Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1416) is known to us almost only through her book, The Revelations of Divine Love, which is widely acknowledged as one of the great classics of the spiritual life. She is thought to have been the first woman to write a book in English which has survived.
We do not know Julian’s actual name but her name is taken from St. Julian’s Church in Norwich where she lived as an anchoress for most of her life. We know from the medieval literary work, The Book of Margery Kempe, that Julian was known as a spiritual counsellor. People would come to her cell in Norwich to seek advice. Considering that, at the time, the citizens of Norwich suffered from plague and poverty, as well as a famine, she must have counselled a lot of people in pain. Yet, her writings are suffused with hope and trust in God’s goodness.
The Revelations of Divine Love
Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love is based on a series of sixteen visions she received on the 8th of May 1373. Julian was lying on, what was thought at the time, to be her deathbed when suddenly she saw Christ bleeding in front of her. She received insight into his sufferings and his love for us. Julian’s message remains one of hope and trust in God, whose compassionate love is always given to us. In this all-gracious God there can be no element of wrath. The wrath — ‘all that is contrary to peace and love — is in us and not in God. God’s saving work in Jesus of Nazareth and in the gift of God’s spirit, is to slake our wrath in the power of his merciful and compassionate love’. Julian did not perceive God as blaming or judging us, but as enfolding us in love. Famously, Julian used women’s experience of motherhood to explore how God loves us, refering to Jesus as our Mother.
The Writing of the Revelations
The Revelations of Divine Love comes to us in two versions; the first (the short text) written shortly after the revelation given to Julian , the second (the long text) written twenty years later. The long text is greatly expanded to include her meditations on what she had been shown. Today, only seventeenth century copies of earlier manuscripts of the long text, and fragments from the fifteenth century survive.
Julian recounts that she was thirty and a half years old when she received her visions and this is how we know that she was born in 1342. (A scribe editor to one of the surviving manuscripts speaks of her as a ‘devout woman, who is a recluse at Norwich, and still alive, A.D. 1413’). There is further evidence to be found in a contemporary will that she was alive in 1416, and that she had a maid who lived in a room next to the cell. Apart from that, we know nothing else about Julian’s life.
However, reading Revelations of Divine Love, reveals an intelligent, sensitive and very down-to-earth woman who maintains her trust in God’s goodness whilst addressing doubt, fear and deep theological questions.
Interest in Julian’s writings has grown over recent decades This has been as more and more people have discovered the significance of her book. Her lyrical language and positive image of God speak to the modern reader. Her work is well-respected by theologians, historians and literary scholars, and there are now dozens of translations of her Revelations, together with countless commentaries. Modern poets and writers as diverse as T.S. Eliot, Denise Levertov, and Iris Murdoch reference Julian in their writing.
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