By Hannah Matis
For a multitude of reasons both personal and professional, I have been reading and thinking about Julian of Norwich a lot lately. It was perhaps inevitable that, as a medievalist and an Episcopalian interested in mysticism and particularly the mysticism of women, I would stumble, late, to membership in the Julian fan club. I am enough of a contrarian to have been put off by how easily Julian is invoked by churches — often completely out of context — for comfort, accessibility, and cheap reassurance: “All manner of things shall be well” sung to the tune of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” For theological kitsch, Lady J is the counterpart to St. Francis. What I have discovered, and have found myself returning to over and over in the last month or so, is that, like Francis, Julian has an edge for those with ears to hear, an edge that will challenge and deepen us if we let it.
First, some necessary preliminaries. We have no idea who Julian was. Julian may not be her given name at all but her name in religion, taken from the little Norwich church where she chose to be an anchorite. Norwich was a happening place in the late Middle Ages, hooked to the wool and textile trade in the Low Countries, a city where parish churches sprouted like mushrooms. There are so many churches, in fact, that modern Norwich has deconsecrated several of these: I walked past what I thought was a flier and discovered that no, in fact, the medieval church really had been turned into a tae kwan do studio. What we take for Julian’s elected isolation was a relative and complex thing. It was no less real or challenging for all that, however.
We moderns, influenced unconsciously by Romanticism, have a tendency to think of all prophecy or visionary experience as something unmediated, spontaneous, like a drug trip or a movie of the future playing in one’s head. In fact, Julian’s visions refer to a single set of experiences spread over two days during a period of mortal illness when she was in her 30s. She then spent the rest of her life — she lived to her 70s — pondering, meditating, interpreting what had happened to her. The two versions of her book, Revelations of Divine Love, written decades apart, show her struggling to find language to capture the dizzying perspectival shifts and theological paradoxes of the showings that she had somehow to contain within the orthodox teachings of the Church.
Whatever else Julian’s revelations may be, they are not cheap or easy. They are statements of faith, earned, held to, witnessed, sacrificed for, surely at times in the teeth of all available evidence. In her vision, the famous and over-quoted All things shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well is not Julian’s blithe assertion, but a statement Christ presents to her as fact. Her first response is to ask, incredulously, “How?” It took Julian 40 years as an anchorite to receive such a counterintuitive statement, and to learn such a distinctive discipline of spiritual trust.
One reason Julian’s book may be finding an audience in this century — aside from the appeal of her gender, her lay status, and the maternal language she uses of Christ — is that Julian is an excellent spiritual guide for anxiety in the modern world. She is keenly aware of the pitfalls of using emotional responses as an indicator of the spiritual life. In perhaps my favorite of her visions, she is plunged from bliss to despair and back again 20 times in order to instruct her, she suggests, that Christ is equally near to us regardless of what and how we feel. Our suffering has its uses, and it is acknowledged — we are thanked for it by Christ, in his infinite courtesy — but however all-encompassing it feels, it is no indicator of deep spiritual realities or the hardwiring underpinning the universe. Julian’s visions, with their clear, calm statements of the goodness of God and of his intentions toward us, seem intended to cut through these deep, echoing fears. If we can bring ourselves to believe her, even for just as long as we read, we can become more aware of the quiet, insidious extent of our habitual anxieties and how they have unconsciously affected our understanding of Christ. Julian challenges us to ask ourselves how much good of God we are really prepared to believe.
In my case, one of the side effects of growing up Pentecostal is a deeply held conviction in God’s intimate interactions with humanity and with the world. Historically, and even now, the religion of the poor, their personal relationship with Christ, is how the despised of the world have consoled themselves for being passed over. I would be arrogant to criticize, but I will say that in my experience this sense of immanence can potentially have a dark side. In practice, among people I have known, their personal relationship with Christ is invoked to decide what to order off the fast-food menu. I exaggerate, but not by much. Bring it to God in prayer: there is no such category as adiaphora.
Mercifully, growing up I was never terrorized with cartoon-like visions of an angry God dangling me like a spider over the pit of hell, but even now, the sense of immediacy remains, and it can create the sense that one is constantly playing a game of spiritual high-stakes poker. God sees the righteous, God heals the righteous, God shows the elect the right path and the straight way to go — all reassuring axioms, until the right path and the straight way are not obvious and one’s brokenness becomes all too clear. Pair this with a diffuse, implicit American conviction in a prosperity gospel in which the righteous are the rewarded and successful, and the results are, at the very least, anxiety-producing.
One of the keywords of Julian’s visions, constantly repeated, is that, whatever we suffer and however we sin, we are safe in God and with God. It is the calmness of these statements, earned over a lifetime of solitude and silence, that should both strengthen and challenge us. They are statements of the fundamental relation of the soul to Christ and Christ to the soul. Prayer for Julian is an expression of that already existing relation, not a begging for favors or clemency or even a search for the one right path and straight way to go. She is absolutely clear on the evil of sin, but she is equally clear that in sin we hurt ourselves first and foremost.
We wrong Lady Julian if we take All things shall be well as a statement of how we feel or should feel or as a chipper assurance that this is the best of all possible worlds. It is a statement of what Christ’s nature, and his incarnation means necessarily, in his good time, for the creation whose nature he has taken on himself. Certain days, if we can punch through our anxieties to the bedrock beneath, we may feel this to be true and have our fears allayed; if not, it remains true nonetheless.