Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich is a good example of how we read texts selectively, imposing on them our own interests and preoccupations. To some she is a feminist theologian, defying male authority with her delicate understanding of the motherhood of God and her optimistic view of human nature. To others, she is the great seer of the Passion, whose lively imagination and homely turn of phrase brings Calvary before our eyes in painful detail. To others still, she is one of those gifted women who transcend conventional categories but whose prayerful quest for understanding has produced a theology of great subtlety and beauty. I would not myself call Julian a feminist, any more than I would call her a mystic (a term used in its current sense only since the seventeenth century). I think she is something much more interesting than that. She is a unique and challenging voice from the Middle Ages. Her Revelations of Divine Love are not meant to be merely read or commented on; they are meant to be engaged with, taken to heart, lived. We are not to be mere spectators of the Passion; we are to feel the drops of blood falling from Christ’s head, the drying wind that blew across Calvary; we are to meet him in his ‘stained and dirty kirtle’ and know him for our Saviour. Julian is much more systematic in her writing than might at first appear, and it is only gradually that her purpose unfolds. She is worth taking time and trouble over because her theme is Life itself.

Note: if you do not yet know this book by Professor Turner, I thoroughly recommend it:


St Anselm: a monastic theologian

St Anselm was definitely ‘my’ kind of theologian, despite the bleakness of some of his views. He was hesitant, questing, where others are more assertive; his prayers and meditations have the note of genuine piety rather than being mere rhetorical set-pieces; his tenure of the see of Canterbury, his political ineptitude, all speak of the monk rather than the career churchman. Almost everyone knows his phrase fides quaerens intellectum, faith seeking understanding, and I think it is as good a way as any of expressing both the intellectual endeavour of monastic life and something of what is meant by that overworked word ‘mysticism’.

For Anselm, as for many before and since, the whole venture of faith implies a connectedness, a rootedness in Christian tradition. Professor Denys Turner, one of the most perceptive of contemporary writers, argued very persuasively in the last chapter of his The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism that what so many now think of as ‘an experience of God’ had a wider meaning in former times. I think Anselm would have agreed that it is a phenomenon rooted in prayer, both public and private, in liturgy, in the sacramental worship of the Church and in theological reflection and exploration — moments of perception, of affirmation and negation, intended for the whole Church, not some specially privileged part of it. That is why the concept of sentire cum ecclesia, of thinking with the Church, is so essential.

Learning to think with the Church requires effort and self-discipline, finding out rather than simply opining. It is an activity rooted in prayer but calling for hard work, too. St Anselm was a great theologian because he was a man of prayer but also because he read — widely, attentively, thoughtfully — and because he put what he read and prayed into practice. We are not all called to be monastics, but shouldn’t every Christian be, to some degree, a theologian?