Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Julian of Norwich: "All Shall Be Well"

Julian of Norwich (receives her "revelations," 13 May 1373)

We know very little about Julian of Norwich--her birth date, for example, or her death date, or her parents' names, or her family's social class and status. She may have been a Benedictine nun, but, then again, she may have been a laywoman. We aren't even sure about her name. But, while we don't know these sorts of biographical "facts"--the kinds of things we consider very important--we do know a great deal about what Julian regarded as the single most important event in her life. 

A twentieth-century sculpture of Julian of Norwich,
holding a copy of her Revelations,
Church of St. Julian at Norwich
About the date of that singular event, Julian is very specific: it occurred in "the year of our Lord 1373, the thirteenth day of May."* She tells us that she has been ill for eight days. She believes she is dying--in fact, she says she thinks she is "on the point of death," and those who are around her, including her mother, "also thought this." She can feel herself dying, indeed she feels that the lower half of her body is already dead. A cross is brought to her, her "sight begins to fail," and the room around her goes dark--except for a light on the cross. 

Then, she recounts, "I felt as if the upper part of my body were beginning to die." She loses strength, her arms fall limp, her head rolls to one side, and she experiences a terrible pain and shortness of breath. 

And then the extraordinary occurs: her pain is suddenly gone, and, although she is a simple and uneducated woman, she experiences a "revelation" of Jesus's love through series of "showings." Or, in Julian's words: "These Revelations were shewed to a simple creature unlettered."

Julian does tell us a bit more about herself in the two versions of the work that is now referred to as The Revelations of Divine Love or, alternatively, as The Showing of Divine Love or, more simply, as Shewings (using her spelling). Julian tells us that her transformative experience occurs when she is "thirty and a half years old," putting her birth around the end of 1342.

In the longer and later version of her text, Julian indicates that she has been receiving "instruction" about her remarkable visionary experience for some twenty years, suggesting that at least two decades separate the shorter and longer versions of her Revelations. But, although the intervening years have clearly led to a great deal of study, Julian refers to this new "instruction" as coming to her not via the theologians and philosophers whose work she has read in those years, but immediately, "through ghostly understanding." 

A brief introductory paragraph of the only surviving copy of the shorter version of the Revelations, written by an unidentified person, provides a name for the author, "Julian," explains that she is "a recluse at Norwich," and adds that she is "still alive, A.D. 1413." There are also few external references--four wills, dated between 1394 and 1416, make small bequests to her as a "recluse at Norwich." After 1416, there are no more bequests, suggesting that Julian has died.

The opening of Julian's shorter text,
from a single surviving manuscript copy
(Beginning, "There is Avision Schewed Be the goodeness of god to Adeo/
uoute Woman and hir Name es Julyan")

These details about her work--that the first version of her Revelations was recorded after 1373, the second twenty years later, about 1393--mean that hers is, quite likely, the earliest book in English by a woman writer.

Julian's Revelations reflect the turmoil--political, economic, religious--of her time. Julian's text reveals a thoughtful, profound theology as she deals with complicated doctrinal issues like the problems of predestination, the foreknowledge of God, and the existence of evil. And yet her texts express her insights and interpretations in simple--yet compelling--language and with immediate metaphors.

Most controversially, perhaps, are the passages in which Julian describes Jesus as a mother: God "is our father," but he is also "our loving mother." (This comparison is developed especially in Chapters 58 through 62 in the long text.) But there are many who are much more prepared to discuss Julian's theology than I am.

I have already written that, while I include a number of saints, martyrs, mystics, and visionaries in these posts, I am not at all a believer in any religion myself. Even so, that does not mean I am not profoundly moved by Julian of Norwich. For one thing, there is the incantatory power of the most famous passage in Julian's Revelations. Julian has questions and doubts. To which God replies,
I will make all things well, I shall make all things well, I may make all things well and I can make all things well; and you will see that yourself, that all things will be well.
And, then, there is this, from her discussion of the first of the "shewings" she receives. Julian's God is neither wrathful nor a deity who inflicts punishment. In response to her anxieties and distress, God shows her "spiritually" how much he loves humankind: "And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball." She continues:
I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, 'What may this be?' And it was answered generally thus, 'It is all that is made.' I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am not at all an optimist--quite the opposite, in fact. My dearest friend sometimes calls me "Dr. No." I am not even a glass-half-empty kind of woman--I'm a "why in the hell are there only two glasses anyway?" kind of person. But I am deeply moved by these passages in Julian's Revelations. And during a particularly bad patch in my life, I found that it helped enormously to put a hazel nut in my pocket--just reaching in and feeling it made me think of Julian's quiet reassurances--"all things will be well."

Although the bad patch is long gone, there are still a few hazel nuts left in my pockets. Every once in a while, I put my hand in a jacket or a coat, and I find one. When I do, I feel immensely happy.

At some point during her life, though it is not clear when, Julian enclosed herself as an anchoress in a cell attached to the Church of St. Julian at Norwich. (She may have become "Julian" because of her association with this church, dedicated to the early Christian saint, St. Julian the "Hospitaller" [he built a hospital for travelers].) The church was destroyed during World War II, but it has been rebuilt, and now there is a reconstructed cell, a shrine, and, next door, a Julian of Norwich Centre.

A few days ago, I wrote about a student who had suddenly looked up from her desk one day in class, remembering that her mother had dragged her around Germany to visit places associated with Hildegard of Bingen. A similar situation emerged in a class I taught another semester--a guy who had slept through most of our classes suddenly came alive when we turned our attention to Julian of Norwich. He'd traveled in England when he was in the army and had somehow stumbled on the Church of St. Julian and Julian's story--he shared tons of memories and photos with us. And, as I recall, stayed awake during the rest of the semester. (Or maybe I'm just imagining that . . . )

The rebuilt cell of Julian, attached to the rebuilt
Church of St. Julian at Norwich
There are several good editions of Julian's Revelations. If you are interested in seeing both the short and long versions of Julian's text, and seeing it in her original Middle English, there is a two-volume edition by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh, A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich; they also published a very affordable modern English translation, Showings, which has a particularly good introduction if you are interested in all of the material Julian has read between the shorter and longer texts. I can also recommend the edition by Denise N. Baker, The Showings of Julian of Norwich; as a volume in the Norton Critical Edition series, it has excellent supplementary materials, including an introduction, contextual readings, and critical essays, as well as a thorough bibliography.

Although she is not a saint, Julian's feast date is celebrated in the Catholic Church on 13 May. (In the Anglican Church, it's 8 May.)

*In supplying this date, I am relying on the second of Julian's versions of events, often referred to as the "long text." Julian completes this version of the experience after two decades' of reflection. There is an alternative date in some copies, 8 May, but the more generally accepted date, for what it's worth, is 13 May. Even the most definite of dates is, it seems, just a bit uncertain . . .