Julian of Norwich re-visited

I was recently asked to contribute a short piece to a book about the meaning of Julian of Norwich today.

It kindly gave me a chance to re-visit the cell and the woman I have written about in the past and who became a novel.

It was a happy return for me and I offer my clumsy thoughts here; though I start, lost in Norwich…

It’s not a well-trodden path to find her; I somehow expected more, large signs for the throngs of godly tourists, pointing the pilgrim way to her door.

‘Get your Julian memorabilia here! Hazlenuts a snip at £4.99!’

But Norwich doesn’t do this. Julian – and the chapel where she lived as an anchoress for forty years – is well hidden. And there are no throngs, godly or otherwise.

I even struggled to find mention of her in Norwich’s colourful tourist brochure.

She may have been the first woman to write a book in English; and what a remarkable book it was. But in the city today, she is on the edge of things, as perhaps she was in life.

They prefer another daughter of the city, to be honest: the brave hero of WW1, Edith Cavell. There’s much more on her for the history tourists. 

Perhaps Julian should have got out more; but that was the thing, she didn’t and she couldn’t because she was anchoress, anchored to a place, sealed in to a small cell, stuck on the side of St Julian’s church near the harbour in King Street.

Lock down for Julian was not an inconvenience; it was permanent.

I first came across Julian over thirty years ago in lovely little books of bite-sized quotations; and probably what struck me, without me realising at the time, was how free she felt, as if, in her good moments, she breathed a different air to me, something purer.

There’s no striving in Julian, no ‘should do better’, no moral codes; attitudes which dominate so much religious instruction; instead, there is just the utter love of God and the total security to be found in that love.

No rules; just love. This was different.

Of course, when you get to her work – ‘The Revelations of Divine Love’ – a fuller picture of her emerges.

Asked to do a modern translation of her Middle-English text, I had to sit down and read the whole thing; and not just the brilliant bite-sized bits.

It was a shock at first.

Here we become aware of the shadows; aware of her obsession with the suffering of Christ on the cross, painfully, bloodily and powerfully described. The opening chapters are not for the faint-hearted and do put some people off.

We also discover her own desire to suffer as a child; her wish to be given ‘an illness unto death,’ which is a strange childhood ambition. But there was clearly a great deal of shame in the girl; which makes her adult discoveries more telling.

And she questions God endlessly; the questions keep coming even when you might think God has just answered them. Julian is quite up and down; it’s often either brilliant or a disaster in her Norwich cell.

So there’s a deep sense of struggle here, which the bite-sized quotations didn’t suggest. And we haven’t even mentioned the loss of her husband and child, (strong clues for this in her work) and the plague which decimated her dear city on three occasions during her life time.

The 14th century brought uncertainty to life which, even with Coronavirus, we can barely imagine; and few shine in uncertainty; it does expose the cracks in us, and there were cracks in Julian.

But when she’s free, she’s almost uniquely free. I can’t think of any spiritual writing before the 20th century which equals her freedom. (Possibly Thomas Traherne.)

And her freedom lay not in penance offered or prayers made or in trying harder or in obedience to the church – but in the God she discovered in her visions.

Here is religion without the baggage and accretions of fear and guilt.

Freedom did not come naturally to Julian; shame and anxiety were familiar guests, but not freedom, not in her youth. But it pressed on her daily and occasionally broke through, creating some beautiful passages of writing.

And while love doesn’t answer any of our questions, really none at all – the whys, whats and whens of everything – it does set us free.

This was nothing like the God of the 14th century church, who was a rather unpleasant fellow, bordering on the psychotic. And ,of course, Julian’s God wasn’t a fellow anyway. She refers often to Jesus as ‘mother’. Basically, she says: ‘It is fine to call God father as long as you also call her mother.’

And I suppose my motivation for making a novel out of her ‘one precious life’ was to set this freedom in the un-free world and un-free cell, in which she was enclosed.

What might it look like lived in the real world?

People like Julian can easily end up as fridge-magnet saints. You’ll know her most famous quotation: ‘All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.’

Wonderful stuff; but what does it mean in a life? What did it mean in her life? What does it mean for yours? And so my novel ‘The Secret Testament of Julian’ works this territory, attempting to reach beyond the bite-sized bits, the fridge-magnet quotes – and into her marrow, her being and the dysfunctional world in front of her.

It is a risky thing to do; everyone has their own Julian; and they may not want her clothes stained or her struggles exposed. Some prefer just the halos.

But you can’t speak with a halo; and a halo cannot help you when you’re down.

So what is her message for today?

This is difficult because everyone will find something different in her words; we hear and read things in such different ways. One reviewer, a great fan of Julian, vigorously attacked my novel for hearing things differently from her.

This is how it is.

But for me, the big headline for our day would be freedom, because I come across a lot of un-freedom in my work, in the world and in myself.

Julian offered freedom – freedom from judgement, freedom from fear, freedom to enjoy this world as gift.

And this delightful discovery grew from one her most daring images – God in a point from which everything flows. Yes, everything. Nothing and no one is untouchable. God is here in the joy and the mess. It is a huge step towards self-acceptance.

Here is the first principle of the contemplative declaration: ‘Everything belongs’, both the shadow and the light. It doesn’t provide any answers, love doesn’t do this; but it is the end of judgement.

And how Julian had feared judgement! This is evident from her work and the motivation for her childhood desire to suffer. So who better to free us of it? Who can speak more authentically than her on the subject – for who but God could have helped her to this place? 

Julian struggled as we struggle; but she stumbled across remarkable truth, given to her in a series of visions on May 8th, 1373, when she was suffering greatly; and her mother thought her dead.

The priest even gave her the last rites. But in these visions were images and stories unlike any others.

And while the visions brought her old house down, it was a good collapse. For in ‘Revelations of Divine Love’ we see her building a new one, with kinder light and better air.

It was a house like no other house in the road.

And it’s called ‘Freedom’.

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