The Visions of Julian of Norwich.
Posted by Setera
Lady Julian of Norwich, born around 1342, was the author of a book which was later given the title ‘Revelations of Divine Love’. It represents her life’s work and at its heart is a message given to her through a series of visions as she lay (apparently) on her death bed. As it conveys God’s love of humanity and a mysterious insistence that ’All shall be well’, this message is in essence one of great hope and reassurance,.
Julian’s visions came to her at the age of thirty and a half in fulfillment of requests she had made of God when she was much younger. She had asked if she could experience Christ’s suffering on the cross as if she were actually present during it; she also wished to experience a grave illness when she reached thirty: one which would stop short of her actually dying. Although these wishes seem odd by today’s standards, they need to be put in context: to be seen as the earnest desire of a devout young woman to connect with her religious beliefs on a deeper and more emotional level.
The physical illness arrived on cue, culminating in Julian’s first vision or ‘showing’ as she called it. It came as she gazed at a crucifix held by her parish priest. He had been summoned as those attending her (including her mother) feared that she was on the point of death. Remembering her primary request, Julian prayed tht she might feel the intensity of Christ’s passion . In her words, she wished “for fellow suffering, such as it seemed to me a naturally kind soul might feel for our Lord Jesus, who was willing to become a mortal man for love.” She would never have presumed to ask for a vision or bodily ‘showing’, but her ardent longing to share in Christ’s suffering was answered with an extraordinarily vivid and intimate tableau . She was shown (in graphic detail) the horrifying effects of the crucifixion. She witnessed the profuse loss of blood, the wounds caused by the crown of thorns and the barbaric nails and the way Christ’s body dried out due to loss of body fluids. She also experienced the discomfort caused by a cold wind blowing over his naked body. In her subsequent book, Julian is moved to reflect: “I little knew what pain it was I asked for”. As she dwells on these images of suffering an inner voice instructs her: ‘This is the greatest pain: to see your love suffer.’
It should be understood that far from indulging a morbid preoccupation, Julian wished to take on some of Christ’s agony in the hope of easing it. At the same time she perceived that those closest to him offered up their own heartbreak at the foot of the cross. She writes: “Here I saw a great union between Christ and us, as I understand it, for when he was in pain, we were in pain. And all creatures who were capable of suffering, suffered with him …At the time of Christ’s dying, the firmament and the earth failed for sorrow, each according to their nature. For it is their natural property to recognize as their God him in whom all their natural power is grounded”.
The full process of Christ’s torment was played out in front of her, until Julian thought that she must be made to witness his final moments of earthly life. To her astonishment and relief, this did not happen for the last agonies were transmuted. His expression became one which made her “as glad and happy as it is possible to be.” She explains the meaning of this as ‘Our Lord made me think happily, “Where is there now one jot of your pain or your sorrow?” ’. She understood that whatever suffering we have to endure in this life, will be transformed into joy in the next and that ‘there will be no time between one moment and the next.’ That Christ chose to take on our human form and be one of us and one with us, is ‘the most glorious present that our lord God could make to man’s soul.’ As she observes, ‘if he said that for love of me he would make new heavens and a new earth, it would be but little in comparison, for he could do this every day if he so wished.’
All who have at one time or another been afraid, in pain, humiliated, felt alone and abandoned can know that Christ has been there before and can lead us safely back again. The truths that Julian had revealed to her are eternal, in that the human condition changes very little and we are in as much need of God’s love and support now as we were in her day. If we accept the analogy of mankind as the ‘children’ of God, then we can appreciate that love and attention are far more crucial to our development than being showered with lots of expensive gifts.
The crucifixion scene led on to a series of other, striking images and concepts: some controversial to the MediaevalChurch and therefore difficult for Julian to grasp. Though it was obvious to her that people were often guilty of wrong-doing, she could not find any indication that God loved them any the less for it. Nor was she shown any representation of hellfire or condemnation to eternal punishment, and this perplexed her greatly. One point of her faith was that ‘many shall be damned’, and yet God was assuring her that ‘you shall see for yourself’ that ‘all manner of things shall be well’. Julian thought it impossible that all should be well if so many were to be lost, yet she is answered cryptically with ‘What is impossible to you is not impossible to me. I shall keep my word in all things and I shall make all things well.’
In her interpretation of her visions, Julian is at pains to point out that wrong-doing is somehow inevitable and understandable in humanity, but that we should strive to recognize and make amends for it throughout our earthly life. Remorselessness is the gravest injustice, and one may recognize this in the unrepentant war criminal, tyrant, or self-justifying psychopathic serial killer. God allows Julian to see ‘Man is naturally weak and foolish ..and in this world he suffers storm and sorrow and woe’ and ‘men are changeable in this life and through frailty and accident we fall into sin.’ Yet even the most evil deeds and the fact that people can suffer terrible evils will be transmuted through God’s promise to make all things well.
This promise is held out to Julian with reference to the fulfilling of scripture, and here can be found the most significant revelation for our current times of trouble. It is that God will perform a ‘Great Deed’ on the last day, a deed ordained from the beginning of time ‘treasured up and hidden in his blessed breast’ . If we can accept this promise, then we should not need to fear unduly the apocalyptic warnings about our near future. This means also accepting that we are loved completely and fully: a fact so overwhelming that it is often easier to deny the existence of God than believe we are worthy of such love.
It took Julian her whole lifetime to disseminate what she understood from her ‘showings’, and it could be that the spiritual understanding she was given fifteen years after her original showing was intended to ease her anxiety over this task. ‘Do you want to know what your Lord meant? Know well that love was what he meant. Who showed you this? Love. What did he show? Love. Why did he show it to you? For love. Hold fast to this and you will know and understand more of the same; but you will never understand or know from it anything else for all eternity.’
It is not possible to convey in a couple of pages the great depth and richness of Julian’s work, but hopefully its core meaning is apparent as that is more essential now than it ever was. ‘Revelations of Divine Love’ merits a full reading by anyone who is in need of reassurance, as it reveals that we are part of God and God is part of us. For this reason, we can face whatever future awaits us, knowing that: ‘He did not say “You shall not be tormented, you shall not be troubled, you shall not be grieved.” but he said “You shall not be overcome.”
For further reading – the text discussed was ‘Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love’ translated by Elizabeth Spearing with an introduction and notes by A.C. Spearing. (Penguin Classics, 1998)
For a contemporary meditation on the profound effects of his personal ‘revelation’ , Brian Thorne’s ‘Behold the Man’ is invaluable. (Darton, Longman and Todd – 1991)