Julian of Norwich
In Mysticism, The Spiritual Path, Vol. I, the writer explains:
Mystic knowledge is not knowledge in the ordinary sense; it is a spiritual, transcendent experience which is different from our ordinary experience not only in degree but in kind … it is an unanalysable, transcendent, ecstatic intuition which reveals reality to the naked soul.
Within many religious traditions there have been mystics who have either consciously sought to gain experience of the truth behind the dogma or who, because of the intensity of their devotion, have spontaneously risen above everyday consciousness to come into the state of communion described above. This is as true in the West as it is in the East.
Julian of Norwich, a devoted Christian woman, lived in England between 1342 and 1416. On 8 May 1373, when seriously ill and apparently dying, Julian underwent an extraordinary series of spiritual experiences. Sometime over the next thirty years, she wrote two accounts of the experiences: an earlier shorter version and a later, longer one. Her work, like those of many medieval writers, remained untitled but modern editors and translators have called it Revelations of Divine Love.
She is now recognized by the Christian church to have been a visionary whose most remarkable achievement was to broaden orthodox Christians’ view of God, so that beyond divine justice, they also understood something of His mercy and compassion. In later life she lived as an anchoress at Saint Julian’s Church, Norwich, from which she adopted her name.
An anchoress was someone who had taken vows to remain in prayer and isolation for the rest of her life. Anchorites’ quarters in medieval England would not necessarily have been just a small cell but could have been a couple of rooms attached to a church, and she might also have the assistance of servants. She would be visited regularly by the parish priest and would be an adviser to people needing spiritual help. Julian became well known as a spiritual adviser – a fact that can be gleaned from The Book of Margery Kempe, published at the same time and place in England. Here the writer says that she was told by her priest to approach Julian for spiritual advice. This was exceptional in medieval England, since there was considerable discrimination against women. They frequently remained uneducated and were not usually allowed to hold any lay or clerical position of authority.
Very little is known about Julian’s life except what can be inferred from her Revelations of Divine Love. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were a time of plague, war, and religious executions – very difficult times that parallel the difficult times in the world today. There were religious executions in Norwich, so Julian must have been very aware of the suffering of mankind as well as the corrupt nature of humanity. She refers to “vile sin” and we mortals’ “foul, deadly flesh”. Despite this, her experiences reveal an understanding of the power of the soul and God’s all-encompassing love.
Her writing does not mention whether she had a spiritual teacher; we cannot tell if she followed a particular practice of meditation, and although she writes about “the Holy Ghost” no mention is made of internal sound and light. Julian describes what we would term ‘going inside’ to the inner regions, but we have no idea what level she attained. However, what we do realize from her writings is that she was granted a deep understanding and appreciation of God’s love, which is what followers of Sant Mat long for.
As disciples of a living Master we are extremely fortunate. We have a specific practice: a discipline imparted to us by our Master at the time of initiation. Moreover, when disciples make spiritual progress and go within, the Master is always with them and accompanies them through the labyrinth of the inner worlds. Without the Master’s presence, the soul could get hopelessly lost in these vast inner realms. Any spiritual experience that comes to the disciple of a true Master is beyond doubt and comes with the blessing of the Master, who knows when the disciple is spiritually mature enough to digest such experiences. So clearly, there are differences between our lives and experiences as satsangis and the life of a fourteenth- century Christian mystic.
Satsangis are encouraged to earn their own living or be financially independent, so the Masters would not encourage us to be an anchorite or recluse, but they do extol a simple life. In Spiritual Gems, Maharaj Sawan Singh writes:
Solitude is good for spiritual progress…. Social functions, besides wasting one’s time, distract one’s mind which, therefore, becomes difficult to concentrate. Without concentration, spiritual progress is impossible.
In Revelations of Divine Love, Julian in all humility pleads with her reader to focus on her experiences and not on her person, a “poor, worldly, sinful creature”, saying that she is of no importance and that her experience of God’s love is all that we should know of her. The Master also emphasizes the importance of humility for making progress on the spiritual path. The Great Master explains in Philosophy of the Masters, Vol. III:
If you want to be admitted to the court of saints, go with the cup of humility without any pride, as it is only when the cup is empty that the flagon bends towards it.
Julian writes about the experience of sin and the hope for salvation despite sin, and she expresses a sense of such cosmic optimism that others have used it in their writings, most notably the poet T. S. Eliot: “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Here is an excerpt from her Revelations of Divine Love:
Our Lord showed me a spiritual vision of his familiar love. I saw that for us he is everything that is good and comforting and helpful. He is our clothing, wrapping and enveloping us for love, embracing us and guiding us in all things, hanging about us in tender love, so that he can never leave us. And so in this vision, as I understand it, I saw truly that he is everything that is good for us. And in this vision he showed me a little thing, the size of a hazel-nut, lying in the palm of my hand, and to my mind’s eye it was round as any ball. I looked at it and thought, “What can this be?” And the answer came to me, “It is all that is made.” I wondered how it would last, for it was so small I thought it might suddenly disappear. And the answer in my mind was, “It lasts and will last forever because God loves it; and in the same way everything exists through the love of God.” In this little thing I saw three attributes: the first is that God made it, the second is that he loves it, the third is that God cares for it. But what does that mean to me? Truly, the maker, the lover, the carer; for until I become one substance with him, I can never have love, rest or true bliss; that it is to say, until I am so bound to him that there may be no created thing between my God and me. And who shall do this deed? Truly, himself, by his mercy and his grace, for he has made me and blessedly restored me to that end.