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Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality 2.1 (2002) 83-98
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A Conversation with Julian of Norwich on Religious Experience
Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth-century English recluse, has bequeathed to us, her modern readers, a short and a long version of a single book, Showings. 1 The two versions detail an account of a series of "revelations" that she received from God in her thirtieth year while she was seriously ill. During these revelations Julian encountered the living Jesus hanging upon the cross, with whose help she learned to think in new ways about human nature, sin, human suffering, the character of God as Trinity and Unity, as well as the Incarnation. The overarching theme of Julian's book, however, is none of these. Rather, what holds her book together is the theme of God's absolute, baffling, completely non-judgmental, and utterly undefeatable love for human beings as individuals and as a species.
Teaching and leading retreats on Julian over the last few years have demonstrated to me that her words about the nature of this divine love frequently fall on modern ears like rain on dry ground--as, indeed, they did for me nearly twenty-five years ago when I first read the short text of Showings. Julian's book had been sent to me by a friend when I first moved with my children to Atlanta soon after a divorce. When the book arrived, I was feeling as unlovable to God and my fellow human beings, as incompetent, exhausted, and theologically confused as I had ever felt in my life. By the time I opened the book and began to read, my body and soul were ready to soak up Julian's description of God's truly unconditional love for humanity, myself included. In my condition, I desperately needed to hear and believe her repetition of God's promise of love, made to her on behalf of all of us: "I will make all things well, I shall make all things well, I may make all things well and I can make all things well; and you will see that yourself, that all things will be well." 2
Though I had found broad hints of these ideas in the writings of the early church I love, I had never been struck by them in quite the same way as I was that day when I first read them in Julian. Still, though I longed to know them to be true, to assimilate them, and let them do their healing work on me, by the next morning I was skeptical. I simply couldn't get past the fact that all that Julian had to say primarily had come to her through a series of visions and actual conversations she had had with Jesus as he hung upon the cross. Both my education as a modern person and the ancient desert fathers and mothers who were my teachers had taught me only too well a profound skepticism with respect to any religious experience. [End Page 83]
By the time that, many years later, the needs of my teaching brought me back to Julian, a great dealing of healing had taken place in my heart and mind. Much of the healing had come to me through the vehicle of my daily discipline of prayer which I had taken on since that earlier time. Part of that prayer had included strong images, ideas, spoken words and vivid dream-like experiences of God that had provided me with new heart-knowledge not only of myself and God's world, but of a God of breathtaking, heartbreaking love. I had already written two books on what I believed the Abbas and Ammas of the ancient Egyptian desert have to teach modern Christians. I had come to terms, I thought, with the whole question of the experience of God as it confronted me. I could hardly deny what I knew first-hand, that God can and does reveal God's self to human beings. It had been...