As mentioned, we know very little about Dame Julian. We don’t know if she was, as the saying goes, “maid, wife or widow”. We don’t even know what date she entered her anchorhold, or what were the circumstances that led her to make this choice. Frykholm has an imaginative reconstruction of Julian’s life, a proposal that she had a circle of support in other devout women and a spiritual director in the friar or “religious” that she mentions as being present in her sickroom, but we have no idea what her life was like. Was she like St. Catherine of Sienna, an unmarried younger daughter living with her mother? Or was she a wife and mother who was bereaved in one of the periodic bouts of plague that swept through England? We don’t know. What, then, can we say about Julian and her life? What we know of her, we know from her writings. First, she wrote down her experiences soon after having them in a version known as the “Short Text”, preserved in a compendium of devotional writings from 1413 when she was mentioned as still being alive, and secondly, the “Long Text” which she wrote fifteen or twenty years later. This “Long Text” is the basis for what is now called “The Revelations of Divine Love in Sixteen Showings”.
We know that she decided – at some point – to become an anchoress; that is, to be someone set apart from secular life and totally devoted to prayer and adoration while still acting as a spiritual advisor for the lay people of his or her community. Anchorites could be men or women, but the majority of them were women – laywomen who had chosen not to join a convent but instead had devoted themselves to living in a small house beside the church, which they would never leave again. Some of them even had the door bricked up, so doubtless this is the source of the trope in Gothic novels of the 18th century of the “nun walled up alive in the convent dungeon and left to die” and the ancestor of the ever-popular horror fiction and movie “skeleton or mummified body found walled up in the basement”. What we learn from her writings is this:
These Revelations were shewed to a simple creature unlettered, the year of our Lord 1373, the Thirteenth day of May. Which creature (had) afore desired three gifts of God. The First was mind of His Passion; the Second was bodily sickness in youth, at thirty years of age; the Third was to have of God’s gift three wounds. …For the Third, by the grace of God and teaching of Holy Church I conceived a mighty desire to receive three wounds in my life: that is to say, the wound of very contrition, the wound of kind compassion, and the wound of steadfast longing toward God. And all this last petition I asked without any condition. …These two desires aforesaid passed from my mind, but the third dwelled with me continually.
She recounts the story of her illness, the visions (the sixteen “showings”) she received, and the meanings of them. Twenty or so years after her mystic experiences, she wrote down her visions and what she had learned so as to instruct and console her “even-Christians”, the ordinary man and woman who wasn’t learned or well-educated, who was living in the world and wanted to develop their spiritual life, who was the plain man and woman of the world. The second day after her visions, when she had recovered somewhat, she thought that they were the ravings of sickness and was ashamed for having spoken of them to “a religious” (whether this man was a priest or a friar who had come to pray by the sick-bed, we know no more) but the sixteenth and last “showing” was a reassurance from Christ that these were true and not delusions. She obviously thought on them a great deal afterwards, trying to find what they meant; she says near the end of her book:
And from that time that it was shewed I desired oftentimes to learn what was our Lord’s meaning. And fifteen years after, and more, I was answered in ghostly understanding, saying thus: Wouldst thou learn thy Lord’s meaning in this thing? Learn it well: Love was His meaning. Who shewed it thee? Love. What shewed He thee? Love. Wherefore shewed it He? For Love. Hold thee therein and thou shalt learn and know more in the same. But thou shalt never know nor learn therein other thing without end. Thus was I learned that Love was our Lord’s meaning. And I saw full surely that ere God made us He loved us; which love was never slacked, nor ever shall be. And in this love He hath done all His works; and in this love He hath made all things profitable to us; and in this love our life is everlasting. In our making we had beginning; but the love wherein He made us was in Him from without beginning: in which love we have our beginning. And all this shall we see in God, without end.
That is the message of Julian’s work: love. Love, love, love without end or beginning; mercy, pity, forgiveness, joy. No mention of the divine wrath – indeed, for Julian, this does not even exist. In this she puts flesh on the dry bones of Thomistic theology which teaches us that “God is impassible” – He does not judge us and send us punishments out of anger or vengeance like an earthly judge or ruler, because He is not moved by the passions as mortals are. That sounds bloodless and even frightening put baldly in scholastic terms, but for Julian it is reassurance and comfort. She wants to know about Purgatory and Hell, she wants to know about sin and punishment, she wantsto see God’s wrath and judgement, but she is refused sweetly. Instead, all she is shown is the sufferings of Christ’s passion and all she is told is that this is for love:
Then said our good Lord Jesus Christ: Art thou well pleased that I suffered for thee? I said: Yea, good Lord, I thank Thee; Yea, good Lord, blessed mayst Thou be. Then said Jesus, our kind Lord: If thou art pleased, I am pleased: it is a joy, a bliss, an endless satisfying to me that ever suffered I Passion for thee; and if I might suffer more, I would suffer more.
Frykholm rightly says that Julian had moved through suffering to compassion, and had moved from the contemporary notion of suffering as punishment from God for the unworthy and faced the problems of evil and sin, which she tried to reconcile with what she was shown in her visions: that sin was nothing, evil was nothing, God was not a wrathful taskmaster waiting to smite us for our failings. The life of the Trinity is love. We are loved, created in love, redeemed in love, and even our sin is – in some way – a greater joy than if we had never fallen. Julian’s visions raise unsettling questions for us that we don’t want to deal with; we prefer the commonplace formula of how to live a good life: believe, pray, do good works.