July 30, 2014

The Constant Seeker: Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich was an English contemplative Christian who lived during what Barbara Tuchman has called “the calamitous fourteenth century.”  A small child when the Black Death first devastated her home city of Norwich in eastern England, she experienced several recurrences of the epidemic during her lifetime.  This was the time of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France as well as the disgraceful episodes in the history of the papacy called the Babylonian Captivity and the Great Papal Schism.  With only a few exceptions, most notably St. Catherine of Siena and St. Bridget of Sweden, women throughout Europe were quiet and unlettered.  Julian is an enigmatic character, not greatly learned and yet the first woman (and one of the first people) to write in Middle English instead of scholarly Latin or courtly French.  How she learned to write we don’t know, but why she wrote we do know:  she wanted to communicate to “even” Christians (common Christians, her fellows) the visions that God had given to her beginning in her thirtieth year.  Her “Revelations” or “Showings” contain most of what we know about her as a person, and that isn’t much.

Given that we know so little, writing a biography of Julian – even a slim one – is a challenging task.  Julian of Norwich:  A Contemplative Biography by Amy Frykholm attempts to paint a portrait of this distant woman, with mixed success.  It was wise of Frykhom to use the term “contemplative” in her title, because in writing this book she is employing a technique beloved of contemplative Christians:  imagination.  A common medieval meditative technique was to take a story from the Bible – Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, for example, or Martha’s conversation with Jesus on the death of Lazarus – and to place oneself through imagination in the time and place of the story.  The meditator would try to make the scene real by picturing the surroundings and actions, the conversation and thoughts, of the people involved.  He or she would know that these embroideries were not factual, but the meditation was a way to warm the affections toward and participate more fully in the life of the Gospel.

Frykholm in the same way takes the scraps of information we have about Julian and embroiders them for us.  She incorporates the little we know with what we understand about medieval life in England and with her expectations of common feelings and experiences we might have with Julian.  The result is in some ways unsatisfying, to me at least.  I would find a dry scholarly tome more trustworthy; a fully developed novel would be more gripping.  If, however, this short biography stimulates anyone to read Julian’s own writing, it will have served a useful function.

Julian of Norwich:  A Contemplative Biography also serves to raise questions about Christian faith and practice that are as important today as they were 600 years ago.  Should any, some, or all Christians strive for the contemplative life?  Were ascetics like Julian, who became anchoresses or hermits, nuts that we now can discount or inspiring examples of Christian living?  Is Julian’s desire to experience God personally, emotionally, and without intermediaries reconcilable with institutional religion?  Are visions real revelations from God or delusions and snares of the devil?  And what is the place of women in the Church?

To me one of the most compelling parts of Julian’s story was her decision to write down her visions for others to read.  Frykholm does a good job of showing how daring a step that would have been.  Like many women for centuries after her, Julian must have agonized about whether her words would be accepted or reviled, whether she would be threatened or (perhaps worse) laughed at.  But she did write, and the message she conveys is the overwhelming love and grace of God – seen in the person of Jesus on the cross, in the wounds of his body, in the whole universe resting in the hand of God, about “the quantity of a hazelnut.”  God tells her, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”  Though she struggled to accept a message of hope in the midst of plague and war, she knew that that was the message she had to communicate.

Jesus, in preparing to leave his disciples, promises that the Holy Spirit will come and guide the Body of Christ into all truth.  Julian’s visions and writings are one of the ways that the Holy Spirit has done that.  Hence we should read her, as well as other fathers and mothers in the faith.  As I said before, Julian of Norwich:  A Contemplative Biography is worthwhile if it encourages us to read what God revealed through her.  I regret, though, that modern Christians need encouragement to read a classic of Christian literature or would find a recent digest more attractive than the original.  C.S. Lewis, in his “Introduction to Saint Athanasius’ De Incarnatione Verbi Dei,” likewise decries this tendency:

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about isms and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

Lewis goes on to add, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”  So read Julian of Norwich:  A Contemplative Biography, but then read Julian herself.

And while you’re working on that, let’s discuss your thoughts on some of the issues I mentioned earlier:

  • Should any, some, or all Christians strive for the contemplative life?
  • Were ascetics like Julian, who became anchoresses or hermits, nuts that we now can discount or inspiring examples of Christian living?
  • Is Julian’s desire to experience God personally, emotionally, and without intermediaries reconcilable with institutional religion?
  • Are visions real revelations from God or delusions and snares of the devil?
  • And what is the place of women in the Church?

On second thought, skip the last one.  Let’s focus on the first four.  What are your thoughts, “even” Christians?

 

 

Comments

  1. “Are visions real revelations from God or delusions and snares of the devil?”

    This is a false dichotomy.

    Which visions? Visions that affirm Scripture or that detract from it? Those that do are from God, those that don’t aren’t.

    • That is the general test of visions; is their content in agreement with the teachings of the Church and the revelations of Scripture? But the devil, after all, can appear like an angel of light, and a visionary can be unsure whether or not they are imagining things – Julian herself began to tell of her vision of the bleeding crucifix, but then said “I have been raving all this day” because she wasn’t sure if it was real or only the imaginings of sickness, and she later received a final vision to confirm the truthfulness of what she had seen.

      There’s a warning given to potential anchoresses in an earlier Rule, the “Ancrene Wisse”, about a man who was deceived: he was given visions which had up to then been true, then the devil told him that his father was evil and convinced him to kill him. Nowadays, we would chalk that up to the delusions of mental illness, and probably that was the case, but certainly it was a possibility that your visions or revelations were nothing of the kind, and people were warned about self-deception.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        …about a man who was deceived: he was given visions which had up to then been true, then the devil told him that his father was evil and convinced him to kill him.

        That sounds like a classic Disinformation Op in Intelligence Warfare. AKA “how to feed false information to the mark”. You start by passing the mark minor accurate intelligence to build your credibility; once credibility has been established, you feed the disinformation. The disinformation must be plausible, preferably referencing other sources for further credibility, and piggybacks on the credibility of the accurate information you’ve fed to prime the pump. If the final disinformation is a Big Lie, you can count on it working ONCE.

    • Mary Anne Dutton says:

      Thank you Brad. We need to hear more about this point in our discussion. Much delusion about this abounds.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Brad. Most dichotomies are false, which is why I used this one as a conversation starter. There are people who would identify themselves as Christian who would automatically distrust a vision as well as those who would automatically believe something if it appeared to them in a vision. A useful direction for this discussion is suggested by your post: How can we tell if visions are legitimate? You suggest testing them against scripture; do people have any other tests they think should be applied?

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Coming from a church whose preferred way to flake out is “Mary Channeling”, I’m normally skeptical about visions. As for “testing them against SCRIPTURE”, given the Evangelical/Fundy way to flake out of Party-Line Bibliolatry, that seems to be to substitute blind faith in one thing (Scripture(TM)) for another (the vision).

      • Damaris, I suspected you were using a little semantic license to further the discussion…though I bit hook, line and sinker, didn’t I?

        I think when it comes to testing visions the first thing we should do is to look for any obvious biblical contradictions between Scripture and the vision and the second thing is to weigh carefully what is said as events unfold. There are some visions that are simply untestable. Sometimes this is because the vision is about an open ended future event, and sometimes it is because the vision is so vague and unspecific that it could apply to a host of people of situations. While I don’t think we should be automatically dismissive of a prophecy or vision, I also don’t think a little skepticism is unhealthy. Unfortunately, there has been so many abuses in this area that geniune visions and prophecies are drowned out in a sea of skepticism.

  2. Life is meant to be lived. I believe we ought throw ourselves (to the extent that sinners can) into it. To live outward, for the sake of our neighbors. They need us.

    Visions? They might be real and they might not be. We cannot know or trust in them “because the devil can come all dressed up as an angel of light.” (St. Paul) It’s often very hard to”walk by faith, and not by sight”, as we are told to do in the Bible.

  3. “So read Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography, but then read Julian herself.”

    A quick look at Amazon shows that there are several editions of Julian’s Revelations. Do you have any recommendations on which are better, especially for non-native English speakers? I’m willing to follow Jack’s advice and read the original, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to handle Middle English.

  4. “Should any, some, or all Christians strive for the contemplative life?”

    Contemplative, being different from meditation and obviously differing from supplication, is a gem in the crown of anyone’s spiritual life. As a follower of Jesus who has journeyed from mainline protestant while being involved in charismatic (both Protestant and Catholic) fellowships to now being a Catholic Christian, contemplative prayer has done more to draw me closer to Jesus that any form of spoken prayer. Far from being merely for the mystics or monks, contemplative prayer in this hectic, gadget filled age, allows us the opportunity to enter into the Great Silence of God – emptying ourselves of ourselves and creating a womb-like environment waiting to be filled by God. I would encourage all followers of Jesus to let go of any preconceived notions they have of contemplative prayer and open wide their hearts to the richness of this form of prayer and find themselves being drawn ever closer to Jesus.

    “Were ascetics like Julian, who became anchoresses or hermits, nuts that we now can discount or inspiring examples of Christian living?”

    Many who have heard the voice of God have been called crazy in their lifetimes only to be recognized as ‘saints’ after their deaths. Since there is only one holy Spirit (and it is none of us) who are we to say someone is ‘nuts’ because they feel the tug of the Spirit to enter into a contemplative life? And my brother was severely mentally ill, to the point that it caused his premature death at age 50, so please be sensitive when using the word “nuts” – it is offensive to those who live with mental illness or have someone in their life who does.

    “Are visions real revelations from God or delusions and snares of the devil?”

    I feel that any vision that does not contradict Sacred Scripture or noted Tradition, and leads one closer to Jesus is from God. If the ‘vision’ is ‘personal’ and leads me closer to Jesus then I see nothing in error, but if the ‘vision’ is a message that is feel God is calling me to share with the wider community, then discernment with trusted believers is in order to ensure cohesion and continuity with the faith.

    • Niles — Great comment. I apologize if you found the word “nuts” offensive. I did, in fact, mean to ask whether any readers thought that those seeing visions and living extreme ascetic lives were mentally ill.

  5. “Should any, some, or all Christians strive for the contemplative life?”

    I think there is much value in becoming more contemplative. We live such scattered lives, and rarely take the time to “be still and know that He is God.” I’m not saying that we should all seek to be contemplatives, per se, such as Julian of Norwich. I believe that being such was Julian’s spiritual gift, which not everyone is meant to have. But I think we’d all have richer spiritual lives if we opened ourselves up to a more contemplative prayer and devotional life.

    “Is Julian’s desire to experience God personally, emotionally, and without intermediaries reconcilable with institutional religion?”

    I think so. Traditionally, the Catholic Church has supported such contemplatives, especially within the consecrated life. Is there such a practice within the Protestant realm?

    • Right on, PL. The contemplative life has somehow become code for over-ethusiasm or a phony faith in an age where we are becoming more and more detached from one another, skeptical and jaded. In fact, these things are almost seen as virtues. Living in Jesus and walking according to his Word needs to be balanced and part of that is mediating on what Jesus has done for us, if for no other reason that we might remind ourselves why we are Christians.

      For that reason, I see no reason why a contemplative life couldn’t be a part of worshiping Jesus, so long as these contemplations rest on Jesus, and not us or our desires.

  6. Full text available from Google books:Revelations of divine love