Self-isolation – lessons from Julian of Norwich

Self-isolation – lessons from Julian of Norwich

Hilary Pearson writes:

The woman we know as Julian of Norwich was an anchoress, in a cell attached to the church of St Julian in Norwich.  We don’t know if Julian was her real name, but the book she wrote is famous, the first known work in English by a woman.  The modern name for it is ‘Revelations of Divine Love’.  This book is widely read today in translations into modern English, which are readily available.

She was born in about 1343.  She was probably brought up in or around Norwich.  In 1373 she became seriously ill, so ill that everyone thought she was dying.  A priest held a crucifix before her eyes and, as he did so, she had the first of her visions, of Christ suffering on the cross.  She had more visions over the next few days.  She then recovered and, probably soon afterwards, became an anchoress.  She spent many years meditating on her visions.  She began writing her book, which is the result of this meditation, in about 1395.

Julian was no stranger to pandemics; the Black Death first reached Norwich in 1349, when Julian was a young child.  More than half the population died.  Repeated bouts of that plague occurred between 1361 and 1387, again killing many people.  She also lived through a time of political upheaval, and of religious turbulence caused by the challenge to the church establishment by Wycliffe and his Lollard followers.

Given this background, how could she possibly have written her most famous saying: “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”?  This comes in the section in which she discusses her thirteenth revelation, of the risen Christ in glory.  This led her to think of the thing that stopped her truly loving him, which was sin. She wondered why the foreseeing wisdom of God did not prevent sin happening in the first place.  The answer that came to her in this vision was: “Sin was necessary – but it is all going to be all right; it is all going to be all right; everything is going to be all right.”

She questioned the Lord on this saying and, as the academic philosopher and theologian, Grace Jantzen, wrote: ‘…she pondered his answer until she had something which she could live by in times of suffering, and something that could be offered for the enlightenment and comfort of others.’  This ‘something’ was an overwhelming understanding that God loves us whatever happens, and that in our deepest self we remain united to God.  Sin is the distortion and division of self that we impose on ourselves  This can be by hating ourselves and thereby despising something created and loved by God – Julian has a very strong image of Christ as our true mother, giving us birth and doing everything needed to keep us safe and growing into joy.  Or it can be by giving all our love to some created thing rather than God, whether created by God (such as a person) or by us (such as money).  Suffering was necessary because often it is the only thing that makes us realise this division in ourselves, and this realisation can bring us back to our loving Mother Christ for healing.  Through it we learn our own inadequacy and God’s generous love.

Modern theologians (including Thomas Merton) have recognised that Julian was a profound religious thinker and a great theologian.  Their analysis of her writing shows that, although she clearly had a good knowledge of the theology of sin and salvation of leading Church thinkers, such as Augustine and Anselm, her approach was different.  In her time there was a great deal of emphasis on a judging and vengeful God – most churches would have had a painting of the Last Judgement over the arch separating the nave from the chancel, so the congregation would have looked at it whenever they attended a service.  Julian could not reconcile that view of God with the deep and all-encompassing love which was her experience of God, both in her visions and in her experience.

Julian has encouraging words for all of us at this difficult time.  In one of her visions she heard Christ say to her ‘You will not be overcome.’  Of this she says:

All this trusting in the real comfort is meant to be taken generally, for it applies to all my fellow Christians…”You will not be overcome” was said very distinctly and firmly to give us confidence for whatever troubles will come.  He did not say, “You will never have a rough passage, you will never be over-strained, you will never feel uncomfortable”, but he did say, “You will never be overcome.”

Truly a message for our times.