to hide away to write…why her work had to be smuggled out, to re-surface eventually in a monastery in France. There was no place for that sort of talk in England, the book burnings had begun; and by the end of her life, so had the people-burnings. England now incinerated its people.
Julian wouldn’t be read in England for over six hundred years; so, for one of the foremost women in English history, she wasn’t to the fore at all.
But it’s all about the climate, isn’t it? I don’t know how you assess people. How do you assess people? Professional success? Social skills? I’m told many judge people judge by their shoes. Or is it their ability to make a sponge?
When I assess, I assess climate - the climate people create around them. What climate does that person create around them? Because that is who they are. We create around us what we are.
And Julian created a climate of freedom – no judgement, no blame. Imagine that…imagine that.
Imagine stepping away from the Jekyll and Hide God, who on the one hand loves us so much, ‘love you lots!’ - and on the other, is really very angry for much of the time and not at all happy with our performance, picking us up on even the smallest of things.
You do always need to be apologising to this God.
But imagine now stepping away from that Jekyll and Hide God, who has lasted way beyond the 14th century – and Julian does step away.
She steps right away.
And as soon as you take rage out of the equation, then the maths can accommodate something that looks - and more importantly, feels - like love.
Once blame and shame are removed - and Julian does remove them - then the experience of love can flourish and we can breathe, we can weep for joy, we can exist.
And perhaps, who knows, the self-hate, the self-punishment, the sense of failure, the endless sense of shame – perhaps these things can begin to dissolve in the sunlight?
It is time.
‘I discovered that love is his meaning,’ she writes at the end of her Revelations. ‘I discovered that love is his meaning.’ And no wrath – no wrath at all.
I should say here, that Julian didn’t write about social issues.
You wouldn’t have known a plague was killing half of England as she wrote, with bodies piled high in the streets.
Neither would you know that, while she sat in her cell, social inequality brought into being the first organised political movement in English history.
The Peasant’s Revolt became 20,000 men marching on London to speak with the king, led by the remarkable ex-priest – he was thrown out of the church - John Ball.
No hint of any of this in Julian; or of the savage government reprisals, which included Norwich.
And unless you read very closely, you wouldn’t even know she lost a husband and child to the plague.
She didn’t write about these things. It wasn’t a political tract or a misery memoir.
She preferred to speak of love, which may calm you or infuriate – some do prefer the denouncements of social prophets; they feel more relevant.
But that isn’t what Julian did. She spoke of love and the inner freedom it brings.
Spirit, matter and energy – these are different expressions of life: the spiritual, the physical, the wilful.
But Julian placed spirit at the core; and in particular, love.
If spirit, matter and energy are equals, then spirit is first among equals, love is first among equals, and let the others follow.
Spirit is the music; matter and energy are the dance.
As she says right at the end of her work, her final discovery: love is his meaning. And there is no meaning outside of this. What is the meaning of all this?
And it’s this story, and this nailed-on fact, that is behind one of God’s strongest pastoral assertions in her visions which I have here put into verse:
First, all the things God didn’t say. Then the one thing God did say:
I never said that torment would not arrive, loud, at your place
I neither said you’d weary not, exhausted by the pace
I never said distress would pass you by, your dear life shun,
But I did say, please remember well, you shall not be overcome
Julian of Norwich had to stay secret; her freedom song had to wait for over 600 years. But the wait’s over and the secret’s out today.
She also said, by the by, that it is fine to speak of God as father, as long as we also speak of her as mother. But that’s for another day.
For now, we stay with the discovery with which she ends her writings: Love is his meaning. Love is her meaning – whatever that means for you and your one precious life today.
‘And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’
Simon has written a novel on the life of Julian of Norwich, called ‘The Secret Testament of Julian’, published by White Crow.
With Martin Hoile, he has also written a musical on her life called ‘All Shall Be Well.’ The songs can be found here.