SERMON for Julian of Norwich

SERMON for Julian of Norwich

A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Graham Low on 8th May 2024

As I was beginning to think about Julian of Norwich, who we remember today with thanksgiving, I received a letter from a friend who lives in Amsterdam. His Anglican parish priest has just been one of many Christian and Muslim leaders who have signed a statement about the unspiritual forces at work in that city and beyond. No Jewish leader felt able to sign the statement, because of fear it seems.

As participants in the Interreligious Inner City Consultation in Amsterdam, we are concerned about the hardening of the social debate and the increasingly sharp polarization between individuals and population groups.

There are signs everywhere that anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are also sharply increasing in our city, under the influence of the war between Israel and Hamas, and more broadly the great tensions in the Middle East, in addition to the growing nationalism in our country.

The current spirit of the times seems to whisper to us that we no longer see others as fellow human beings, but as outsiders, potential opponenst or worse: as enemies. Such “unspirituality” brings nothing good, as not only history, but also current events teach us.

We therefore urgently call on all our fellow citizens to rid the current spirit of the times of its power, because it drives us apart and undermines true coexistence.

We pray and hope that everyone will join us in being inspired by the divine source of love, trust, hope, forgiveness, creativity, tolerance and patience. And all this in view of the vision of a world of justice and of peace. It is high time for a change towards a real life together in trust and connection.

The underlying and urgent theme of this statement also applies to our own country, and indeed many nations as well. The core question its authors raise is who or what are we guided by?

In the time of Julian centuries of European stability were ending, the hundred years war began, the peasants revolt happened, political instability rose, there were religious upheavals, and the black death occurred. In the midst of this she lived as a nun in a benedictine community, and took her name from St Julian’s church in Norwich. At some point she became an anchoress, with a cell of two or three rooms, with windows, one to see into the church and to see the eucharist celebrated and for her to receive bread and wine. Another would have been where people came to see her privately, and perhaps another, where she could see and hear the open world. There she lived a life of constant prayer in the midst of the barbarity, suffering and sickness of the world. She did not go out but the world came to her and she knew it intimately, just as those in enclosed religious communities do today.

When she was about 30 Julian came close to death and had a series of 16 visions, after which she recovered. After her visions, Julian focused in her writings on spirituality and creation, stressing that everything has its being through the love of God, and that we are made for eternity. The cross was the high point of her spirituality: she desired to enter into the sufferings of Christ. She believed that humanity was separated from God by sin, and is to be reunited and redeemed with God through Christ.

Julian placed particular stress on Christ as mother, as divine wisdom. Her theology determined her experience. Seeing Christ’s suffering allowed her to see the meaning of life and of her own suffering specifically. For her the image of God as mother spoke more powerfully than anything else of the outgoing love of the Trinity for creation.

Julian lived at a time when spiritual and theological issues were being pressed apart. Her vison was shaped by both the intellect and the response of love. Her writings are the result of reflecting on the questions of life in the light of her spiritual experience. Though we may not have the kind of mystical experiences of the kind that Julian had, we are always called to pray. She wrote the following: when the soul is tempest tossed, troubled and cut off by worries, then is the time to pray, so as to make the soul willing and responsive towards God. But there is no kind of prayer that can make God more responsive to the soul, for God is always constant in love.  And so I say that, whenever we feel the need to pray, our good Lord follows us, helping our desire.

May that be our experience too.