Norwich in the fourteenth century represented the vitality of Christian faith far removed from papal politics and the notorious corruptions of Rome. If English piety was simpler than that found on the Continent, it was also often deeper. Nonetheless, its insulation from religious conflicts did not isolate it from the spiritual currents which preceded the Renaissance. Norwich, then the second largest city in England, contained three colleges of secular priests, a cathedral, the best medieval library in England, various orders, a hospital and secure trade routes with the Low Countries. The city provided England with bishops and Rome with a cardinal, and the Franciscans established there a studia generalia, which drew students from across Europe. Norwich was one of the wealthy cities of the late fourteenth century as well as one of the more influential centres of medieval mysticism.
The fourteenth century witnessed the flowering of both mystical and anchorite traditions in England. Richard Rolle eloquently expounded his solitary vision in the first half of the century, and the anonymous Ancren Riwle – a guide for anchoresses – counselled, in terms of the biblical story of Martha and Mary, "Martha has her own work; leave her alone, and sit with Mary in perfect quiet at God's feet, and listen only to Him." The Cloud of Unknowing, also anonymously written, taught the Dionysian mysticism of Divine Darkness, and Walter Hilton wrote The Scale of Perfection for the edification of an aspiring anchoress. Men and women sought, in inward spiritual striving, more than an individual quest for the salvation of the soul: they believed that the success of such efforts had a beneficent effect upon humanity. In the eyes of those who lived contemplative lives, interior illumination bore witness to spiritual truth before the world. Dame Julian of Norwich was born into a rich heritage, which she brought to culmination in her thought and experience.
Believing that she was given remarkable visions and insights – "showings", as she called them – for the sake of humanity, she shared them freely in conversations and writing. Believing that her personal life contained nothing of spiritual significance and provided no clues to her showings, she remained virtually; silent about it. Neither her birthplace nor her family are known, and it is only by inference that her birth is set in the beginning of A.D. 1343. Though she called herself unlettered, she was probably well educated for her epoch, since her writings evidence a sound knowledge of the Bible, numerous mystical writings of French and English origin, and Chaucer's translation of Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. Her knowledge and use of Latin rhetorical forms in English rank her with Chaucer as the founder of literary English, a position comparable to that of Hadewijch in Dutch. Sometime in her early youth she was wholeheartedly attracted to the spiritual life and in time formulated three great desires. The first was to witness the Passion of the Crucifixion of Jesus as if she had been present, so that she could directly understand the nature of divine law. In the manner of Ruysbroeck and Eckhart, she wanted to taste God – to have that experience of the Divine which transcends discourse. Her second wish was to fall mortally ill at the age of thirty, so that she might prepare for death and learn not to care for worldly life. To be effective, she herself would have to believe that she was about to die, with extreme mental and physical pain and all the signs of death except the actual departure of the soul from the body.
Julian's third wish involved a metaphorical re-enactment of the wounds of St. Cecilia, whose story deeply moved her. The wounds Julian sought were those of true repentance, compassion and longing for the Divine. These intense aspirations for spiritual understanding may have expressed the ardour of youth, but they reflected the direction of Julian's life. While still a young woman, she took up the life of an anchoress and attached herself to the church of St. Julian and St. Edward in Norwich. There she dwelt in a spare but comfortable cell which probably opened into the church and into town so that she could participate in services and give guidance to those who sought her advice. Alice, a companion and assistant, served her faithfully for many years. As she followed the solitary path she chose, the first two desires were forgotten, although the wish for the three wounds remained foremost in her consciousness.
Julian fell ill in her thirtieth year with a painful paralysis which originated in the lower part of her body and crept upwards, until her breathing faltered. Those attending her thought that she was about to die, and a priest administered the last rites of the church. Suddenly, on May 13, 1373, she witnessed the Passion in a vision and realized that the prayers of her youth had reached fruition. During this time she had a total of sixteen showings, and then her illness departed as stealthily as it had come. Convinced that she had not received these showings owing to any righteousness or personal merit on her part, she combined a discerning eye with a spiritual agnosticism born of deep faith to ponder upon the meaning of what she had witnessed. She was disinclined to assert allegedly new truths and utterly rejected any suggestion that she was a channel of revelation, but she equally refused to subordinate her showings to orthodox platitudes. Whilst remaining loyal to the Christian tradition without succumbing to the conventions which entombed it, she garnered from her experiences a profound message for the world which she sought to share with anyone who wanted it.
Julian wrote two books recounting her showings and her understanding of them. The first was probably written soon after her experiences, and it describes them in detail and discusses their significance. In setting forth her thoughts, Julian combined the clinician's power of objective observation with the devotee's sense of spiritual reality. After about twenty years Julian's meditations had achieved a level of refinement and clarity which impelled her to write a second and fuller account. Showings which she had not understood earlier were reported in the second volume along with explanations, indicating that she had not included in the first book anything which had fallen short of her exacting criteria for insight. One can only speculate if still other showings were left unreported because she never satisfactorily penetrated their meaning. By the time she wrote her second book, her reputation as a pious visionary of exceptional honesty and insight had spread across the country, and many came to see her and to seek her advice, including Margery Kempe, who knew a number of the mystics of her time. Julian lived quietly for a number of years after she finished her books, and she may have died in 1416.
Convinced that her mystical insights were vouchsafed her to give immediacy to her understanding of truth, she pondered them in terms of traditional Christian teaching. Julian was watchful and vigilant in respect to the world and thereby gained perspicacious and compassionate insight into human nature, but she was also an acute observer of her own mental states. For example, she distinguished three kinds of showings and attempted to develop a descriptive vocabulary that could handle them with precision.
Even mystical language falters before direct experience, but Julian was always aware of the conceptual limitations with which she and her readers struggle.
Her first showing occurred as she gazed on the cross left before her after the administration of last rites, and it fulfilled her first youthful wish. The head on the crucifix became lifelike and began to bleed from its crown of thorns so profusely that the blood fell onto her bed clothes – yet she knew that no one but herself saw this vivid presentment. She was struck by the awesomeness of divine incarnation and by the nearness of Deity in every circumstance. Then she was shown an object the size of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of her hand. As she wondered what it was, an answer came into her mind: "It is all that is made." She doubted that it could endure for long, but she was told: "It lasts and always shall last because God loves it, and just in this way everything has its being – through the love of God." In addition to these words, she saw in the tiny object three distinct aspects: that Deity forms it, that He loves it and that He sustains it. Deity as creator, lover and sustainer conveyed the spiritual lesson that until she was "oned" to the Divine in herself, she would find no lasting bliss. To accomplish oneness with God the soul has to take everything created as nothing – and therefore negate or naught itself – and become a naught or zero, like the little object in her hand. "When the soul is willingly made naught for love, so as to have Him who is all, then she will be in real rest." The soul, Julian saw, yearns to come as nakedly to God as Deity manifested plainly in the Passion.
For Julian, and unlike some of the mystics of her time, Deity is triune. She did not make the Trinity a matter of dogmatic assertion, however, but rather a living reality in every aspect of life. It is the maker, lover and sustainer of her vision, but it is also might, wisdom and goodness, as well as life, love and light, and, functionally, willing, working and confirming. Julian used various terms to suggest the primal threefold manifestation of uncreate Deity so that she could point to its connection with the threefold nature of the human constitution, a reflection of the Trinity. The human being essentially consists of truth, wisdom and love, and he possesses reason, mind and love. Mankind's experience of the Divine is through Nature, mercy and grace, which meet its need for love, longing and pity. Applied to Deity and to the human reflection of it, all terms are transfigured in a divine dialectic which gives them transcendent and indefinable meanings. Proemial qualities radiating from the divine Ground can never be characterized adequately by secondary and derivative concepts. The mystery of the Trinity is equally the mystery of the triune in man. Just as the organs and bones of the body are enclosed in flesh and skin, so the body and soul of the human being is enclosed in the goodness of God. Since the Divine despises nothing, everything spiritual and material has its appropriate place in the order of creation. Man finds true bliss in discerning that order and living in accordance with it. Discernment is possible because of constant, all-pervading divine Love, the motherhood of God.
The third showing surprised Julian and made her think for many years. She saw in her understanding that Deity is a point, "by which I saw that He is in all things". For Julian, as for Isaiah, the Divine does all that is done.
The answer she received to her pertinent question was twofold. First, nothing happens by chance, for the Divine is everywhere. Human beings are ignorant of the true connections between many things and cover their ignorance with a false causality. When there is no apparent cause of something, the human mind invents a spurious cause – chance. This, Julian saw, is indeed impossible since Deity is everywhere active. Secondly, Deity cannot sin. Therefore, whatever happens in human experience must be precisely right at the moment it occurs. Such a view is undemonstrable, but Julian's insight and spiritual common sense demands that one trust it is so.
Julian dealt lightly with her insight because she was aware that it did not conform to the church doctrines she was required to uphold. In her view sin is not part of the causal, and a fortiori the divine, order. As part of that order, humanity imagines sin in the sense that it presumes to do things out of line with the Divine. This delusion is permitted in the divine scheme because the human awareness of sin makes a change of heart possible, whilst unthinking inertia is a form of spiritual paralysis. Sin is a no-deed, but its recognition purges the soul. This standpoint compelled Julian to admit that sin, being no-deed, is not-God, and therefore unreal in a world in which everything acts under divine will. How then can the sinner find salvation? For Julian, the soul can be redeemed because there is that spark in it which is beyond sin, and the redemptive process frees the untainted centre of the human being so that it may become one with its Source. Without creating obstacles for the simple faithful and without challenging accepted doctrines, Julian quietly suggested to her more discerning readers that though the church rightly condemned sin, there lay beyond condemnation a deeper teaching intimated to her.
Though Julian believed that the time would come when mankind would see that all things are well, that sin has no ultimate reality, she also believed that sin must be taken seriously if the soul is to be emancipated from restlessness, anguish and suffering. The unvarying omnipresence of divine love should make the soul's recognition of wrongdoing a threshold of hope, not fear of eternal damnation. The power of recognition is the beginning of transformation in which the obscuring clouds of no-deeds are dispelled as the soul's capacity to love responds to the Divine's ceaseless loving. This awakening soul-force, itself a divine reflection, manifests as repentance, compassion and longing for Deity. "By repenting we are made clean, by compassion we are made ready, and by true longing for God we are made worthy. . . . It is by these medicines that every sinful soul must be healed." Since triune human nature is a reflection of the Trinity, forgiveness is not an external act, but works from within outwards. Faults are transmuted into refractive perfections, and "God assigns no blame, for love", because sin is a mode of self-hate which can be translated into self-compassion. Though self-damnation is possible and a fact for many, the promise that all things will be well suggested to Julian an exercise of divine love unknown to human experience.
Human beings fall short of their potential for oneness with Deity owing to a lack of faith in its possibility. "Some of us believe that He is all-mighty and may do all," she wrote, "and that He is all-wisdom and can do all. But that He is all-love and will do all – there we fall short." For Julian, the Passion she witnessed dramatically in vision was not simply a spectacle of intense pain. Feeling that pain, she asked, "Is there any pain in hell like this?" She was answered in her own consciousness: "Hell is a different place, for there is despair." Humanity makes its own hell through lack of faith in the Divine and in the unvanquished spark which reflects it in the heart of each individual. The suffering of Jesus is ceaseless, for he longs to draw everyone into the deific embrace. Humanity crucifies the Christos daily by crucifying itself on the cross, whose timbers are despair and ignorance.
Prayer in every form is both the generator and expression of authentic longing for union with Deity. Julian was convinced that prayer, even when it was little more than petitioning or when it was dry and barren, helped to focus the mind upon the Divine. In the course of time such concentration could flower into earnest longing and fly beyond petitions and intercessions. It can become a mode of communion with the ground of one's own being, supported by increasing detachment concerning visible results, until it becomes wholly unconditional. In time one would come to understand that "in our making we had our beginning, but the love wherein He made us is without beginning. In which love we have our beginning. And all this shall we see in God without end." One will gain the truth that recognizes the Divine, then the wisdom that beholds Deity, but out of them will be born a holy delight in God which is love. Then one may hear the prayer which Julian heard whispered in one of her showings.