Julian of Norwich and the Revelation of Divine Love

Julian of Norwich and the Revelation of Divine Love

Julian of Norwich and the Revelation of Divine Love

Many of us have had some experience or occasion that we’d consider a “God moment,” some connection to the holy. Our current sermon series explores what some people (Christian mystics) learned through their God moments to see what they can teach us about God and the spiritual life.

Julian of Norwich

We turn to Julian of Norwich, a remarkable woman with an extraordinary divine love experience. However, much of what she encountered contradicted what the church had taught her to believe. So, she had to work that out, and her reflections became the very first book published by a female author.

A little backstory, first. Julian (1342-1416) lived in England during the Dark Ages when the Black Death killed half of Europe’s population. The One Hundred Years War and political and religious violence also took their toll. During her lifetime, heretics were burned alive in a pit a mile from her church. So, it would be more than troubling for her to talk about experiences that contradicted the church’s teaching. Some scholars believe that she may have lost her husband and daughter to the plague. She suffered through so many losses she described her life as a “constant flow of woe.”

Julian of Norwich’s visions.

When she was 30, she got so sick they summoned a priest for last rights.  As her breathing deteriorated, she looked upon a crucifix, trusting that soon she’d be in heaven.

As she focused on Jesus on the cross, a series of mystical visions swept through her over the course of several hours. It began with seeing blood gush from Jesus’s wounds on the crucifix. She saw, imagined, or felt all of Jesus’s suffering in gory detail, wondering what sort of love would suffer so much for others. But she also felt an overwhelming sense of Christ’s love and acceptance.

Afterward, she quickly recovered from her illness. The next day, she wrote down and reflected upon her sixteen visions, or, as she called them, “showings.”  Over the next few decades, she continued reflecting on the meaning of her experiences and wrote Revelations of Divine Love.

Julian the anchoress.

After she recovered, she took on the role of church anchoress, a woman who devoted herself to a life of contemplative prayer and offering spiritual direction. Society revered anchoresses because everyone took comfort in knowing there were people whose full-time job was to pray for their community. Prayer was that important. When someone tells me that they are too old to do anything for the church, I think of the anchoresses when I tell them they can pray for us, which may be the most important service anyone can give.

As an anchoress, Julian would have taken a vow to symbolically die to her old life and take on a new life as a contemplative spiritual guide. This included taking on a new name. We don’t know her birth name, but she took on the name of her church, Julian of Norwich.

She vowed to spend the remainder of her life in a small room, called a “cell.” The cells were attached to the church, and they had two small windows one that looked out over the altar so they could see the mass, and another window with a grid over it that faced out into the street where people could come and talk to her. There was a small hole where servants would give her food and remove her bodily waste. Cells were dim rooms, providing a sense a meditative atmosphere. Apparently, she had a cat as early paintings of her show her with a cat.

Surely, some women became anchoresses to escape having to get married to some abusive jerk, or some other crisis. But most of them, like Julian took on this extreme lifestyle to enter more deeply into their relationship with God and to provide service to the community.

Mystical experience or hallucinations? Who cares? 

So, she had a lot of time to reflect on her visions and her beliefs. Her visions were typical of hallucinations of people who are dying. At the end of her book, she wonders if they might all have been hallucinations a common experience for those who are dying. But for her, they felt real, and to me, the value of her revelations doesn’t so much derive from her mystical visions as from the spiritual truths she conveyed in her reflections afterward. The truths she expressed resonate with scripture, but much of what she believed was not widely believed then, or now.

So, what are her main points? What are the takeaways from this first book by a female author? A few things stood out as I read her book over the last few weeks.

God’s love precludes anger. 

First, she had an overwhelming sense of God’s love. Our scripture from 1 John affirms, “God is love.”

One of her constant refrains is that God is love and not a ball of incandescent anger. She says, God knows what we are, but not even our sin makes God angry, there is no anger in God. When we sin, God hopes our sin will lead us to acknowledge that we need this source of love and acceptance in our lives–a step in the process of getting us in touch with the Ground of our Being.

Jesus didn’t die to appease an angry God to achieve forgiveness of sin. Rather, Jesus’ salvation, for her, is about “loving us into the wholeness of who we really are.”

Her words are a great comfort and corrective to all the ways we get tempted to believe God is always disappointed with us and that we can’t do anything right, so why even bother? God is love and willing to sacrifice to help us experience the depths of that love.

She felt a feminine presence in the divine love, even likening Jesus to a mother’s love. Who, but a mother could love so completely? Fathers can too, but that wasn’t her experience. Touché.

Are humans basically good or evil?

Second, she addresses a fundamental question that shapes how we see and tend to treat people. Are human beings good or evil? Deep down, what are we? Our answer to that question shapes our views of others. What do you believe? Julian was taught about original sin, which is more of a theological construct than a valid interpretation of Genesis 2.

But, her vision revealed that there is an outer, sinful self that gets wrapped up in insecurities and selfishness and misses the mark. But underneath all of that, deep down, our truest selves are good, not evil. Like Teresa of Avila’s concept of the soul being a pure diamond, Julian believed that our essence comprises the same stuff God is made of. It is pure, holy, God’s self within us. It is not corrupted by some notion of “original sin.”

That inner self is united with God, for it is God. It is that pull in us that wants us to seek God, connect, live good lives, and do good. There is this universal tug toward goodness inside of us all.

Have you ever done something you were ashamed of and bewildered about why you did it? You want to tell people, “That’s not me. I got caught up in something and lost my true self. The me that did that isn’t what is deepest in me. I strive to be better than that, but I failed.”

When we see people as evil, we assume they are their worst behavior. We discount them, keep them at arm’s length, and imagine ourselves as better than others. But when we see that goodness within each person, we can be more forgiving and more generous in our assumptions about what drives them. Adopting this attitude makes us more Christlike.

Contemplative prayer helps us access health and Spirit. 

Julian felt that when we sin, we turn away from God and separate ourselves from peace and love, but contemplative prayer was one method of turning back. In doing so, we remember who we are, connect with that holiness within us, and get back on track. When we experience the goodness, the wholeness, the God within us, we become whole and do better. She beautifully expressed how prayer can be a place to bring our struggles-especially our doubts.

Interestingly, modern science keeps affirming the benefits of contemplation and meditation. Last week, a study was published suggesting that a combination of diet, exercise, and meditation may help stave off Alzheimer’s Disease. You don’t have to be a mystic to believe it’s good for you.

All is well. All shall be well.

The third thing that struck me is the most famous of her writings, which appeared on many memes during COVID-19. In it, Jesus assured her, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

All is well. She repeats it three times: Everything and every circumstance shall be made well. This is not pollyannaish thinking but a bedrock belief that God is working in everything for our redemption, for making things better. God is in control.

Having this faith is helpful and reminds us not to panic when things go awry. It’s not a denial about the bad things that can happen, but a faith claim that they do not have the last word. God does and God is always out of love going to make things better in this life and the next. Perhaps it is something you need to hear today.

The Body Prayer

Julian has inspired a wide range of devotions and perspectives on spirituality that continue to this day. I found a body prayer on YouTube by Father Ethan that is attributed to her or at least bears her name. I’ve heard of some who perform this ritual every morning as they wake up as a way to ground themselves in their relationship with God.

The first posture is holding your hands out in a relaxed, open position and silently say, “Await.” Next move your hands up above your head and think “Accept.” Next put your hands over your heart and say “Attend,” Then return to the open hands position, “Allow.”

The four postures we adopt in Julian’s body prayer represent the various attitudes we can bring to prayer.

“Await,” reminds us to be patient.

“Allow” reminds us to be in a state of openness or receptivity to what God has to say.

“Accept” means to bring to heart the things we hear, whether they are joyful or unsettling.

“Attend” is the action step. Once we receive the insights, we take appreciate actions to incorporate them into our lives.