Julian was a fourteenth century anchorite (hermit), who lived in a cell next to St Julian’s parish church in Norwich, and took her name from the church. As an anchorite, she had in her cell two windows, one into the church to enable her to hear Mass, and another, “a window on the world”, to give those searching for a deeper meaning in faith, access to her for spiritual counsel.
On this day, the 8th May in 1373, when Julian of Norwich was just over thirty years old, she was suffering from what was considered to be a terminal illness. In the worst of this illness, she went through experiences, visions, which she saw as from God. These she described as a series of revelations of the love of God. She wrote of her experiences, and was the first woman to write and be published in the English language. Her work, “Revelations of Divine Love” continues to inspire & call us to a deeper relationship with God even to this day.
These "Revelations" - why to Julian, and why at that time? Julian tells us that at one point in her life, probably in her teenage years, she prayed that God might grant her three requests.
Firstly, she wanted to "enter into the spirit of Christ’s passion."
Secondly, she asked for "bodily sickness in youth, at the age of thirty".
Finally, she asked for the gift of "three wounds" which she called "the wound of true contrition, the wound of natural compassion and the wound of full-hearted longing for God."
Such requests seem a bit OTT to Christians of the present day, but in the times that Julian lived the Passion of Christ was very real. Life was hard, and the suffering, crucified Christ spoke into the lives of most 14th century Christians. After the teenage-Julian prayed this prayer, she had put it to the back of her mind. It took her by surprise that at the age of thirty-and-a half years she received that for which she had prayed in her hot-headed, passionate-for-Christ youth!
Over a period of three days in May 1373, when she was just over thirty years old, she almost died. First she was paralysed, and then she lost her ability to speak. The parish priest administered the last rites. He placed a cross within her view for her spiritual comfort. Her eyesight diminished, and she became short of breath. She knew she was dying. On May 8, 1373 she seemed to lose consciousness, during which time she reported receiving "showings" or visions from God. Over the next couple of days she had sixteen of these insights. She wrote them down and then spent the next 20 years meditating on these "showings," asking God to teach her through them. From these years of trying to understand what she saw during those days in May, that she wrote her book, the "Revelations of Divine Love", the fruit of her contemplation, which is still widely read today.
"Contemplative and Radical "– a treatise by Ken Leech: “The fourteenth century in England was a period of great social upheaval, an age of militancy and of mysticism, of turmoil in soil and soul. It was a distressing time for agricultural labourers, a time of exploitation of rural peasants and the urban poor, a time of sickness, plague and violence. The Hundred Years’ War had been rumbling on since 1338; in 1348, when Julian was just five years old, a highly-infectious cattle disease took hold in Norfolk; and the year after The Black Death came to Norwich without warning.
The population of Norwich at the time was 6,000 – out of this some 2,500 died of the plague. The priests were called from one death-bed to another, and were themselves to become the chief casualties. Their lack caused further anguish to the bereaved as many died without the last rites. ….. to complete the ghastly picture, the harvest of 1369 was the worst for fifty years, which fuelled the Peasants Revolt. The man who led the forces of the landed gentry against the rebellious peasants was Henry Despencer, the Bishop of Norwich, who had used ungodly tactics to squash the revolt. Then to add insult to injury, in her lifetime the Papacy was split – one in Rome, and another in Avignon.”
We live, as Julian did, in troubled times.
Then, as now, we question – “Where is God in all this?”
Where was God in the Black Death?
Where is God in the Pandemic?
Where was God during the Hundred Years’ War?
Where is God in the Ukrainian situation?
Where was God in the heart of Henry le Despenser,
the Bishop of Norwich, whose reputation as the 'Fighting Bishop' was gained for his part in cruel suppression of the Peasants' Revolt?
Where is God to be found in Moscow now,
(certainly not in the heart of the warring prelate, Patriarch Kirill!)
Julian’s memorable and famous words – “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” are hard to take in when all is NOT well;
but coming from Julian, living then in times like our own, is a divinely-inspired expression of optimism at the worst of times. Good for then, and good for now.
‘God did not say, “You will not be assailed, you will not be belaboured,
you will not be disquieted”, but he said, “You will not be overcome.”’
“I was taught that love is Our Lord’s meaning. And I saw very certainly in this and in everything that before God made us he loved us, which love was never abated and never will be.”
For Julian, feelings of guilt and worthlessness are far more damaging than the failures we call sin, because they fix our attention on ourselves. What really delights God is our delight in him, and preoccupation with sin distracts us from that.
‘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.’
Julian became convinced that when we pray
it is in response to God’s desire to grant what we most urgently need.
Our prayers of beseeching do not cause graces and gifts to come to us from God.
It is God’s own goodness, the ground of all that is,
that initiates every good thing he ever chooses to give us.
He is ready to give before we even ask.
“I saw in truth that God does all things, however small they may be.
And I saw that nothing happens by chance,
but by the far-sighted wisdom of God.
If it seems like chance to us it is because we are blind and blinkered.
The things planned before the world began come upon us suddenly,
so that in our blindness we say that they are chance.
But God knows better.
Constantly and lovingly he brings all that happens to its best end.”
“All shall be well…”
She must have said that,
sometimes through gritted teeth.
Surely she knew the moments
When fear gnaws at trust,
The future loses shape,
The courage that says
All shall be well
Doesn’t mean feeling no fear,
but facing it, trusting
God won’t let go.
All shall be well
Doesn’t deny present experience
But roots it deep
In the faithfulness of God
Whose will and gift is life.
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.