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?