Norwich’s finest. Or, Julian cuts the mustard
Newsletter: July 2018
Dear Web friends
I write from sun-kissed Seaford, but think of another place: Norwich, once the second largest city in England, a trade gateway to Europe and the 14th century home of perhaps the greatest English contemplative, a woman called Julian… Julian of Norwich, who spent 40 years of her life in a cell, as an anchorite.
I’ve written a novel about her, and here’s an attempt to explain why. She was the first woman to write a book in English, which is remarkable enough; but she disappeared from view until her re-discovery in the 20th century. After 600 years of anonymity and deep-lying obscurity, she is suddenly on everyone’s lips, with an international fan base. Thomas Merton named her, with Cardinal Newman, ‘the greatest English theologian’.
As you will know, she is most famous for her words, ‘All shall be well’; though it was quite a common saying at the time – something two people might say when leaving each other. But it is her description of the reality beneath these words which really startled me, and set me off on the novel adventure.
On the face of it, there was nothing well about 14th century England. It was crucified by several bouts of bubonic plague, reckoned to have killed over 60 per cent of the residents of Norwich. It was also a time of gross inequality and political unrest, culminating in the Peasant’s Revolt, savagely put down. And in the midst of it all was the appalling church, fat on the free labour of the poor, and keeping all under control with guilt and fear, as if life wasn’t difficult enough.
Human wickedness and the flames of hell were pictured on every church wall and never far from preachers’ lips. The plague was framed as God’s judgment on them all. God was angry… very angry. What more was there to say?
In this setting, Julian’s hopeful words could sound insensitive – and certainly cheap, as the rotting pile of plague bodies in the street awaited collection; or as another starving peasant was hanged for insurrection; or another English translation of the Bible burned. (Scripture had to be in Latin; it was not to be read by any Tom, Dick or Harry.) All shall be well? Really?!
Julian’s genius lay in her picture of God, given to her in a series of death-bed visions, and then pondered for many years. Perhaps most shocking at the time – and it still shocks – was her claim that God was in both the sin and the recovery from sin. The fall is divine as well. Somehow, and from somewhere, she finds a God in whom there is no judgment and can be no judgment – only love. As she says, ‘His meaning is love.’ The church likes to speak of God’s love, but can sound disingenuous. Read the small print, and we discover that this God of love will send you to hell if you don’t respond in the right way. This is not love; more the behaviour of a sociopath.
But Julian, from her cell attached to the church, describes love – and the hope love brings – in a number of beautiful images… as well as some very disturbing ones. Where this insight came from, who can say? It certainly didn’t arise from her circumstances, and no known human whispered it in her ear. This is why I wanted to meet her, and I can best do that by writing a novel, told in the first person, by Julian herself. Why did she pray for a near-death experience? Why did she choose containment in a cell for 40 years? And how, amid these traumatic times, did she speak with such optimism? The clues are there.
The book is called The Secret Testament of Julian. Imagined here is Julian’s own earthy telling of her life. It is not a life without difficulties, however, and here is no plaster saint. We meet the woman beneath the halo. I hope it will be out in September this year. But I wanted to give you the first heads-up.
Sorry, I’ve gone on a bit… someone else’s enthusiasm is such a mixed blessing, but one more thing…
Julian’s book was called Revelations of Divine Love. I attempted my own translation/version of her work a few years ago, including an introduction. I hope it does her fresh and vital justice. If interested, there’s more about it here:
Revelations of Divine Love
In the meantime, I’ve been to Mark Warman’s recording studio, and added four new songs to my songs page: Clueless, The Small Room, Sweet Mystery and Weary. Maybe there’s a tune or a lyric for your present moment. You’ll find them here:
Songs for the journey
But for now, I wish you peace, hope and courage, however this finds you. I liked a quote I saw on Twitter recently:
‘Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.”’ Mary Anne Radmacher
All shall be well.