Julian of Norwich

Ananya Sri Ram Rajan – USA 

He showed me a little thing the size of a hazelnut, in the palm of my hand, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with my mind's eye and I thought, 'What can this be?' And the answer came, 'It is all that is made'. I marveled that it could last, for I thought it might have crumbled to nothing, it was so small. And the answer came into my mind, 'It lasts and ever shall because God loves it'. And all things have being through the love of God.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            From: Revelations of Divine Love

Medley AR Julian of Norwich 2

Julian of Norwich

There is little concrete information about the life of Julian of Norwich. It is written that she was born around 1342 and died sometime after 1416. When she was thirty, she fell severely ill and it was believed she would die. It is during this time that she received sixteen visions on May 8, 1373 which led to the publication of Revelations of Divine LoveRevelations of Divine Loveis thought to be the first book from the Middle Ages ever written in English and, that too, by a woman. Her recollections of the visions (known as the “short text”) and her meditations on what she had been shown (written twenty years later and known as “the long text”) have been a great source of comfort to many. A scan of the cover of the long text of her book states that she was known as “Mother Julian, an Anchorite of Norwich who lived in the days of King Edward the third.”

There is some suggestion that Julian was a Benedictine nun from Carrow Abbey, but it is not known for certain. She, however, was definitely an anchoress of St. Julian Church in Norwich which is most likely how she receive her name. For those not familiar with the term, an anchoress was a woman who walled herself in a cell next to a church as way to contemplate and create a relationship with God. Julian was given three small openings, one to receive communion, one to receive her food and dispose of her waste, and another to give counsel to the public.

 Julian’s real name is unknown as she gave little information about herself. What is known about her is based on records of donations and bequests left to her. She regularly gave counsel to various people from all walks of life and was a popular anchoress. This despite there being restrictions, according to the Ancrene Wisse(an instruction manual for anchoresses) as to how often an anchoress was to meet with the public. An anchoress was to spend her time as a recluse contemplating God and leaving behind the day to day world. However, many did little of that. 

In Mary Wellesley’s article “The Life of the Anchoress,” scholars found that during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, there were three times more women than men who took to being an anchoress and yet we know about so few. Historical and academic research has been done on the lives of anchoresses, but there is little information about their names or their lives. It was during this time that poverty, plague, and famine raged through Europe, so people were suffering greatly. Anneke Mulder-Bakker’s book Lives of the Anchoresses: The Rise of the Urban Recluse in Medieval Europestates that many women took to the life of being an anchoress after their need in the world had ended. She writes: 

“Unburdened by social obligations, they [women] were free to act as the spirit, the Spirit, moved them. This meant listening to people; instructing them if they lacked knowledge; hearing their confessions; helping them find answers to questions of life and death. But it also meant taking authoritative action against those who behaved immorally.Although male believers could also pursue this ideal, and a few actually did so, it was mainly a women's affair. And it was an urban phenomenon. Persons who sought physical quiet and contemplation entered a monastery in the countryside; recluses remained in the town.”

Mulder-Bakker’s book discusses the life of five different anchoresses from the Netherlands, Germany, and the surrounding area. According to Mulder-Bakker, anchoresses were social activists who took up issues with the church as well as an individual’s way of life. They took it upon themselves to direct the astray toward God. While the priest was the father of the church, the anchoress was the mother and her door was always open, so to speak. (Which may explain why Julian of Norwich was Mother Julian.)

Perhaps what made Julian so popular was her down-to-earth nature. She, because of her illness (and thought to be impending death), allowed herself to be open to her experience. And she spoke and wrote of the experience with humility. She believed God had shown her what she needed to know. In her meditations on the revelations, she writes, “Now have I told you of fifteen revelations, as God granted to give them to my mind, renewed, I trust, by illuminations and touchings from the same Spirit who originally revealed them.” She states that the first revelation started at about four in the morning and they continued, one after the other, until three in the afternoon. When the fifteenth revelation ended, despite being given so much from her God and feeling no pain or distress while the revelations were shown, she began to feel her sickness again and cried, believing her God had left her. She says she began to sleep only to be accosted by what seem to be the devil coming to tempt her and test her faith. It is after this the sixteenth revelation was given to her. 

So many of Julian’s insights have a similar tone to the teachings of Theosophy and the spiritual path in general. Granted Julian was a lover of Jesus and clearly devoted to the religious life. But she also pushed the boundaries of the patriarchal setting she lived in. She refers to Christ as our mother because of the constant nurturing and forgiving nature of Christ. This was based on the visions she had of Jesus on the cross and the eventual meaning of all she was shown. She begs to know God’s meaning and is told, “Learn it well: love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love. Hold yourself there and you shall learn and know more of the same. But you shall never know or learn any other thing there.”

The tone here rings similar to the words of H. P. Blavatsky in the Voice of the Silence. The Candidate is told that before the spiritual path can be tread, one must be of clean heart and know the difference between head learning and soul wisdom, in other words, the eye from the heart doctrine. It goes without saying that to truly walk in the divine, we must be the divine. We must learn to hold ourselves in that higher state to see things clearly and to always walk through the world seeing with a pure heart, not the physical eyes. As we continue to see from the perspective of deep love – unconditional, non-judgmental, embracing and expansive – we will learn more and know more of the same. That which we sow, we will reap. To do otherwise is pointless and worthless to our existence. 

So much of Julian’s doctrine is about love. She states that while she saw the head of Jesus bleeding profusely during one of her revelations, she understood six things. The fifth one being, “The one that made all things for love, by the same love keeps them, and shall keep them without end.” This is no different than the Theosophical teaching that all comes from the Divine, is maintained by the divine, and though is manifested in different forms, is still the Divine. Every sentient being holds the extraordinary energy that creates, maintains, and transforms all life. 

So often we do not see with our heart. We believe ourselves to be separate from that which cannot be taken out of us. Julian describes ignorance as “malice” and “wickedness.” She writes about the how the Devil or Fiend creates this and those without a stronger will allow the Fiend to work through them and they will suffer forever in hell. The same went for those who were baptized but led “unchristian” lives. Interestingly, she is shown that such a belief is untrue and that God is not a punisher or unforgiving, but loves one no matter their weakness or faults. This was so contrary to what the church professed that it took her by surprise. She writes, “Concerning all this, I had no other answer in any showing from our Lord God but this: ‘What is impossible to you is not impossible to me. I shall save my word in all things, and I shall make all things well.’” Such thinking falls more in line with Theosophical teachings. The “Word” is nothing more than the Wisdom, that divinity that is found in everything, even ourselves. All is well where Wisdom reigns.

During our most difficult times, we question whether there is anything greater than ourselves, and if there is, why are we made to suffer. The question “why” seems to be one that we as humans have asked since we could think rationally. For Julian, she came to realize that “because it is necessary for some souls to feel in this way; sometimes to be in comfort, and sometimes to fail and to be left to themselves. God wills that we know he keeps us securely in both good and bad times. And for the good of our soul, we are sometimes left to ourselves.” Our desire to feel “in the flow” of things, to feel connected to that which surrounds us, does not always last. And our longing for the experience brings us back to a weariness, a heaviness, that keeps us from being in the present moment. When we experience that lightness of being, it is very easy for the ego mind to step in and block the flow by telling us we are special. It seems no different during Julian’s time as it is now. In reality, we can never be apart from that which we are. Life events are nothing more than opportunities for growth and a chance to step into the experience of another being whom we see as different, but is actually oneself in a different form. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that we are forever with the Divine and the Divine is forever with us. 

Knowing so little about the details of Julian’s physical life seems to have done justice to her insights. It leaves us with her teachings as a way to understand who she was as a person, and her experience as a way to understand ourselves if we put ourselves in her place. She lived during a time of great upheaval; in some ways, no different than today and yet her faith gave comfort to many. Do we have faith in that which comes to us unseen and unasked for? Do we make it part of our life? Are we willing to use our own inner spiritual guidance as a way to possibly comfort others? And most importantly, do we believe that the Divine is love? When treading our own spiritual path, these are questions we might want to keep in mind. Perhaps Julian’s teachings can guide us. 

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