Julian of Norwich: Pastoral Vision and Poetic Theology

Julian of Norwich: Pastoral Vision and Poetic Theology

We know little about her life, and even her name remains a mystery to us—calling her after the name of the church, St. Julian’s, where she spent most of her adult life as an anchoress.

What she did there was probably not unusual for the England of her day: prayer, prayer, prayer, in a small “cell” built into the side of this modest parish church, on the outskirts of Norwich.

For this reason, she came to be known as “Julian,” a woman of prayer who lived in a small “cell” beside the church, accompanied by a house servant and a cat.

In keeping with this vocation, she would have spent her days praying the office and attending to the worries and questions of the townspeople who visited her with their worries.

One might say that she served as a spiritual guide for the perplexed and burdened of her day.

 

She received sixteen visions in a brief period of intense physical illness during her thirtieth year.

On the surface, many of the “showings,” as she called them, were devotional images quite conventional for her day: the bleeding head of Christ, crowned with thorns; the scourging of Christ’s body; Christ’s final suffering and death, etc. Others were thematic in nature: a glimpse of Christ’s heart “split in two for love”; an understanding of Jesus as “mother”; a view of God as “all sovereign life,” and so forth.

Such themes were not entirely original to Julian, reflecting theological themes familiar in the day.

 

What was original and what makes Julian stand out among theologians of her day—and ours—is the originality of how she dealt with such questions.

For her vision of God and of our human condition was audacious, to say the least, an inspiration that has only grown, together with her popularity, in recent times.

For at the heart of her vision is her celebrated image of the hazelnut, the meaning of which she captured in the now familiar phrase, “And all shall be well, and every manner of thing shall be well.”

How she arrived at this daring conviction is a story worth exploring, considering how her vision mines a deep vein of scripture rooted in the apostle Paul’s assurance that nothing can separate us from divine love, and in Jesus’ radical notion that everything belongs in what she calls God’s “keeping.”

 

The text she left us is stirring to read, shaped by the courage and imagination by which she approached the deepest existential questions through a handful of simple metaphors.

Poets know to do this. And, in this sense, one could understand Julian as a “poetic” thinker.

But that does not mean “theology lite.” Rather, this form of reflection took her—and takes us as her readers—into an apprehension of God’s love capable of transforming us.

This confidence is what led her to conclude her “book” of showings with the call to “perform” it ourselves, inviting us to take up the vision of wholeness she received and animate it within our lives.

This will be the work we will begin in this course, trusting to journey with Julian’s “showings” into the depths of the mystery we call God.

 

To learn more about this devoted woman of prayer, click here to join the Between Nothing and Everything: The Gospel of Love according to Julian of Norwich course April 16 – 19.


Mark S. Burrows is a longtime resident of New England, currently living between Bochum, Germany, where he has taught religion and literature since 2012 at the Protestant University of Applied Sciences, and the midcoast habor-town of Camden, Maine. Poet and translator, scholar and teacher, he is much sought-after as a speaker and retreat leader, exploring themes related to the arts and spirituality, poetics and mysticism. Recent publications include The Chance of Home: Poems (2018) and, with Jon M. Sweeney, Meister Eckhart’s Book of Secrets (2019) and Meister Eckhart’s Book of the Heart (2017). A recipient of the Witter Bynner Prize in Poetry, he is a member of the Bochumer Literaten, a circle of professional writers living and working in the Ruhr Region.

 

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