The Complete Julian of Norwich
By Julian of Norwich
Translated and Edited by Father John Julian, OSJ
Publisher: Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2009.
Julian of Norwich was a fourteenth-century Christian mystic in Norwich, England. At the age of thirty, she experienced a series of mystical revelations which conveyed a profound message of God’s boundless love for his creation. Soon after this happened, she recorded a description of these revelations, or ‘showings’ as she called them. Some twenty years later, she wrote a longer manuscript adding reflections on the meaning of what she had perceived. It is this longer version, often known as the “Revelations”, that is presented in The Complete Julian of Norwich. While there are many translations and editions of the Revelations, Father John Julian’s extensive introduction and copious notes makes this edition particularly accessible. This edition places Julian of Norwich’s text on the right-hand pages with Father John’s notes facing them on the left.
The first part of the introduction discusses major themes that recur throughout the text. Those include Julian of Norwich’s understanding that God is all love and all goodness, there is no wrath in God, God loves what he has made, and everything that happens is done by him. As she put it, “There is no other doer.” As Father John sees it, if there is one overriding theme throughout Julian’s writings, it is her optimism. Perhaps the most well-known quote from the Revelations is, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Other sections of the introduction fill in the historical context. Father John pieces together fragmentary evidence to sketch her life. He posits that it was around the age of fifty, after the death of her husband and when her three children were grown, that she became an anchorite – that is, a recluse dedicating her life to prayer, and offering counsel to those who sought it. Father John gives detailed background on the role an anchorite in medieval England, as well as a description of Julian’s cell based on archeological evidence.
Julian explains that the revelations came to her in three ways: by vision, by “word formed in my understanding”, and by spiritual insight. Many of the visions are of Christ and his crucifixion. Some are of the Virgin Mary. Sometimes the reader may have a hard time picturing the vision she describes, but it little matters, since it is in her reflections on the meaning of what she has seen that her profound spiritual wisdom comes through. For example, she had a vision of a very small object, “about the size of a hazelnut”, explaining that it represented “all that is made” – the entire creation. In her vision she understood that this small object was extremely vulnerable, utterly dependent on grace. “I marveled how it could continue, because it seemed to me it could suddenly have sunk into nothingness because of its littleness.” And I was answered in my understanding: “It continueth and always shall, because God loveth it; and in this way everything hath its being by the love of God.” In this image of the creation, she discerned the reality of God:
But what did I observe in that? Truly the Maker, the Lover, and the Keeper, for until I am in essence one-ed to him, I can never have full rest nor true joy (that is to say, until I am made so fast to him that there is absolutely nothing that is created separating my God from myself).
She continues with advice that would be helpful to any spiritual seeker:
It is necessary for us to have awareness of the littleness of created things and to set at naught everything that is created, in order to love and have God who is uncreated. For this is the reason why we are not fully at ease in heart and soul: because here we seek rest in these things that are so little, in which there is no rest, and we recognize not our God who is all powerful, all wise, all good, for he is the true rest. God wishes to be known, and he delights that we remain in him, because all that is less than he is not enough for us. And this is the reason why no soul is at rest until it is emptied of everything that is created. When the soul is willingly emptied for love in order to have him who is all, then it is able to receive spiritual rest.
Julian of Norwich describes the revelations she experienced as “a lesson in love”. From them she learned that “our soul is so especially beloved by him that is Highest”. She came to see that God “comes down to us to the lowest part of our need. For he does not despise what he has created, and he does not disdain to serve us … because of the love of our soul which he has made in his own likeness.” As she sees it, we humans are “clad in the goodness of God and enclosed – yes, and even more intimately.” She concludes, “Therefore we can, with his grace and his help, remain in spiritual contemplation, with everlasting wonder at this high, surpassing, inestimable love which Almighty God has for us of his goodness.”
Her visions show her clearly that God is in everyone and everything, and that he does all that is done. But this brings up the troubling question of sin.
I gazed with deliberation, seeing and knowing in that vision that he does all that is done. I marveled at that sight with a gentle trepidation, and thought: What is sin? (For I saw truly that God does everything no matter how little.) Wherefore, it is necessary for me to concede that everything that is done, it is well done, for God does all… and I was certain he does no sin.
The question of sin challenged Julian, because what she understood through the revelations seemed to contradict the teachings of the Church. Ultimately, however, she concluded that “sin has no substance”, no reality. People create pain for themselves by their actions. For a sincere seeker, she says, there is no greater “Hell” than the pain they feel because of their own sins. But she is sure that God does not blame the sinner, nor does he hate the sinner. “For God is all that is good, as I see it, and God has created all that is created, and God loves all that he has created.”
Julian’s advice about prayer seems to stem from profound realizations. In one of the revelations, God says, “I am the ground of thy praying.” In other words, when we turn our attention to him, it is God himself, not we, who has initiated that turning. “For I am certain,” she writes, “that no man asks mercy and grace with a true intention, unless that mercy and that grace have first been given to him.”
The purpose of prayer is not to ask for anything, but to align our will with the will of the Lord. “Prayer ones the soul to God, for though the soul is ever like God in nature and in essence, it is often unlike God in its external state by sin on man’s part. Then is prayer a witness that the soul wills as God wills, and it comforts the conscience and inclines man to grace.”
Most glad and happy is our Lord about our prayer, and he watches for it and he wishes to enjoy it, because with his grace it makes us like himself in character as we are in nature. And this is his blessed will, for he says this: “Pray inwardly even though it seems to give thee no pleasure, for it is beneficial enough though thou perceives it not. Pray inwardly, though thou sensest nothing, though thou seest nothing, yea, though thou thinkest thou canst achieve nothing, for in dryness and barrenness, in sickness and in feebleness, then is thy prayer completely pleasing to me, though it seems to give thee but little pleasure. And thus all thy living is prayer in my eyes.”
Ultimately, prayer leads to a state where “all our purpose with all our might is fixed wholly upon the contemplation of him. This is an exalted imperceptible prayer.”
Julian assures us that such prayer pleases the Lord: “Also our Lord God showed that it is full great pleasure to him that an innocent soul come to him nakedly and plainly and simply. For this is the natural yearning of the soul, thanks to the touching of the Holy Spirit.”
By nature do we yearn, and by grace do we trust. And in these two actions, our Lord watches us constantly…. Therefore, it is proper for us to give our best effort thereto, and when we have done it, then shall we still think that it is nothing – and truly it is nothing. But let us do what we can, and humbly ask mercy and grace, and all that we fall short we shall find in him.
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