­Through the glass darkly

Julian of Norwich and God the mother

Niamh Nolan and Ailbhe Madden, Derrydonnell at the opening of the new SeaBreeze Beauty Advanced Skincare Clinic at Oranmore Town Centre on Friday. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

Niamh Nolan and Ailbhe Madden, Derrydonnell at the opening of the new SeaBreeze Beauty Advanced Skincare Clinic at Oranmore Town Centre on Friday. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

In the English city of Norwich, if you go to the outskirts of the city, you will find the small church of St Julian. I have just finished reading a new novel by Claire called I, Julian, a beautifully written imagining of the life and times of this celebrated English mystic.

Julian of Norwich (she probably took her name from the church where she lived throughout her life ) was an anonymous English woman, probably of noble birth who took up residence in the anchoress’ cell in the church. An anchoress was a well-known, if not common, feature of religious life in the Middle Ages. A woman called to a solitary life; she was not isolated but “anchored” in the world. She followed a set rule of life, living in one small room with three windows: one opening into the church so she could worship and receive the Blessed Sacrament; one opening to the world to receive visitors and counsel people; and one opening onto another room from which her servant would assist her.

There was a rule for anchoresses, so we can trace the patterns of Julian's daily life, but very little is known about the 14th century religious at St Julian’s church. It is believed she was born during the time of the Black Death around 1342 and that she died in 1416. The times were very dire. Not only was Europe devastated by the plague, but the consequent shortage of labour, along with bad harvests and high taxes, caused political unrest and economic upheaval, climaxing in the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381. At the same time, the papacy was in exile in Avignon, the religious orders were often corrupt, and the first rumblings of the Protestant revolution were being heard. Just a half-mile from St Julian’s Church, the followers of John Wycliffe, the Lollards, were being burnt as heretics.

In 1373 it was in the midst of this wasteland of social turmoil that, at the age of 30, Julian took up residence in the little cell in Norwich. She had been living with her mother when she was struck with a terrible illness and within her suffering, she received 15 visions or “showings.” The visions were her personal, mystical encounter with God’s love centred on the cross of Christ. After recovering, she decided to devote her life to prayer and took residence in the vacant anchoress’ cell at St Julian’s Church. Julian's writings were largely unknown until 1670, when they were published under the title XVI Revelations of Divine Love, shewed to a devout servant of Our Lord, called Mother Juliana, an Anchorite of Norwich, who lived in the days of King Edward the Third.

Julian’s revelations and reflections are remarkable for her time. Countering the contemporary view that suffering was a form of God’s punishment, Julian sees suffering and sin as “behovely” - it is all part of God’s severe mercy. Human sin, she believes, is more often caused by ignorance and naivety than by evil intent, and sin in the end is gathered up by the expansive forgiveness. She does not see wrath in God, but she suggests that wrath is part of the fear in our own hearts which we project onto God. Almost a universalist and certainly an optimist, she teaches in her famous phrase borrowed by TS Eliot in his Four Quartets that “all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well".

Julian’s visions display a quietly joyful trust in God’s goodness. Her utter reliance on the goodness of God, whom she envisions as having the tenderness of a mother and whom she addresses with feminine pronouns, Julian’s cell was destroyed as part of King Henry VIII’s brutal and destructive reformation. St Julian’s church remained, serving the poor people of the city for another five hundred years. Then in 1942, the church was destroyed in a German air raid. Then in 1953, a priest named Fr Paul Raybould decided that St Julian’s should be rebuilt, and so a church was built on its foundations in the traditional medieval style, complete with what archaeologists guessed was Julian’s cell. Today visitors can visit the church and the reconstructed room of the famous anchoress, which is now a shrine and place of pilgrimage.

Writing from the midst of his own darkness and the grim darkness of the years between two wars, the American in exile, TS Eliot, was strengthened and encouraged by this solitary voice from the 14th century. Julian of Norwich’s mysticism and ministry remind us that nothing is wasted. An obscure, sick woman immured in a small room in the back streets of a medieval city, by the turnings of providence emerges to provide light and hope in a modern wasteland still, shrouded by the same dark forces as obnoxious and obsessive in her day.

Barnaby ffrench


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