Julian as a woman’s name is more familiar as Gillian, with its abbreviation Jill; the transition is illustrated by the nearly contemporary manuscript of Margery Kempe’s book, which gives her mentor’s name as ‘Jelyan’. Thus, rather as Italian boys still occasionally receive a name such as Guido Maria or Gianmaria, so in medieval England a girl could be given the name of a male saint: practices which might be thought of as illustrating St Paul’s saying that ‘in Christ there is neither male nor female’. It is probably coincidental that ‘Dame’ Julian became attached to a church dedicated to her namesake, St Julian, popular in the medieval Church as patron of the Christian virtue of hospitality.
In recent decades Julian has aroused great interest. Famous is her vision – curiously consonant with late twentieth-century findings about the origin of the universe – of ‘all that is made’ as ‘a little thing the size of a hazelnut’. Also well known, as both the wider society and the Church have been led to value better the role of women, is her intuition, ahead of its time, of the complementarity of motherhood to fatherhood in the Godhead:
‘Our great Father God almighty… willed that the Second Person should become our Mother, Brother and Saviour. Hence it follows that God is as truly our Mother as he is our Father’ (Chapter 59). Remarkably too, she is the first woman writer extant in English. One may hazard that if England had not been marginalized by the Reformation, she would be officially Blessed Julian of Norwich at the very least!
Julian’s ‘Revelations of Love’ are meditations developed out of the ‘Shewings’ she received on Sunday, 8 May 1373 when, aged thirty, she was thought to be dying. Her mother, with whom she clearly enjoyed a happy relationship, was at her side, as was their parish priest. He had brought a crucifix on which he had bidden her look and, as her sight failed and all seemed plunged in a hellish darkness, the ‘image of the cross’ retained ‘a common light… I knew not how.’ She continued to sink until she could scarcely feel or breathe when ‘suddenly all my pain was taken from me and I was as whole… as ever I was before.’ She began to pray for experience of Christ’s passion: not for ‘bodily sight nor shewing of God, but compassion’” a spiritual experience of what it was for Christ to suffer.
Some years before, she had made a threefold request of ‘our good Lord’: ‘mind of his passion, bodily sickness in youth at thirty years of age’ (which was to be ‘so severe as to death’) and ‘to have of God’s gift three wounds – the wound of true contriton, the wound of kind compassion and the wound of wilful longing for God’. The first two petitions, she says were made conditionally on God’s will and ‘passed from my mind’ until the fulfilment, on that crucial day, of the first which led her to request the second; the third she had asked ‘absolutely’ and it ‘dwelled with me continually’.
In the space of that morning, as she kept her gaze resolutely on the crucifix, she received fifteen ‘shewings’ in which experience of the Passion and of Mary’s compassion mingled with insights about sin – including the observation that depression is not necessarily caused by personal sin – and culminated in visions of heaven and of Christ as ultimate Being. One of the Passion ‘shewings’ is of Christ’s heart riven in his pierced side and so anticipates the vision of St Margaret Mary Alacoque and the Sacred Heart devotion.
Conscious of her sinfulness, Julian protests: ‘I am not good on account of the shewing unless I love God the better… for I am sure that there are many that never had any revelation or vision other than the universal teaching of Holy Church, and who love God better than I.’
Commenting on the great thirteenth ‘shewing’ of Christ’s compassion on sinners, Julian speaks to all ages when she represents him as saying: ‘Accuse not thyself overmuch, thinking that trial and grief is all thy fault, for I do not wish thee to be unduly burdened or sorrowful; for I tell thee, howesoever thou do, thou shalt have woe. And therefore I will that thou… shalt truly see that all thy life is a profitable penance.’
That these comforting words came to her later – as also she present them – appears in her very human account of her frailty and subsequent distress following the fifteenth revelation by which Christ showed how ‘suddenly you will be taken’ from the midst of earthly suffering. ‘Everything was shut off… and suddenly my body was filled with sickness as it had been before… and like a wretch I complained and groaned because of my bodily pain and my loss of courage both spiritual and physical. Then there came to me a religious person who asked how I fared… And I said I had raved that day…’
Having dismissed, in her weakness, her experiences as ‘raving’, she was troubled in conscience when the ‘religious person’ took them seriously. She longed to confess, but felt the priest would not believe her. ‘You can see’, she concludes, ‘what I am like in myself, but our courteous Lord would not leave me thus, and I lay still until night, trusting in his mercy, and then I fell asleep.’
In sleep she suffered a horrific dream of the devil: ‘And all the time I trusted I would be saved and kept by the mercy of God.’ When she awoke she was again believed to be dying. She was aware of a stench and thought that the room was on fire, until she realized that those around her noticed nothing. She made an act of faith in the ‘shewings’ and in the faith of the Church, ‘for I saw that they were both one’. ‘And at once everything vanished away and I was brought to great rest and peace without sickness of body or dread of conscience.
There followed the climactic vision of Jesus enthroned in the city of the soul, concluding in his words of comfort: ‘Know well now that it was no raving that you saw today: accept it and believe it; keep yourself therein; comfort yourself therewith and trust yourself to it, and you shall not be overcome.’
For the rest of the night, hell seemed to rage around her, but now: ‘My eyes I fixed upon the same cross which had comforted me before; my tongue I occupied with talk of Christ’s Passion and with repeating the faith of Holy church; and my heart I fastened on God with all the strength of my trust.’
She resolved to be equally occupied in keeping herself from sin: ‘For truly I thought that if I were safe from sin, I would be perfectly safe from all the fiends of hell and enemies of my soul.’ In this experience of Christ’s ‘courtesy’ – her charming expression for his mercy – we see Julian’s optimism in the face of sin and suffering so vividly realized by her personally and so evident in her world of the Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War. It is summed up in the best known of the locations she reports form her Lord: ‘Sin is behovable [ie inevitable], but all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’ Nor was this facile optimism; Julian faced squarely up to paradoxes we are inclined to shelve, insisting that ‘our faith is grounded in God’s word’ and ‘one portion of our faith is that many creatures shall be damned, as are the angels that fell out of heaven for pride, which are now fiends’ and ‘they that be heathen men and also men that have received Christendom and live unchristian lives and so die outside of charity.’
Subsequent ages would see development of the doctrine of ‘outside the church no salvation’, but already Julian saw that charity is the test and, finding these normal assumptions of her age no more to her liking than do we of the twenty-first century, was led to make a remarkable leap of the creative imagination founded upon orthodox faith: ‘Understand all this, I thought it was impossible that all manner of things should be well as our Lord showed at this time, and to this our Lord God vouchsafed me no answer but this: “That which to you is impossible is not impossible to me. I shall fulfil my word in all respects and I shall make everything well.”’ She was led on to conclude: ‘As I saw it, there is a deed which the Blessed Trinity shall perform on the last day, and when that deed shall be and how it shall be done is unknown to all creatures below Christ, and shall be until it is one. And the reason he wishes us to know this is so that we may be more at ease in our souls and at peace in our love, ceasing to be troubled by all the tempests that might deflect us from truth, taking our joy in him.. This is the great deed ordained by our Lord God from eternity… by which deed he shall make all things well; for just as the Blessed Trinity made everything from nought, even so the same Blessed Trinity shall make well all that is not well.’
Thus Julian, who called herself ‘unlettered’, avoided the notorious conclusions of Calvinism and Jansenism, as well as easy assumptions of universal salvation, basing herself firmly in the integrity of God’s revelation to his chosen ones (Ecclesia). Intellectual pride, insisting on settling the great mystery of salvation one way or the other, will let go of either the mercy or the justice of God; Julian – ‘this poor creature’ – presumed to reconcile what she had received without diminution of any part She is thus in the truest sense ‘Catholic’.
Was Julian illiterate? One manuscript of her book is headed ‘Revelations to one who could not read a letter’ – which might mean only that she did not know Latin, then still the language of learning. Yet she knows the Bible – still officially in Latin – as well as religious and mystical works which in her day had begun to be written in English. It has been natural to wonder if she was herself a nun of Carrow, or – since the deathbed scene in her mother’s house suggests she was not under monastic vows – was at least educated by them. An inference from the manuscript heading and clues supplied by the work itself, could be that at the time of the original revelations the thirty-year-old woman was illiterate, but that she had every incentive, and the intelligence and opportunity, to acquire reading and writing over the decades of her religious life. Alternatively, we must suppose her to have relied upon readers and scribes.
In fact her language indicates that Julian was not native of Norfolk but from Yorkshire; she may have come to Norwich as a wife and been widowed early – a common enough experience for women of the time – or her mother’s remarriage may have brought them to Norwich.What is certain is that Julian went on to undertake the life of an anchoress, vowed to celibacy but not necessarily to poverty, at the church of SS Julian and Edward at Conesford, then near and now in Norwich, where two rooms had been built on to the south wall for those drawn to the anchorite’s calling.
Her seclusion – in conformity with the Ancrene Rewle or ‘Anchoresses’ Rule’, a work she must have known well – was not absolute; she had a maid, possibly two, and held conversations through a window with visitors. Among these was Margery Kemp, the eccentric younger contemporary who in her autobiography – the first in English and, since Margery certainly was illiterate, written to her dictation by two priests – tells how she sought out Julian for reassurance about her own vocation. Another window gave into the church; through it the anchoress took part in Mass and other services. A good part of Julian’s days must have been given to prayerful study, meditation and the elaboration of her book, which has come down to us in two version, one narrating the ‘shewings’ and the other much extended. Near by, the Austin friars had their house, with a fine library, and must surely have taken an interest in their remarkable neighbour. She live thus for some forty years or more, being name in a will of 1416 and probably in one of 1423, by which time she would have been eighty years old.
The church at Conesford can be visited. The anchorhold fell into disrepair and was demolished in the eighteenth century; the church itself was bombed in the Second World War. It was restored and the anchorhold rebuilt as a chapel and centre of Julian spirituality which, since the church is now Anglican, takes on ecumenical significance. Part of the original foundation can be seen, and the atmosphere of prayer seems tangible. There is an international Julian society and many a pilgrim comes to visit the spot where this most English of holy women passed half a long lifetime in meditation on the meaning of the visions of a single day and night, summed up in one of her exquisite phrases as ‘Love was his meaning!’