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You Will Not Be Overcome

cr_julian.jpg

One of the first women to write and publish a book in English, Julian wrote for one simple and mysterious reason.
Image: Catholic Saints

Julian of Norwich

Like the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing who lived around the same time, Julian is a 14th century British mystic who has fascinated and inspired generations of men and women. She is also the only mystic I know to be depicted with her cat. Julian escaped the Black Death when she was six and again when she was eighteen and twenty-six, but the town of Norwich where she lived lost one person out of every three. Festive pilgrims like those that Chaucer describes were riding through green lanes on their way to Canterbury not long afterwards, but death rode close beside them. Not surprisingly Julian thought about suffering and death. More unusually she decided to learn more about them.

In May 1373, when she was thirty-one, she prayed that she would know what Christ suffered. As if in answer, she became dangerously ill. Over three days and nights, as her mother and several friends tended her, she lost the ability to move or speak. On the fourth night, a priest gave her the last rites. Two days and two nights later, she was still clinging to life, but “dead from the waist down.”

When the priest returned in the morning, he set a crucifix before her fixed eyes. To her sight the room seemed dark, but she could see the crucifix, and she suddenly felt all her pain leave her. She had wanted to understand divine suffering. Instead, in what might be considered the wise and paradoxical grace of the Spirit, over the course of the next twenty-four hours she had sixteen revelations of divine love.

Her revelations began with the Crucifixion, which many people consider the most ghastly part of the whole Gospel. The revelation of the Crucifixion told Julian that God suffers with us and for us. He sees the sacrifices we make - for children, parents, work, freedom, strangers, friends. He understands sacrifice as an expression of love. He hopes that our sacrifices will strengthen and transform us and give us joy. Julian saw and felt that when we reach out to hug another person, and our arms open wide, our body makes the shape of the cross - the cross of love. But having discovered love, she almost immediately disowned her visions.

While Julian was recovering, she described her revelations to the visiting priest. She told him she must have been dreaming or mad. He listened silently then told her what he thought.

"This man takes my least word seriously," she wrote later with amazed delight. He urged her to write down her revelations.

Imagine her in the morning light, a cat beside her as she writes or dictates. Occasionally she stops to gaze across the room and recall in detail the loving God who had cared for her like "a father and a mother," like "a brother and a friend".

Some people think their visions make them special. (A sure sign their visions are not to be trusted.) Julian did not. More than anything she wanted people to know that God loved them and that they could trust in that love even when spiritually they felt dry as dust, even when life seemed unbearable. Communicating that love inspired her book, Revelations of Divine Love. It remains in print today.

In The Way of the English Mystics, Gordon Miller writes that her "delicacy and precision in dealing with theological insights" and her honesty and humility persuaded a skeptical Church that her revelations were the real thing. By then she had made the decision to live as an anchoress in a small room attached to the Church of St. Julian and St Edward in Norwich.

Julian's stone church in winter sunshine

Julian’s Church
Image: Anamchara

She lived there for the next forty years. She meditated on the revelations, described them in more depth in a second manuscript, and opened her "worldly-wise window" to those who came to her for advice - harried mothers, restless merchants, young seekers on the path.

In her book she shared what she had discovered, the truth about every soul -

"Then our good Lord opened the eye of my spirit and showed me my soul in the middle of my heart. I saw the soul as large as if it were a world without end and also as if it were a blessed, blissful kingdom. . ."

For years Julian wondered exactly what the Lord meant by the revelations she had received. One day the Lord answered her, perhaps a tad impatiently, using the Old English word wit, which means know -

What? Wouldst thou wit thy Lord's meaning in this thing? Learn it well: Love was his meaning. And who showed it to you? Love. Why did he show it to you? For love.

"But what about suffering?" we ask. "How can we endure it?"

And Lady Julian answers,

Our dearworthy Lord did not say, 'You will never face trouble, you will never feel sorrow, you will never be afflicted.' He said, 'You will not be overcome.'

 

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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass