The revived popularity of the Revelations of Divine Love by Dame Julian of Norwich, England, bears witness to the permanent worth of a book that is “perhaps the most beautiful and certainly the tenderest exposition of divine love…in the English language.”
It is not known where or of what parentage Julian (or Juliana) was born. She tells us very little about her life in the Revelations. Beyond that, the only biographical data that we have is that she lived in Norwich in a small hermitage (anchorhold, hence the term “anchoress”, i.e. female hermit). She survived well past the age of 70, and at least in her later years, she had two maids to serve her needs. During her lifetime Julian acquired a high reputation for holiness. People from all over came to communicate with her through her window, which was the only channel for contact between medieval urban hermitesses and the outside world.
Juliana must have been young when cloistered into her cell attached to the church of St. Julian. To quote her, she was then “a simple creature that could no letters.” But she apparently learned to read, for there are evidences in her Revelations that she knew the writings of her contemporary, St. Catherine of Siena, and perhaps other current devotional writers.
At the beginning of her anachoretic career, Juliana asked three gifts from God. 1. That He would give her a greater appreciation of Jesus’ sufferings; 2. That He would give her a severe illness, which would detach her from the world; 3. That He would grant her three “wounds”: “very contrition,” “kind compassion,” and “a willful longing towards God.”
When she was 33, she did catch a mortal malady and received the last rites of the Church. But she did not die. Instead, she became the recipient of 16 distinct “showings” or revelations, in which she looked deeply into the passion of Christ. For the rest of her life she pondered on the passion and for 20 years she received divine inward instructions about it. “ Wouldst thou learn thy Lord’s meaning in this thing?” a voice asked her. “Learn it well: love was His meaning.”
In the passion she learned to see God’s love in action. She found that His love is courteous, homely and intensely personal. She speaks of His affection as resembling the love of a mother for her child. St. Ambrose had said much the same thing in the fourth century and the Bible lays a basis for such comparison. Today’s feminists, of course, are emphasizing the “feminine” aspect of God the Father.
Although her book of “Showings” is written in a simple style, it presents a profound mystical doctrine. Especially notable is the consoling aspect. At the outset, Juliana was puzzled that even holy people should fall at times into sin. But she eventually realized that God permits such lapses in order to increase the humility and the love that the repentant sinner demonstrates through contrition.
Among the “Comfortable Wordes for Christ’s Lovers” (as the first published edition of the Revelations called them) was this assurance that Christ gave to her: “I can make all things well: I will make all things well: I shall make all things well: and thou shalt see thyself that all manner of things shall be well.” This is no Pollyanna-type of comfort that cheers by ignoring the sadnesses of life. It is rather an encouragement to have confidence in God’s promise to provide for his children.
Meanwhile, Dame Julian remained intensely loyal to the Church. “I yield me to our Mother Holy Church,” she wrote, “as a simple child oweth.”
Although she is referred to as “blessed”, Dame Julian has never been formally beatified. Indeed, there is no evidence that this genuine mystic has ever been the object of public veneration. The title “blessed” must therefore be taken as authorized only by affection, like the title “blessed” popularly given to Dame Julian’s Italian contemporary, the great Dominican painter Fra Angelico.
But it is significant that in the case of “Blessed Angelico”, Pope John Paul II proclaimed him “equivalently” beatified in 1983. Someday he or another pope may do the same to this seer, “Blessed” Julian of Norwich.
–Father Robert F. McNamara