God of Love
Updated: Mar 21, 2022
Exploring the Revelations of Julian of Norwich
Icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM @ https://www.trinitystores.com/artwork/julian-norwich
I invite you to take a journey with me into the heart of an English mystic, to read these musings with an open mind, and to extrapolate meaning from them in a manner that is resonant with your own worldview. These insights were given to a woman who was defined by her culture in the same way that each one of us today is influenced by ours. I see similarities in these concepts with those presented by the writings of scientists, philosophers, scriptures from various spiritual traditions, and the accounts of others who have had near-death experiences, although often put in different language. Specifically, I encourage you to change the “God” verbiage into something to which you can relate, if this term doesn’t have meaning for you. My prayer is that the message will ignite the deeper reality that lies within you and awaken you to love and hope.
In the 14th century, amid wars, plague, and famine, a woman had a near-death experience. When it happened, she was overwhelmed with pain. She had a hard time breathing and experienced her upper body expiring while her lower body already felt dead. The room became dark and ugly, as if filled with demons, and the crucifix began to glow. Then the pain vanished and she began to feel alive again. This woman had prayed in her youth that God would send her an illness that would bring her to the brink of death, that she would be restored, and that her experience would increase her faith and love. Well, Julian of Norwich, first woman credited to have written a book in the English language, got her wish when she was 30 years old.
So let’s paint a picture of what it would be like to live in Julian’s world.
Life in the 14th century was a very dangerous time. Life expectancy would be about the age of 35, so Julian beat the odds of war, famine, and disease by living to be at least 74 years old. A fourteenth-century woman would have about five pregnancies during her lifetime, but half of the children would not live to the age of 10. Family feuds were common as was dueling, rape, and violent attacks by roaming troupes of bandits. As a message to potential criminals, it was customary for the heads and body parts of lawbreakers to be spiked on the city walls.
The Roman Catholic faith was the only Christian church in England and Europe during the late Middle Ages. Everyone in the Christian world would be expected to observe the rituals of the church. Because of disagreements among the Catholic Cardinals during Julian’s lifetime, a second papacy (and eventually a third) was introduced in France from 1378 until 1417, called the Western Schism, and it did much to undermine the authority of the church.
Women of the late Middle Ages had very little power. They were not allowed to teach religion, except to their own children, nor were they allowed to study any type of theology or to write about these things. The fact that Julian penned a book about her mystical experiences is extraordinary in this context. It is interesting to note that, throughout the book, she takes care to acknowledge the teachings of the church and to describe herself in very humble terms.
The people of England during this time were divided into three classes. The first class or estate was composed of male clergy members (because they were considered to be the closest to God). The second estate included the king and the nobility. The third estate was comprised of the working class, from the wealthiest merchants to the poorest serfs or slaves.
Julian lived in the city of Norwich in Eastern England by the sea. It was the second largest city in England after London, with approximately 13,000 citizens and 25 churches, plus a cathedral. The people of the time believed that if you built a church, your salvation would be insured, therefore many churches were built by the wealthy.
Each city provided the food for its own citizens. If the weather was not favorable for the crops or some type of disease killed the animals, the people went hungry. People lived in extremely dirty and smelly conditions because raw sewage flowed in the ditches, as well as the blood of animals from butcher shops, and the contents of chamber pots were thrown out of the windows. Fleas, flies, lice, and rodents were a regular part of life. The floors of the homes were covered with straw, typically inhabited by these vermin.
Julian lived during a time of much upheaval, characterized by catastrophic weather events, war, and plague. For example, Norwich was situated in a flood zone; and in 1362, when Julian was about 20, the city experienced a 30 foot storm surge with 100 mile-per-hour winds and grand scale flooding. The Hundred Years War (1337–1453) between England and France was being fought for control of the French throne. The Black Death or plaque, known in Julian’s time as The Great Pestilence, struck Norwich in 1349 when Julian was six years old. Houses were cleared of the dead every morning. Bodies were brought out into the street and laid down for pick up. It is estimated that 25% to 35% of the population of England and half of the population of Europe died as a result of the plague.
So who was Julian in the midst of all this strife?
We can guess from her writings that Julian was born at the end of 1342 and that she died some time around 1416. She described herself as “a simple creature unlettered,” which more than likely means that she could not read or write Latin. It is recorded by Margery Kempe that she visited Julian in 1414.
Julian was possibly a member of the third estate, which comprised 90% of the population in medieval times. She may have been an aristocrat or the daughter of a wealthy merchant. It is highly unlikely that she was a nun because she was an anchoress. In order to be an anchoress, one had to have outside support, that is a regular income from a supporter or one’s own property.
Anchoress comes from the Latin anchorita which means to retire or withdraw. An anchorhold is a cell of rooms attached to a church. Once an anchoress enters the anchorhold she has committed to live there for life. We know that Julian was enclosed by the 1390’s due to bequests in wills. Julian would have had her meals brought to her and servants who would take care of her needs. She would be able to converse with visitors through a small window and also view mass in the same manner.
It is informative to note that in her description of the revelations, Julian wrote that a curatecame to visit her when she was sick. A curate is a parish priest, not a monk or chaplain who would live in a convent. Many scholars speculate that Julian was a widow and may have had children. However, there is no definitive evidence as to who she was.
Now that we have a picture of Julian’s world, let us turn our attention to her revelations.
Revelations of Divine Love
Julian tells us that during her youth, she desired three gifts. This wish may have been inspired by the legend of St. Cecilia who was struck three times with a sword yet lived for three more days after her attack. St. Cecilia was often depicted in paintings in Anglican churches of the time.
The three gifts for which Julian asked were to see in realistic images the passion of Christ, to have an illness at the age of 30 which would bring her very close to death and from which she would recover (thereby being convicted to live a holier life), and for the wounds of contrition, compassion, and longing for God. Ultimately, Julian was praying to feel what Christ felt.
Julian shared that she received the revelations in three ways: by actual sight, by words formed in her mind, and by spiritual insight. Her visions were very graphic, bloody, and gory. For Julian the worst pain during the vision was seeing Christ suffer. She experienced viscerally what Mary and the disciples felt as they beheld Jesus on the cross. In fact, because the pain was so terrible to behold, Julian regretted that she had asked to see it.
All of the revelations have common threads running through them. So before we address the major themes, let’s look at the consistent backdrop.
First and foremost, Julian’s experience is a gospel of Love.
Julian saw that, “God is everything that is good, and the goodness in everything is God,” and “We are all one in love.” This is reminiscent of the apostle John’s statement, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them” (I John 4:16). This sentiment is also found in Hindu and Jewish scriptures, “The Lord of Love is above name and form. He is present in all and transcends all,” (The Mundaka Upanishad, part 2, 1:2) and, “‘Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,’ says the Lord, who has compassion on you” (Isaiah 54:10).
Julian said, “I saw that God never began to love mankind,” and, “It is certain that before time began, God saw us, loved us, and knew us, and that we were part of his eternal plan.” This echoes the apostle Paul’s statement, “He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight, before Him in love” (Ephesians 1:4) and is reflected in The Shvetashvatara Upanishad 6:1, “The Lord brought the cosmos out of himself.”
Julian saw three qualities of God in every vision: life, love, and light. She said, “The light is love,” and, “In the end, all will be love.” Similarly, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” (John 14:16) and, the apostle John said, “God is light,” (1 John 1:5) and, “God is love” (1John 4:8). The Mundaka Upanishad also affirms, “In the golden city of the heart dwells the Lord of Love, without parts, without stain. Know him as the radiant light of lights” (part 2, 2:10).
Julian’s experience throughout the vision is of a trinitarian God. For Julian, God the father represents Power; Christ the mother represents Wisdom; and the Holy Spirit represents Love. Julian saw that Christ is the mother of our essential being and of our physical nature. The Father gives being/life. The Mother gives healing and restoration. The Holy Spirit gives the rewards of fulfillment and inner truth. Julian saw that just as a mother suckles her babe, so does Christ feed us with the sacraments. She wrote, “Jesus does all his work like a kind nurse whose sole job is to attend to the welfare of her child.” It is his job to keep us safe and his glory to do this for us. Jesus told her, “I will keep you safe and sound.”
So, let us turn our attention to some of the major themes.
The Great Deed
The Great Deed is the action by which God will make all things well. Julian saw clearly that there is “no greater hell than sin,” and so she wondered why God allowed sin. And in the famously quoted line from her revelations, Jesus answered her by saying, “Sin is necessary, but all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” The translation from Middle English of the word necessary is one of the most debated words in the text. Other translations offered are inevitable and helpful.
Julian saw many times in her revelations that God cannot be angry. She wrote, “In God there can be no wrath,” and although the church taught that sinners deserve God’s blame and wrath, she said, “I could not see either in God.” It was very hard for Julian to wrap her head around this concept because in her times, God was seen as a stern judge. Her whole world had been shaped around sin and the punishment for sin. But what Julian saw most clearly is that God does not blame us for our sin, but pities us instead. God keeps us safe. We have a guarantee of spiritual protection.
Likewise, the apostle Peter said that God has given us an inheritance “kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time” (I Peter 1:4–5). Shame will be turned to praise and joy, and all shall be rewarded with love. Julian said, “The height to which we shall be raised and the complete happiness we shall experience far exceeds anything we could have known if we had not fallen.” This is the Great Deed.
Inherent in this idea is that humans cannot know God’s mercy without falling. Julian saw that there can be no resurrection without the crucifixion. Our fall enables us to know the depth of God’s love for us. Sin is necessary, and God allows us to feel happy and sad. Julian wrote, “If he sees that it is better for us to be sad and tearful, he allows it;” and she saw that God does not want us to dwell on our feelings but on the nature of God. All of this is according to the divine purpose.
The writing of the apostles James and Peter lend support to Julian’s vision. James advised, “Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance;” and Peter wrote that trials have come “so that the proven genuineness of your faith . . . may result in praise, glory, and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (I Peter 1:7). Buddhist scripture also celebrates perseverance, “When those who are foolish become wise, they give light to the world like the full moon breaking through the clouds” (The Dhammapada13:172). Julian saw that God allows our faith to be tested to make it strong. If our faith had no opposition, it would deserve no reward. Julian saw that “our whole life is a valuable penance.”
Julian learned that God is the ground of our praying.
First it is God’s will that we have something, then God puts that will in us, then God inspires us to ask for it. Julian stressed that we must understand that when we want something very much, it is God’s desire within us. We think we know what it will look like when our desire is fulfilled, but we don’t know the best fulfillment. We trust that the desire is from God. Julian said, “For our good Lord makes us beseech him for everything which he himself has planned for us from eternity.” God wants us to pray and to believe that we will receive that for which we ask. In accordance, Jesus said that if we ask, we will receive and that we should pray believing that we will receive (Mark 11:24).
Prayer is unitive, not productive. When we pray, we are joining with God in God’s prayer for us. Referring to the time of death, the Bhagavad Gita (8:7) instructs, “With your heart and mind intent on me, you will surely come to me;” and Julian understood, “The whole point of prayer is to be united and lost in the vision and contemplation of him to whom we pray.” Therefore, Julian realized that we must pray even when we don’t feel like it. It is in these weak times that our prayer is most pleasing to God. She learned, “Thanksgiving is integral to prayer,” and, “The happiest thanksgiving we can offer God is to enjoy him.”
Julian saw that in all of us there is a godly will and an animal will. Our godly will has never said yes to sin, nor ever will.
Julian stated, “Our Lord wants us to . . . accept this as a fact of Christian faith and trust it, believing that our will is kept safe and sound in our Lord Jesus Christ.” She said that we are hidden in God, echoing the apostle Paul who said that our “life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). Julian affirmed, “Our physical nature does not know what our real self is.” In the lower nature we have pain. In the higher nature we have bliss. God sees our higher nature when God beholds us. God is Love, and God sees Love when God looks at us. From Paul’s own transformative experience, he declared that Christ is all and is in all and that the great mystery is that Christ is within us, the hope of glory.
This suggests, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13, that there is a part of us that is always patient and kind, does not envy or boast, is not arrogant or rude, that does not insist on its own way, is not irritable or resentful, and that does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. There is a part of us that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. There is a part of us that never ends.
So we’ll turn now to the last theme we will explore.
Throughout the revelations, Julian continued to struggle with the concept of sin. She was afraid that if she did not see herself as a guilty sinner, then she would go astray. In frustration, she asked, “If we really are guilty sinners, how is it, good Lord, that I can’t see this truth in you?” And she was answered with the story of . . .
The Lord and the Servant
Once there was a lord who had a devoted servant always by his side. They shared a deep mutual love and affection. Looking at his servant with love and tenderness, the lord sends the servant off to do his business. The servant was eager to do anything that the lord asked of him, so he hurried off. In going off to do the lord’s business, the servant fell. The lord knew that the servant would fall when he went off to do his will, but the servant did not know. The most difficult part for the servant was that he felt alone, uncomfortable, and estranged from his lord. He was used to looking to the lord for all of his comfort, but now he was distracted by his feelings and the obstacles on his path, and so he suffered. Yet his lord never ceased from looking upon him with love and great pride.
The servant’s work that the lord gave him to do was the hard manual work of gardening. He was to prepare the land, plant, and tend the garden so that he would produce the food that the lord loves. The servant, in essence was to be the vehicle of God’s continuing creation. And so, with no thought for himself or the perils of the task, he was eager to do the lord’s will. Knowing this, how could the lord not look upon his servant with love, compassion, and pity? And that is just what he did. The lord couldn’t wait to bring the servant unto himself again and to recompense him for his great struggles. Neither the servant’s emotions nor mistakes he made had any impact whatsoever on the love that the lord felt for his servant. Julian saw clearly that God sees our wounds as trophies.
Julian understood in her near-death experience that if God is for us, no one can be against us. As Paul eloquently put it, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For Your sake we are killed all day long; we are counted as sheep for the slaughter.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities nor powers, neither things present nor things to come, neither height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35–39).
So In Conclusion
Throughout the revelations, Julian saw that God has a great longing for us. She wrote, “For as truly as there is a quality in God of compassion and pity, just as truly there is a quality in God of thirst and yearning.” Julian saw that this longing fits the three things that people most need: to be loved, to be desired, and to receive compassion. And so she saw that God provides everything we need. Chinese scripture offers a kindred sentiment, “I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures. Simple in actions and in thoughts, you return to the source of being” (Tao Te Ching 67).
I believe that Julian’s summation of her experience captures the hope of our humanity, and so I will leave you with it:
“So I was taught that love was what our Lord meant. And I saw with absolute certainty that before God made us he loved us, and that his love never slackened, nor ever will. In this love he has done all his works, in this love he has made all things for our benefit, and in this love we shall live for ever. Because of our creation we had a beginning, but the love with which he made us never had a beginning: it was in this love that we had our beginning. All this we shall see in God, forever more.”
May your mind be peaceful and calm, may your body be relaxed and comfortable, and may your heart be filled with love.
Thank you for reading.
Blessings and gratitude, Ani