Lent blog: Day 38 – ENCOUNTER 1: JULIAN OF NORWICH

Published Thu, 01/04/2021 by

The author we know as Julian (or Dame Julian) of Norwich was a fourteenth century mystic living at St Julian’s Church in Norwich.  We don’t know her real name but she is known by the name of the church, which pre-dated her by many years.  This church is still standing, restored after being badly damaged during the war through bombing.  Towards the front of the church there is a little side chapel which the visitor is free to enter, light a candle and spend some quiet time as I often have.  It has a very special atmosphere.  This chapel stands on the site of the medieval cell (or anchorhold) where Julian spent the latter part of her life, dedicated to God and available for counsel to those (like Margery Kempe) who sought her out in this still point at the centre of what was then a bustling area of the city, close to the port.

When she was about thirty Julian had a near-death experience in which, as the priest held the crucifix before her eyes, she entered deeply into the passion of Christ – whom she heard speaking to her in a series of visions.  Julian pondered these visions for the rest of her life and wrote a text which, as time went by, she expanded into a second, longer text.  Both survive.  Remarkably, Julian is the first woman known to have written in English.  Her writing is homely and down to earth, but also profound and it has been very influential.  Thomas Merton called her one of the two greatest English theologians, together with St John Henry Newman.  Pope Benedict XVI, an admirer of hers, ended his book Great Christian Thinkers with a chapter on Dame Julian.  

This Good Friday on the Parish YouTube channel you can follow a recorded Stations of the Cross featuring excerpts from Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love.  Julian lived in a time of plague, but what shines through is her confidence in God’s providence and the depth and universality of his love.  Even sin and suffering (with suitable qualifications) are accorded a place in Julian’s vision of divine providence.  It is very much a perspective we need as we come out of lockdown and begin to imagine a future beyond the pandemic.  This is a vision forged as Julian was expected and expecting to die, remember.  And what was her conclusion from her encounter with the suffering Christ?  “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

MICHAEL KIRKHAM