Although Julian of Norwich (c. 1342-c. 1417) was the greatest of the medieval English mystics, we know little of her life. At about age 30 she was cured of mortal illness through a vision she experienced while gazing at a cross brought by the priest who had come to administer last rites. By the 1390s she was a well-known anchorite (a person bound by vow to sacred confinement) at the Church of St. Julian in Norwich.
We know her primarily through her book of Showings, which makes her the first identifiable female author in English literature. This book exists in two forms: a shorter one recording what she called “the revelations of divine love” and a longer one that expands and meditates upon these experiences.
Although, as with many of our own spiritual experiences, Julian’s first vision seems to have come unbidden, she was exemplary in showing us what riches can come of meditating upon what the Lord has taught us. In this way she provokes us to love and good deeds, giving us confidence to enter (and re-enter) the sanctuaries of our own hearts.
Julian, perhaps following the author of Hebrews, sees Jesus’ flesh as the curtain through which we enter this sanctuary. “For,” as the Psalmist says, “in the time of trouble he shall hide me in his tabernacle.” Writing in the wake of St. Anselm’s atonement theology, which placed new emphasis on the humanity of Jesus, Julian saw great spiritual power in his body. In the Fourth Revelation she sees the body of Jesus all covered with blood and then reflects on its significance in a way that resonates profoundly with Mormon universalism and temple theology:
Behold and see the virtue of this precious plenty of his dear worthy blood. It descended down into hell and broke her bonds and delivered all that were there which belong to the court of heaven. The precious plenty of his dear worthy blood overfloweth all earth and is ready to wash all creatures of sin which be of good will, have been, and shall be. The precious plenty of his dear worthy blood ascendeth up into heaven in the blessed body of our Lord Jesus Christ and there is in him bleeding, praying for us to the Father, and is and shall be as long as us needeth. And over more it floweth in all heaven, enjoying the salvation of all mankind that be there and shall be[.]
When Jesus opens the temple veil of his flesh to admit us, his blood issues forth as the great prayer on our behalf before the Father.
If such meditations on the metaphysicality of Christ’s blood seem baroque and abstract, Julian’s Jesus is nevertheless highly personal, appearing to her in the famous Fourteenth Revelation as a mother:
The mother may give her child [to] suck her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus, he may feed us with him self and doth full courteously and full tenderly with the blessed sacrament that is precious foode of very life. … The mother may lay her child tenderly to her breast, but our tender Mother Jesus, he may homely lead us into his blessed breast by his sweet open side and show us there in part of the Godhead and the joys of heaven with ghostly [i.e., spiritual] sureness of endless bliss.
In this way, the human Jesus of Anselmian theology affords Julian a way to bring the abstractions of divinity very physically home. It is as though the abstract idea of God turned to her and said, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you,” an intimate revelation of reality-altering force. She understood very well the condescension of God about which the angel spoke to Nephi, the God who deigned to come and take on flesh through his mother Mary. Surely he learned his first mortal lessons about nurture from his own mother, so that he might perfectly mother us.
One of Julian’s deepest concerns was with the problem of evil, specifically as manifest in her sense of her own sin. The Thirteenth Revelation builds out of a simple saying, given to her by Jesus: “Sin is behovely [i.e., necessary or beneficial], but all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” These words open up in her mind, and the results bear quoting at length:
In this naked word, sin, our Lord brought to my mind generally all that is not good, and the shameful despite and the uttermost tribulation that he bare for us in this life, and his dying and all his pains, and the passion of all his creatures ghostly and bodily. For we be in all part troubled and we shall be troubled, following our master Jesus, till we be fully purged of our deadly flesh and of all our inward affections which be not very good. And with the beholding of this, with all the pains that ever were or ever shall be, I understood the passion of Christ for the most pain and over passing. And all this was showed in a touch and readily passed over into comfort, for our good Lord would not that the soul were afraid of this ugly sight.
But I saw not sin, for I believe it had no manner of substance nor no part of being, nor it might not be known but by the pain that is caused thereof. …
These words were showed fully tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to none that shall be safe. Then were it great unkindness of me to blame or wonder on God of my sin, since he blameth not me for sin. And in these same words I saw a high marvelous privity [i.e., secret] hid in God, which privity he shall openly make and shall be known to us in heaven. In which knowing we shall verily see the cause why he suffered sin to come, in which sight we shall endlessly have joy.
In becoming aware of the full breadth of sin, Julian was about to become like the Mother Earth seen in vision by Enoch, weeping and pleading, “When shall I rest?” How quickly, though, Christ came to Julian bearing comfort! If from the clay of this Mother Earth our bodies were made, so too do our spirits bear the mark of our Heavenly Mother, and she can bring us balm in time of woe.
Indeed, in this vision, Julian grasps something strikingly Mormon: the understanding that sin, even if only a negation, is necessary to the eternal progress without which we cannot experience joy. In this sense, sin does not exist, for only God truly has substance or being. Julian grasps, in other words, the wisdom of Eve. She thus casts new light on Alma’s expression, “All things denote there is a God”: in the very fact of existing, they point to the Ground of all being.
May we follow Julian’s example of courage in pursuit, not only of spiritual knowledge, but also of the tender love of Mother Jesus, him who always hastens to nurture us. As God cultivated wisdom in Julian, so let us also turn to that Jesus who desires nothing more than our everlasting growth.
Dame Julian of Norwich, mystic, 1417
The Collect: Most loving God, who through your servant Julian of Norwich showed us the Ground of our being, sustain us we pray with the sweet milk of your Spirit through the everlasting nurture of your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
For the music, here is contemporary composer Carson Cooman’s “Prayer of Julian of Norwich”:
Cooman has also written a suite inspired by Julian, The Revelations of Divine Love:
I quote Julian (in modernized spelling) from the 2005 Norton Critical Edition of her Showings, edited by Denise N. Baker. I’ve also drawn on the supplementary materials in this edition. A free online text of the Showings can be found here.
Bonus points to anyone who quotes Julian in a Mother’s Day talk this Sunday.
The BYU Studies article “‘A Mother There’: A Survey of Historical Teachings about Mother in Heaven,” by David L. Paulsen and Martin Pulido, can be found here, with a response critiquing some of its methods here. See also the“Connecting to Heavenly Mother” series at FMH, or the Heavenly Mother category at the Exponent II blog.