Julian of Norwich is Herself and Not Another

Today* many will be celebrating Julian of Norwich (c. 1342 – c. 1416), but I wonder which Julian they will be celebrating: the theologian and mystic, firmly grounded in the reality of late medieval England, or the construct of more modern times, the feminist avant la lettre with some eminently quotable things to say about the motherhood of God which can be (mis)used to undermine the patriarchy as part of a secularist agenda? I must confess to a personal interest because my community of profession played an important role along with the Bridgettines in the transmission of the so-called Long Text, and Julian’s Revelations were among the works that Fr Baker recommended the Cambrai nuns should study, as they and their descendants have done to this day.

For most of us, the world in which Julian lived is unfamiliar. The sights, sounds, smells, the way people wore their clothes, the way they spoke, the way they thought about authority and obedience and the differing roles of men and women, their very understanding of the earth they trod, was different fom ours. For a Catholic, there is the enormous advantage of sharing the same theological understanding of the sacraments and an awareness of the kind of devotional artefacts that were part of Julian’s everyday life — the crucifix, for example, that the priest held before her eyes.  But the differences are important. We have to make an effort to enter her world and understand what she was about.

I think Denys Turner is spot on when he says that Julian’s central concern is the problem of sin, which she called ‘behovely’ or expedient — in the sense that the Exsultet proclaims it ‘necessary’ on Easter Night, or as a scholastic theologian might call it conveniens or ‘fitting’. Too many people seem to assume that Julian was soft on sin. Nothing could be further from the truth. ‘And to me was shown no harder hell than sin. For a kind soul has no hell but sin.’ No hell but sin, it is worth thinking about that. How very different from our own tendency to excuse or play down the sinfulness of our lives!

This concern with sin is not at odds with what many find Julian’s most exciting idea, her emphasis on God as both mother and father. The idea is not unique to Julian, although she expressed it more memorably than most. Earlier in the twelfth century St Bernard and others had advanced the notion in characteristically inventive ways (see the excellent Caroline Walker Bynum,Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Age). It is here that the temptation to see Julian in purely contemporary terms most frequently arises. I think that is to do an injustice to the subtlety of her thought and to make the mistake of reading backwards into the past the preoccupations of our own day. Ultimately, the Revelations are not a manifesto, they are a meditation on the Passion, to be prayed over, thought over, savoured. Her vivid sense of God’s mercy and tenderness is one we all need to cultivate. We are not sinless, we are forgiven; and God waits for us to grow in grace so that sin and evil will no longer hinder us. In the meantime we have the promise of God’s infinite love and care: ‘Here I was taught by the grace of God that I should steadfastly keep me in the faith . . . and  at the same time I should take my stand on and earnestly believe in what our Lord shewed in this time — that all manner [of] thing shall be well.’

*Anglicans tend to celebrate Julian today, 8 May, while Catholics usually commemorate her on 13 May. I won’t be blogging on 13 May so I’ve followed the good old Catholic custom of anticipating.