June 4, 2018—The first confirmed English woman writer was Julian of Norwich. At the age of thirty years, Julian experienced a series of revelations or showings which manifested themselves in her senses, in her mind, and through insights exceeding her mind and senses. She received these sixteen showings over the course of two days, during which she was severely ill and near death. For Julian, the showings were so powerful that she understood them to be messages directly from God, to be shared with all Christians. Fifteen years later, she experienced one additional showing by which “came the answer that the cause of all this showing was love.” Julian wrote a short book about these revelations in the year (1373) and expanded her work to a longer book in 1393. At some point after the initial showings, Julian became an anchoress in Norwich. This gave her the opportunity to participate in the worship of the church while dedicating her life to devotion and prayer. The showings seen by Julian were primarily graphic visions of Christ at different stages of his Passion. The first showing was “plentiful bleeding from Christ’s head.” Another showing was “the body of Christ bleeding abundantly.”
Julian argued that based on her unique revelations from Jesus, that she wished to share her insights with others, to inspire them to seek a closer relationship with God by knowing who they are in light of their sins. One can hardly argue with the revelations or “showings” which were her sixteen visions and understandings from God. It was unusual for a woman to write as a teacher in 14th century England, but her life was indelibly affected by the experience of her revelations. So much was she impressed, that she felt compelled to write about them to benefit others. Julian’s work is inspirational because of the close relationship she displayed with God.
Julian wrote a great deal about the presence of God. She believed that God is so close, “God is nearer to us than our own soul… our soul sits in God in complete rest and our soul stands in God in complete strength and our soul is naturally rooted in God in eternal love.” In her writings, she pleads with readers to seek God’s presence, “I beg you all for God’s sake… eagerly, attentively, lovingly, and humbly contemplate God.” She believed that our prayers have one main purpose, “We should know the fruit and end of our prayers, that is, to be united and like our Lord in every way.”
Sin is another great emphasis from Julian’s showings. Julian understood that the sins of the world required Christ’s sacrifice. She said, “Our sin is the cause of Christ’s suffering.” She came to understand that “We need to have three kinds of knowledge: the first is to know our Lord God; the second is to know ourselves, what we are through him in nature and grace; the third is to know humbly what we ourselves are where our sin and weakness are concerned.” Knowledge of God is very important toward salvation. She said, “We must have knowledge and sight of our sin and our feebleness; for without this knowledge we cannot have true humility and without this we cannot be saved.” We must know our sins and confess our sins to receive the blessing of God’s presence.
There is great warmth in the relationship Julian had for God, through Christ. In her vision, Christ expressed his love from the cross. She said, “Our Lord looked into his side… and said… “Look how much I loved you.”” She felt that God will “delight in our salvation.” Our sins are not a total separation from God because, “Our falling does not prevent him from loving us.”
She believed that sin is actually an opportunity for us to face our weakness and please God. She says, “Atonement is incomparably more pleasing to God and more glorious in saving mankind than Adam’s sin was ever harmful.”
There is assurance through her visions. She understood that “People who in this life willingly choose God may be sure that they are chosen.” Ultimately, our efforts as disciples and our intentions are respected by God. Julian believed that anyone could build a relationship with God. She said, “God accepts the good intentions and the effort of those who serve him…” Our prayers will be answered because “It is quite impossible that we should pray for mercy and grace and not have them.” Her testimony may enable a person to endure suffering with confidence and even some level of pleasure. Julian felt that suffering was turned into joy when a person recognized the love of God in the midst of their suffering.
As an example of a devotional practice for the 21st century disciple, I am concerned that the lifestyle of an anchoress is unrealistic. It offers a much better opportunity for dedicated time of study, prayer, and contemplation. Such a religious lifestyle also lends itself to correcting sinful behaviors because of the isolated nature of living in a cell. Several of the elements of devotion which are taught by Julian apply directly to developing a personal devotional practice. Confessing sin, making time for intentional prayer, and contemplating God (particularly Christ’s Passion) are very useful for modern disciples. Her confidence that a devotional life leads to a life filled with joy and peace through a relationship with God is inspiring.
Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Translated by Elizabeth Spearing. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1998.
Rev. Paul Sherwood is pastor of the Oakmont Presbyterian Church, Hoover AL and a DMin candidate at Columbia Theological Seminary.
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