Though we do not know her actual name, Lady Julian of Norwich is known by the name of St. Julian’s church in Norwich, where she spent much of her life (after 1373) as an anchoress.
An anchoress was a woman who was walled-up into a cell, to live a life of prayer and contemplation - The male equivalent was 'anchorite'.
Despite how extreme this may seem to us today, the anchoritic way of life seems to have been remarkably popular in medieval times. Although in one sense isolated, nevertheless Julian received visitors, who would speak to her through her "window on the world", for spiritual advice, or to ask for her prayers. Her visitors included royalty and senior clerics, such was the respect in which she was held. Indeed as far as Norwich was concerned, she was looked-upon as tasked to pray for God's blessing upon the city and its inhabitants.
Julian says that at one point in her life, probably in her "teenage" years, she developed a deep relationship with Christ, and prayed for three things to be gifted her by God:,
Firstly, she wanted to "enter into the spirit of Christ’s passion."
Secondly, she asked for "bodily sickness in youth, at age 30"
and finally, she asked for the gift of "three wounds"
"the wound of true contrition,
the wound of natural compassion
and the wound of full-hearted longing for God."
At the age of thirty -one her prayers were answered, when over a period of 3 days in May 1373, she almost died. First she was paralysed, and then she lost her ability to speak. They sent for the local priest to give her last rites, who placed a cross before her eyes so she would be comforted by it. She began to lose her sight, seeing only the cross. She became short of breath, and knew she was dying. But then suddenly, just as she was on the verge of death, she began to recover, and her life was changed forever.
On May 8, 1373 she received what she described as sixteen "showings" or visions from God. She wrote these down, and spent the next 20 years meditating on and entering into these "showings," asking God to teach her through them. Her book, the "Revelations of Divine Love", the fruit of this contemplation, is still widely read today. These writings are thought to be the earliest surviving book written in English by a woman.
Julian lived in a time of war and pandemic. To try to answer what was being experienced, Church teaching put a lot of emphasis on hell, damnation, and sin. In the midst of this we see a woman who spent most of her adult life isolated, yet who was respected as a spiritual tower of strength by people from all kinds of backgrounds. Both in her era and in our own, her understanding of God continues to be radical and extremely powerful, an image of God who is tender, loving, consoling and positive.
“In you, Father all-mighty, we have our preservation and our bliss.
In you, Christ, we have our restoring and our saving.
You are our mother, brother, and saviour.
In you, our Lord the Holy Spirit, is marvellous and plenteous grace.
You are our clothing; for love you wrap us and embrace us.
You are our maker, our lover, our keeper.
Teach us to believe that by your grace
all shall be well,
and all shall be well,
and all manner of thing shall be well.” A Prayer of Mother Julian
As an Anchoress Julian was allowed to keep a cat for pest control, particularly to keep down the mice. Julian is often portrayed with her cat nearby, no doubt it was a great source of comfort to her.
‘Our courteous Lord does not want his servants to despair
because they fall often and grievously,
for our falling does not hinder him in loving us.
In our sight we do not stand,
in God’s sight we do not fall.’ Mother Julian
The mother can give her child to suck of her milk,
but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with himself,
and does, most courteously
and most tenderly, with the blessed sacrament,
which is the precious food of true life …
The mother can lay her child tenderly to her breast,
but our tender Mother Jesus can lead us easily into his blessed breast
through his sweet open side,
and show us there a part of the godhead and of the joys of heaven,
with inner certainty of endless bliss …
This fair lovely word 'mother'
is so sweet and so kind in itself
that it cannot truly be said of anyone
or to anyone except of him and to him who is the true Mother of life
and of all things.
To the property of motherhood belong nature, love, wisdom, and knowledge,
and this is God.
Most holy God, the ground of our beseeching,
who through your servant Julian revealed the wonders of your love:
grant that as we are created in your nature and restored by your grace,
our wills may be made one with yours,
that we may come to see you face to face
and gaze on you for ever;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.