Christian Saints Podcast

Saint Julian of Norwich

May 07, 2022 Darren C. Ong Season 2 Episode 16
Christian Saints Podcast
Saint Julian of Norwich
Show Notes Transcript

Saint Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1416)  is the author of the Revelations of Divine Love. As far as we know, this is  the earliest known book written in the English language by a woman. Saint Julian was an anchorite, that is, someone who lived a secluded life in a cell to pray. The Revelations of Divine Love were written after she experienced mystical encounters with Jesus Christ. It is a series of reflections on the love and compassion that Jesus has for us. The optimism and hopefulness of Saint Julian's theology is notable, since she lived during the time when the Black Death plague was ravaging England. 

 God is glorious in his saints! 
 Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is dr Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we commemorate St Julian of Norwich (or St Juliana of Norwich)
 St Julian was an anchorite, a form of monasticism common in England during her time. Anchorites are people who lived a life of seclusion in a cell attached to a church. Similar to a hermit, except that anchorites vow to stay tied, or anchored, to a particular place. She was born in 1343, and lived in a cell in St Julian’s church in Norwich, England. It is unclear whether or not she herself was actually also named Julian. She experienced revelations from God, which she recorded in a series of writings, now known as the “Revelations of Divine Love”. These writings are probably the oldest writings in the English language that we know for sure are written by a woman. 
 Let us read an account of her life from the website of the “Friends of St Julian of Norwich”, a society dedicated to celebrating her legacy.
 Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1416) is known to us almost only through her book, The Revelations of Divine Love, which is widely acknowledged as one of the great classics of the spiritual life. She is thought to have been the first woman to write a book in English which has survived.

We do not know Julian's actual name but her name is taken from St. Julian's Church in Norwich where she lived as an anchoress for most of her life. We know from the medieval literary work, The Book of Margery Kempe, that Julian was known as a spiritual counsellor. People would come to her cell in Norwich to seek advice. Considering that, at the time, the citizens of Norwich suffered from plague and poverty, as well as a famine, she must have counselled a lot of people in pain. Yet, her writings are suffused with hope and trust in God's goodness.
 Julian's Revelations of Divine Love is based on a series of sixteen visions she received on the 8th of May 1373. Julian was lying on, what was thought at the time, to be her deathbed when suddenly she saw Christ bleeding in front of her. She received insight into his sufferings and his love for us.

The Revelations of Divine Love comes to us in two versions; the first (the short text) written shortly after the revelation given to Julian , the second (the long text) written twenty years later. The long text is greatly expanded to include her meditations on what she had been shown. Today, only seventeenth century copies of earlier manuscripts of the long text, and fragments from the fifteenth century survive.

Julian recounts that she was thirty and a half years old when she received her visions and this is how we know that she was born in 1342. (A scribe editor to one of the surviving manuscripts speaks of her as a 'devout woman, who is a recluse at Norwich, and still alive, A.D. 1413'). There is further evidence to be found in a contemporary will that she was alive in 1416, and that she had a maid who lived in a room next to the cell. Apart from that, we know nothing else about Julian's life.

However, reading Revelations of Divine Love, reveals an intelligent, sensitive and very down-to-earth woman who maintains her trust in God's goodness whilst addressing doubt, fear and deep theological questions.

Interest in Julian’s writings has grown over recent decades This has been as more and more people have discovered the significance of her book. Her lyrical language and positive image of God speak to the modern reader. Her work is well-respected by theologians, historians and literary scholars, and there are now dozens of translations of her Revelations, together with countless commentaries. Modern poets and writers as diverse as T.S. Eliot, Denise Levertov, and Iris Murdoch reference Julian in their writing

Julian's Shrine, off Rouen Rd. in Norwich, is visited by pilgrims from all over the world

Julian lived an unusual life: at St Julian’s Church; she was an anchorite, never leaving her rooms adjoining the church and she was so famous in her own time that people left money to sustain her and her servants. She was an ecclesiastical star.

If you are interested in the history of women in the Church; the history of writing by women; great stories of an exceptional life; in medieval history; in England; in Norwich; or simply curious about one of the original “influencers” whose influence has lasted 600 years, Julian of Norwich is for you.

Let us read from some passages of her Revelations of Divine Love. They speak of a deep connection with God, and speak of God’s compassion and care for us. One of the most famous passages that St Julian wrote was the one we will read next. The line “all shall be well, and all shall be well,

and all manner of thing shall be well.” captures the optimism that radiates forth from her theology. For this and all other passagesfrom the revelations of Divine love, I will be using a translation to mordern English by Grace Warrack. 

 AFTER this the Lord brought to my mind the longing that I had to Him afore. And I

saw that nothing letted me but sin. And so I looked, generally, upon us all, and methought:

If sin had not been, we should all have been clean and like to our Lord, as He made us.

And thus, in my folly, afore this time often I wondered why by the great foreseeing

wisdom of God the beginning of sin was not letted: for then, methought, all should have55

been well. This stirring [of mind] was much to be forsaken, but nevertheless mourning and

sorrow I made therefor, without reason and discretion.

But Jesus, who in this Vision informed me of all that is needful to me, answered by this

word and said: It behoved that there should be sin;72 but all shall be well, and all shall be well,

and all manner of thing shall be well.

In this naked word sin, our Lord brought to my mind, generally, all that is not good,

and the shameful despite and the utter noughting73 that He bare for us in this life, and His

dying; and all the pains and passions of all His creatures, ghostly and bodily; (for we be all

partly noughted, and we shall be noughted following our Master, Jesus, till we be full purged,

that is to say, till we be fully noughted of our deadly flesh and of all our inward affections

which are not very good;) and the beholding of this, with all pains that ever were or ever

shall be,—and with all these I understand the Passion of Christ for most pain, and overpass-

ing. All this was shewed in a touch and quickly passed over into comfort: for our good Lord

would not that the soul were affeared of this terrible sight.

But I saw not sin: for I believe it hath no manner of substance nor no part of being, nor

could it be known but by the pain it is cause of.

And thus pain, it is something, as to my sight, for a time; for it purgeth, and maketh

us to know ourselves and to ask mercy. For the Passion of our Lord is comfort to us against

all this, and so is His blessed will.56

And for the tender love that our good Lord hath to all that shall be saved, He comforteth

readily and sweetly, signifying thus: It is sooth that sin is cause of all this pain; but all shall

be well, and all shall be well, and all manner [of] thing shall be well.
 These words were said full tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to any that

shall be saved. Then were it a great unkindness76 to blame or wonder on God for my sin,

since He blameth not me for sin.

And in these words I saw a marvellous high mystery hid in God, which mystery He shall

openly make known to us in Heaven: in which knowing we shall verily see the cause why

He suffered sin to come. In which sight we shall endlessly joy in our Lord God.77
 Let us read from another passage from St Julian’s revelation of divine love. One important theme of St Julian’s writing is in comparing the love of Christ with the love of a mother. Unusually, she even refers to Jesus Christ as a mother to us. Let us share one such passage:
 The mother may suffer the child to fall sometimes, and to be hurt in diverse manners

for its own profit, but she may never suffer that any manner of peril come to the child, for

love. And though our earthly mother may suffer her child to perish, our heavenly Mother,

Jesus, may not suffer us that are His children to perish: for He is All-mighty, All-wisdom,

and All-love; and so is none but He,—blessed may He be!

But oftentimes when our falling and our wretchedness is shewed us, we are so sore ad-

read, and so greatly ashamed of our self, that scarcely we find where we may hold us. But

then willeth not our courteous Mother that we flee away, for Him were nothing lother. But

He willeth then that we use the condition of a child: for when it is hurt, or adread, it runneth

hastily to the mother for help, with all its might. So willeth He that we do, as a meek child

saying thus: My kind Mother, my Gracious Mother, my dearworthy Mother, have mercy on

me: I have made myself foul and unlike to Thee, and I nor may nor can amend it but with

thine help and grace. And if we feel us not then eased forthwith, be we sure that He useth

the condition of a wise mother. For if He see that it be more profit to us to mourn and to

weep, He suffereth it, with ruth and pity, unto the best time, for love. And He willeth then

that we use the property of a child, that evermore of nature trusteth to the love of the

mother in weal and in woe.

And He willeth that we take us mightily to the Faith of Holy Church and find there our

dearworthy Mother, in solace of true Understanding, with all the blessed Common. For one

single person may oftentimes be broken, as it seemeth to himself, but the whole Body of

Holy Church was never broken, nor never shall be, without end. And therefore a sure thing

it is, a good and a gracious, to will meekly and mightily to be fastened and oned to our

Mother, Holy Church. that is, Christ Jesus. For the food of mercy that is His dearworthy

blood and precious water is plenteous to make us fair and clean; the blessed wounds of our

Saviour be open and enjoy to heal us; the sweet, gracious hands of our Mother be ready and

diligently about us. For He in all this working useth the office of a kind nurse that hath

nought else to do but to give heed about 225 the salvation of her child.

It is His office to save us: it is His worship to do [for] us, 226 and it is His will [that] we

know it: for He willeth that we love Him sweetly and trust in Him meekly and mightily.

And this shewed He in these gracious words: I keep thee full surely.

The popularity of St Julian of Norwich has continued into modern times. It is not hard to see why, given the optimism of her theology and her emphasis of the love of God, in a time that seems so loveless. Her life and writings seem relevant to during the COVID pandemic, as she too lived in isolation during a plague (the Black Death swept through England in her time). 
 We will read a reflection by the author Veronica Mary Rolf, adapted from her book 
An Explorer’s Guide to Julian of Norwich. This reflection is found on the website of the Center for Action and Contemplation

 Perhaps the best answer to the question “Why Julian now?” is that in our age of uncertainty, inconceivable suffering, and seemingly perpetual violence and war (not unlike fourteenth-century Europe), Julian shows us the way toward contemplative peace. . . . In a world of deadly diseases and ecological disasters, Julian teaches us how to endure pain in patience and trust that Christ is working to transform every cross into resurrected glory. . . .

Moreover, across six centuries, Julian’s voice speaks to us about love. She communicates personally, as if she were very much with us here and now. Even more than theological explanations, we all hunger for love. Our hearts yearn for someone we can trust absolutely—divine love that can never fail. Julian reveals this love because, like Mary Magdalene, she experienced it firsthand. . . .

Precisely because she had the courage of her convictions, Julian of Norwich became the first woman ever to write a book in the English language. . . . Even more, this “unlettered” woman developed a mystical theology that was second to none during the fourteenth century and that continues to break barriers in our own time. . . .

Julian is also emotionally raw, often tempted by self-doubt and discouragement, yet constantly renewed in hope. She does something extremely dangerous for a layperson living in the fourteenth century: she discloses her conflict between the predominant medieval idea of a judgmental and wrathful God and her direct experience of the unconditional love of Christ on the cross. . . .

Why is Julian so appealing today? I think because she is totally vulnerable and transparently honest, without any guile. She is “homely”; in medieval terms, that means down-to-earth, familiar, and easily accessible. She is keenly aware of her spiritual brokenness and longs to be healed. So do we. She experiences great suffering of body, mind, and soul. So do we. She has moments of doubt. So do we. She seeks answers to age-old questions. So do we. Then, at a critical turning point in her revelations, she is overwhelmed by joy and “gramercy” (great thanks) for the graces she is receiving. We, too, are suddenly granted graces and filled to overflowing with gratitude. Sometimes, we even experience our own divine revelations.

Again, and again, Julian reassures each one of us that we are loved by God, unconditionally. In her writings, we hear Christ telling us, just as he told Julian, “I love you and you love me, and our love shall never be separated in two.” [1]
 Saint Julian of Norwich is celebrated as a saint in the Anglican church on May 8. She is not a saint in the Roman Catholic church, even though she lived before the English church separated from Rome, so there is a possibility she could be made a Roman Catholic saint in the future.
 Thanks for listening to this episode of the Christian saints podcast. Look for the Christian Saints podcast page on Facebook or Instagram, or look for us on Twitter at podcast_saints. All music in this episode was composed by my good friend, James John Marks of Generative sounds. Please check out his music at If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider giving us a 5-star review on Itunes or whatever podcast app you use, so more people can find the Christian saints podcast and be blessed by these stories of the saints.

Let us end with a short passage from St Julian’s revelation of divine love:

In this same time our Lord shewed me a spiritual4 sight of His homely loving.

I saw that He is to us everything that is good and comfortable for us: He is our clothing

that for love wrappeth us, claspeth us, and all encloseth5 us for tender love, that He may

never leave us; being to us all-thing that is good, as to mine understanding.

Also in this He shewed me a little thing, the quantity of an hazel-nut, in the palm of my

hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon with eye of my understanding, and

thought: What may this be? And it was answered generally thus: It is all that is made. I

marvelled how it might last, for methought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for

little[ness]. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasteth, and ever shall [last] for that

God loveth it. And so All-thing hath the Being by the love of God.

In this Little Thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is

that God loveth it, the third, that God keepeth it.