January 26, 2009

Julian of Norwich

[This is part of a series on the historical stream of Reconnection]

For modern American Christians, the medieval mystics seem weird, superstitious and even a little crazy. That’s not without reason–who in their right mind would cut themselves off from society and wall themselves into a cell next to a cathedral?

That’s exactly what Julian of Norwich did in the late 14th century. She was a contemporary of Chaucer and the first woman to write a book in the English language. She was highly educated for her time: Some scholars believed she could read Latin and even Hebrew. Crazy? I wouldn’t be so sure of that.

Julian had her first vision (she called them “showings”) at age 30. She was already a nun by that point, but after her visions, she decided to become an achoress. An achoress was a female anchorite–a person who chose to live a solitary life, spent mostly in a cell next to his/her church. She spent 20 years contemplating and analyzing her visions, and she incorporated complex theology into the vivid imagery of her showings. Once in her mid-50s, she finished her Book of Showings.

The Book of Showings has 86 chapters describing her visions and explaining God’s relationship with human beings. One of her most famous visions was an image of a tiny hazelnut in a human hand, which she interpreted to be the universe in God’s palm. Through this image, she explains that God is “the maker, the keeper, the lover” of the universe, his creation. The image of the tiny nut in a hand shows his great love and concern for us–humanity–his most treasured creation.

She also spends a great deal explaining her understanding of the Trinity. She interpreted it as God almighty as our father, Jesus as our mother, and the Holy Spirit as the binding of love and grace that unites humanity with God. Her picture of Christ as mother was not a new concept, but her explanation uses the tender imagery of motherhood to explain the depth and profundity of Christ’s death on the cross.

While her solitary life may seem strange to us, Julian of Norwich knew, ultimately, that God called her to such a life so that she could share her visions with other Christians. She said herself, “We are all one and I am sure I saw it for the profit of many other.”

[Photo by Ian-S @ Flickr]

For more information about Julian of Norwich, you can visit the following resources:
a. Wikipedia
b. Luminarium – an online anthology/encyclopedia devoted to English literature
c. Umilta – a website devoted to female mystics
d. St. Julian’s Church – the official website of the Catholic church in Norwich