old books

Throwback Thursday: Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich

As part of my ongoing attempt to expand my understanding of Christianity I have been reading old books. To find out why I would do such a thing check out my previous post about that very thing.

This month I read Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich. I chose it for one very simple reason: I planned on naming my son Julian. My first son, Soren, is named after Søren Kierkegaard because of the great influence he has had on my faith. I hope that one day he will be curious about his own name and pick up a copy of Fear and Trembling and grow from it. When it came time to name our second son Paige and I were talking about a variety of names when this song came on.

We liked the name Julian, so went with it. But we wondered if years from now it would make him feel left out to be told “Your brother is named after a philosopher whose work shaped my thinking more than any man that isn’t Jesus. You? You’re named after an onion.” I decided to read Revelations of Divine Love before he was born so that he would also have a great spiritual master to turn to when he wanted to more know about his own name. If I hated this book we would change names.

We ended up sticking with the name. This book is a masterpiece and deserves the reputation and praise it has received. I’ll talk in a minute about what it can remind us of in the 21st century, but first we need to look a little bit at the 15th century and Julian  of Norwich.

Cultural context

Julian was born in Norwich in 1342 and lived there until her death in 1416. These years are particularly eventful in the Church history because they are the years of the Avignon Papacy, the great schism between east and west was developing, and John Wycliffe and other “prereformers” were working.” Not to mention the ongoing crusades. Julian, without a doubt, lived in a tumultuous time for religion.

Probably most important of the events to happen within Julian’s life was the plague. It’s estimated that the plague killed 1 out of 3 people in England and that Norwich in particularly lost half its population. Julian would have been six years old at the height of the plague, making her awakening into consciousness one marked by death and suffering.

Little is known about Julian of Norwich’s life. We’re not even really certain her name is Julian and it is possible that the name was later given to her because of the church which she was most closely associated with, St. Julian’s in Norwich. This would probably be pleasing to Julian who asked that her readers “stop thinking about the poor wretch to whom the vision was shown.” Julian famously claimed to be a simple unlettered woman, but what this means is unclear (did she not know Latin? Or could she not read well?). She is, however, the first woman to write a book in English.

Julian of Norwich
St. Julian’s in Norwich

Julian of Norwich has what may seem like an obsession with suffering. As a young woman she asked God for three things: to understand the Passion of Jesus, to suffer physically, and to be given three wounds from God (“the wound of true sorrow for sin, the wound of natural compassion, and the wound of unshakable longing for God.”)

The second, to suffer physically, is the “gift” that formed the background of the book. She asked God to allow her to be so sick she believed she would die and would even receive last rites because she believed this would allow her to live with  more longing for God.

On May 8, 1373 she received this. Sick to the point of death and so ill she could not even respond to people in the room a priest brought her a crucifix to focus upon. While focusing on it she received 16 visions.

They were:

  • The Crown of Thorns
  • The discoloring of Christ’s face
  • That God made everything
  • The torture of Christ’s body
  • That “the fiend” is conquered through Christ’s passion
  • God rewards his servants
  • The experiences of well-being and depression
  • Christ’s last sufferings and his death
  • The Trinity’s pleasure in the passion of Christ
  • Jesus heart pslit in two for love
  • Jesus’ beloved mother
  • Our Lord is Supreme being
  • God wants us to value his work very highly
  • God is the ground of our praying
  • All our pain and distress will suddenly be taken from us
  • The blessed Trinity dwells eternally in our soul

Over the next 20 or 30 years Julian continued to reflect on the revelations asking God for further insight. Revelations of Divine Love is the result of that reflection.

What Julian of Norwich sees that we don’t

God speaks to us directly 

One of the clearest differences between Julian in her time and modern readers is the very nature of her book as reflections on a series of visions God had given her. It would be almost impossible for a book like this to be published today and receive the respect that Julian of Norwich has. She writes that while gazing on a crucifix,

“I saw the red blood trickle down from under the garland of thorns, a stream of hot, fresh blood”

and later

“I saw his sweet face all dry and bloodless with the pallor of death and then alter, deadly pale, pining away”

and even more foreign

“Just after I fell asleep, I thought the Devil was at my throat, thrusting has face close to mine. It was the face of a  young man, long and strangely thin. I had never seen anything like it. It was red, the colour of a newly-baked tile stone, with black spots on it, like black freckles, filthier than the tile. His hair was rust red, clipped in front, with sidelocks over his temples.”

This offends our modern rationality. This is not how it works. You are supposed to line up theologies based on a) logic backed up with bible verses or b) bible verses backed up with reason. But to just have visions and say God showed you what they meant? That is too much.

Yet Julian is a theologian (as more and morescholars are discovering) who has a profound understanding of the trinity, of salvation, of creation, of the nature of sin, of the vicarious humanity of Christ and of the atonement.

And why should we, who are Christians, be so slow to accept her visions. We read of Joseph’s dreams, Daniel’s prophecies, Peter seeing a sheet with every animal on it, and Revelation without problem.

Of course these things were not real; they were visions. They were shown to her to reflect on. She has a vision of a servant who loves his master but gets stuck in a pit and can no longer see his master but still wants to serve him. She doesn’t claim it was really happening, but just that it was shown to her. She tells a priest that the crucifix is bleeding and he laughs at her. She is aware that it is not physically happening.

But she still is willing to accept the mystic revelation of her visions without running to her Bible to see what it might have to say. She is open to God speaking to her directly, something modern Christians should learn from.

God is not angry

At first one of the most shocking things to me as I read Revelations of Divine Love was Julian of Norwich’s violent imagery and her focus on suffering.

She begins by asking God to lead her to the point of death. She describes Christ’s blood and his wounds in vivid detail. Her preoccupation with the torture of Christ comes across just in the list above of the revelations. We would never talk about death and suffering this much and in this way.

But even more shocking is her insistence that “there is no anger in God.” Why the suffering? Wasn’t Jesus killed to satiate God’s blood lust? Just 2 years ago, Rob Bell was labeled a heretic for questioning the conventional theology that God is angry and must punish sin and chose to do so in Christ. Yet 600 years ago a woman who claims to be uneducated was saying it couldn’t possibly have been that way.

Even more shocking, “our Lord cannot forgive, because he cannot be angry.”

This is because of Julian’s views on sin.

She wanted to know why there is sin, why would God not stop from the fall from happening.  Jesus answered her:

“Sin is necessary, but all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”

What Julian (or Jesus) means here is this: In this world, that exists with sin in it, sin is necessary or else it wouldn’t be this world. Remember asking yourself as a kid, “I wonder what it would be like if I were somebody else?” That is kind of the same thing. It is impossible for you to be anybody but you, otherwise you wouldn’t be you being somebody else, there’d be no you for you to be someone else.  It is necessary that you are you or you are not at all. In the same way, to ask why there is sin is this world is impossible. There is and if there wasn’t it wouldn’t be this world.

But Jesus promises her “all will be well.” And that is why there is sin in this world and why God has no anger in him: because this world is not about sin but about redemption, sin is necessary part of this world that reveals to us redemption.

She asks, at the end of her revelations, what they all meant and 15 years later the answer was given:

“Do you want to know what our Lord meant in all this? Learn it well: love was what he meant. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? Out of love.”

I think this meaning applies to more than just the revelations, but to all of life. What did all of this mean in my life? Love, love is what it meant. Something we should all remember

The motherhood of Christ

One of the most affecting images of the love of God for man Julian uses is in the motherhood of Christ. Her Trinitarian theology is built around a concept of God our true Father, Christ our true Mother, and Holy Spirit our true Spouse. Of these, Christ our true mother is the most jarring to the modern mind.

She writes:

“I saw that the motherhood of God can be looked at in three ways. The first is his creation of our human nature; the second is his assumpition of nature – from which stems the motherhood of grace; and third is the practical outworking of motherhood.”

She goes on to say that Christ takes evil and turns into good ad on the cross suffered birth pains to birth us and continues, through the sacrament, to nourish us as a mother feeds a child.

This may answers an objection that might have been raised in the previous point: why did Christ die if it wasn’t for punishment? He died to take the bad things and turn them into good things. He died for the birth pains of our spiritual birth.

This is heavy stuff that I’m still working through, but it is a good reminder that God is more than male.

What do we see that Julian of Norwich Doesn’t

Honestly, I can’t answer this question. This book is so clearly written by a spiritual master (despite her objections to that idea) that I can’t begin to argue with her.

For a bit I felt as if her views on sin were too soft given the atrocities of our time that she had yet to witness, but realized she had seen suffering in her own life as well.

At one point I wanted to argue she was beginning to sound gnostic, but as I kept reading she cleared it up.

A passing reference to the use of relics in worship was the only thing I found that we see more clearly than she does. But it has so little to do with her system of thought that it would be reaching to point it out.

Why Julian of Norwich Matters

Julian of Norwich is a master of what I would call an imagination of grace. Reading her writing helps us to envision the working of God in everything and that “love is what he meant.”

For many Western Christians (young ones in particular) the question of suffering is a serious one. Why the Holocaust, why 9/11, why school shootings? Reading Revelations of Divine Love helps us to see that theodicy is pointless; sin is and what is important is that redemption also is because Christ has birthed us and loves us.

I didn’t even scratch the surface of all the stuff Julian of Norwich has to offer and I suggest reading her yourself if you haven’t.

Revelations of Divine Love can be summarized in, “All manner of things will be well because love is what was meant.” In an era of skepticism and nihilism, what better reminder could we have?

Did you read Julian of Norwich with me? What did you think of her? Let me know in the comments?

If you didn’t read, make sure you read with me next month.