Women in Christianity: Julian of Norwich
When I was 20 and spending a year studying in Oxford, I had a crisis of faith.
I’ve since realized that my experience was hardly unique; I was in a new environment, exposed to new ideas and people, figuring out who I was and who I could be in the world. Reevaluating my relationship to Christianity seems, in retrospect, perfectly normal in those circumstances.
But at the time, I experienced quite a bit of distress. (I was also, I now realize, in the middle of a major depressive episode which certainly amplified my emotions around my faith.) I wrestled with what I believed; I even tried not believing in God. My thoughts and emotions were a tangled mess and I didn’t know what I should believe.
I was in this state when, in late April, I finished my program at Oxford and set off to backpack through Europe. As I travelled, I sat in beautiful churches in every city I visited. Ancient churches, famous churches, small churches, one in Barcelona whose name I’ve forgotten but whose stone cloisters contrasted beautifully with the brilliant green trees.
And in those churches, I met God. Not intellectually. Not through scripture or sermons. Not even in answers to the questions I’d been asking for months. Instead, in the deep peace of those buildings where saints had worshipped for centuries, I felt God’s presence and God’s peace.
Meeting God in this way moved me profoundly and has anchored me over the years as I continue to wrestle with what it means to be a Christian. But meeting God in this way, in an inexplicable sense of peace and presence, also startled me. In the evangelical (and dispensational) churches of my childhood, faith was primarily intellectual, a matter of believing the right things about God; attending a Christian liberal arts college did little to challenge this approach to faith.
(Plus which, I had absorbed the idea that it was better to be rational than emotional; especially as a woman, I strove to be intellectual rather than driven by feelings. Yay for false dichotomies and internalized misogyny.)
This suprarational experience of feeling God’s presence and peace during those weeks of backpacking has shaped my faith ever since. My eyes opened to an entirely new way of knowing God: I still value intellectual knowledge, but adding experiential and mystical knowledge helps me remember that faith is about knowing God, not knowing all the answers.
This may seem like an odd preamble to a post about Julian of Norwich. But she is one of my favorite mystics (let’s be honest, my favorite mystic), and I love her in part because she holds together mystical and intellectual knowledge. When she was 30 and deathly ill, she had a series of visions. She recovered, and spent years afterwards writing theological analysis of those visions.
Julian, living in pre-modern England, did not separate intellectual and mystical knowledge of God in the way that we, living in a post-Enlightenment world, so often do. For her, and for many other medieval mystics, mystic theology and scholastic (intellectual) theology were two sides of the same coin.
Julian’s Revelations are theologically dense and intellectually rigorous expositions of her singular mystical experience. Unlike other mystics of her era, Julian only had the one vision — and although we don’t know exactly when she finished her Revelations or even when she died, we do know that she lived for many years after her visions and all of her surviving writing is a theological framework for and extrapolation of her vision.
There are many other fascinating aspects of Julian’s life — for example, she was an anchoress, a woman who chose to live a monastic life in a tiny, door-less room build onto the side of a church. From this room, Julian could look into the church to see the mass and receive the Eucharist; she could also talk out of her window to townspeople and even tourists who came to her for spiritual advice.
And her theology is fascinating as well: she emphasizes, over and over, God’s love for creation, love that continues in the midst of sin and suffering and evil. Julian’s famous phrase — “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” — is a profound affirmation that God will, out of love, restore all things and make all things new.
Julian also uses beautiful feminine language to describe God as a loving, nurturing mother. She is not the only medieval mystic to write about God as mother, but the picture of God that emerges from her Revelations is one that highlights God as one who nurtures and loves unconditionally.
Primarily, though, I came to love Julian because she gave me a language and a theological framework that bring together my experience of God and my cerebral theology. She reminds me that we know God in our hearts and our minds, our bodies and our thoughts — and that when intellectual approaches to our faith fall short, God can still be present with us.
For further reading:
The definitive scholarly edition of Julian’s works (in Middle English) is The Works of Julian of Norwich, edited by Jacqueline Jenkins and Nicholas Watson. For another Middle English edition geared towards students with extensive notes and a useful glossary, see the TEAMS volume The Shewings of Julian of Norwich, which has the added benefit of being available for free online.
While there are many translations of Julian’s works, I recommend either the translation by Elizabeth Spearing (Penguin Classics) or Barry Windeatt (Oxford World Classics). These are inexpensive translations made by highly respected scholars of Middle English.
Veronica Mary Rolf’s recent An Explorer’s Guide to Julian of Norwich is a helpful introduction to Julian, her world, and the major themes of her writing. Be aware, however, that Rolf significantly overstates both the exceptionality and the danger of writing mystical theology in Middle English (rather than Latin) as a woman. By Julian’s era of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, significant precedent existed for mystical theology written in Middle English, such as The Cloud of Unknowing and works by Richard Rolle. Moreover, mystical theology was the one field of theology open to women, since it is based on experience rather than the university studies that were closed to women.
Robyn Cadwallader’s The Anchoress is not about Julian of Norwich, but it is a lovely novel about a young women who becomes an anchoress in medieval England.