May 8th 2023 is the 650th anniversary of the Revelations given to Julian of Norwich. To mark the day, this is a transcript of my talk on Julian of Norwich at St Luke’s, Holloway in 2020
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, for life; a cell attached to St Julian’s church in Norwich, which you can still visit.
She became an anchoress, one anchored to a place. A funeral service was sung at her bricking-in, as the door was 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.
It was here in the cell that she prayed; and here she saw folk who came to her window for counselling. ‘If Carlsberg did counselling services…’
And it was here 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.
It had been touch and go. She was so rough, so ill, so wasted, that her mother had declared her dead. ‘She is 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, (she was eager for death) along came the revelations…and also, 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. But there was one big similarity. He’d often say how 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 all. He left nothing standing, including the Temple.
And likewise, Julian paid endless lip service to Mother Church. She declared herself a faithful child of the received faith. But in her own sweet way – and it was sweet, you see, for 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 and in constant need of placating – ‘buy an indulgence, make a confession, whip yourself, starve yourself to death – anorexia mirabilis! – it’s worth a try, it’s the sort of thing he likes, he might give you a break’…
So, Julian was very shocked when her visions revealed no wrath in God at all; neither judgement nor blame. ‘I found no wrath in God,’ she says.
What was she to do with that?
Her Bishop in Norwich, Henry Despenser, was constantly furious. He had to lead some services, of course; it went with the job. But he was never happier than when killing the Scots or the French. We’ve all been there.
But 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? Or their shoes? I’m told shoes are important. Or perhaps the quality of their cake 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 angry for much of the time and not at all happy with our performance, picking us up on even the smallest of things.
You always need to be apologising. How do you begin? With a confession.
It’s a vision of God that has lasted way beyond the 14th century. But Julian steps away from it; 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? But perhaps self-hate, self-punishment, the sense of failure – perhaps these things too 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, leaving bodies in the streets.
Neither would you know of the social inequality which brought into being the first organised political movement in English history. I speak of the Peasant’s Revolt – 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 all that in Julian; nor of the savage government reprisals against the protesters, which included executions in 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 misery memoir.
She preferred to speak of love, which may calm or infuriate; some do prefer the denouncements of social prophets. ‘More relevant!’ they say.
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? Love.
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.’
(My novel of her life, ‘The Secret Testament of Julian’, published by White Crow, is available on all the usual book outlets.)