Thought for the Week – Julian of Norwich

This week Lia Shimada, PCC member, ponders on Julian of Norwich’s manuscript ‘Revelations of Divine Love’ and whether or not we can claim her as a feminist.

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Once upon a pandemic, in the faraway fens, a woman walked into a church, stepped over a threshold to a small, stone room … and remained there for the rest of her life.

Julian of Norwich – 14th century theologian, mystic and writer – will be remembered across the Anglican Communion on Sunday. (Her Feast Day in the Catholic Church falls a few days later.) In the Church of England, worship services may begin with a special Collect (gathering prayer) or include ‘A Song of Julian of Norwich’. Julian, herself, would no doubt be surprised by the number of lectures, conferences and festivals held in her honour this week.

Julian lived in tumultuous times. Her arrival coincided with the deadliest pandemic in human history; Medieval Norwich was no exception. This was a city in dire need of prayer – and Julian did just that. As an anchorite, she dedicated herself to God through a life of seclusion. Sort of. From her cell at St Julian’s Church, she functioned as a sort of agony aunt to the people of Norwich, offering (socially distanced!) advice and prayers.

To be honest, we know very little about Julian. Did she have children? Or a cat? When did she become an anchorite? What did her cell look like? Who taught her to read and write? Was Julian even her name? These questions, and many more, remain a mystery.

Around the time she turned 30, Julian became seriously ill. As she lay on her deathbed, she gazed at a crucifix. Suddenly, she saw the figure of Jesus bleeding in front of her, followed by a series of sixteen visions. Five days later, Julian recovered from her illness. Shortly afterwards, she wrote about her visions. She then spent years, and then decades, reflecting on their theological significance. Eventually, nearing the end of her long life, Julian produced the manuscript that came to be known as Revelations of Divine Love. (If you’re interested in reading it, a free digital copy, translated into modern English, can be found here.

Julian’s Revelations are thought to be the oldest surviving work in the English language, written by a woman. You may have heard people quoting the nice bits, the best known of which is the ringing reassurance: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’ But Julian gives us so much more than that. Her Revelations are vivid, bracing, sometimes gruesome, full of exciting theological ideas. She developed wonderful imagery of God as a mother – leading to the spillage of much academic ink, six centuries later, about whether or not we can claim her as a feminist. (My opinion: It doesn’t really matter, one way or the other.) This was a woman who was not afraid to look suffering in the face, to stay with it, to grapple and to ask difficult questions. She spent decades contemplating her vision of ‘the last pains of Christ, and his cruel dying,’ leading to some of the most beautiful writing I have read on the theme of compassion. In a nutshell (or a hazelnut): Julian’s is anything but the cozy, don’t-worry-be-happy theology that we may infer from popular soundbites.

Last spring, in the midst of another pandemic, I gave birth to my third child. We named her ‘Julian’. Due to hospital restrictions, my husband was allowed to be present for the caesarean and for just one hour afterwards. He then returned home to our toddler, while Julian and I turned our hopes toward recovery. In the days after her birth, Julian was too unwell to be discharged. For nearly a week, our world contracted to one room. Delirious from pain, morphine and sleep deprivation, I kept watch over the incubator and the tiny infant lying inside. In the absence of sunlight, our days and nights dissolved into one, punctuated by meal trays, staff changes and video calls home. Jonathan and Brecon were only seven tube stops away, but they might as well have been in Norwich, or beyond.

In that windowless room, tethered by love to my newly-named daughter, I thought frequently of the other Julian. What heartbreak from her previous life did she carry with her into that cell? How did she manage to remain in one place for the rest of her days? What shifted inside her, to make possible the life to which she felt called?

My own experience has given me a glimmer of insight. That week, I set aside the distractions of my ordinary life. My sole responsibility was to tend to the task in front of me: to care for my fragile child. The work was rhythmic, nurturing, practical and utterly mundane. The work, itself, was prayer – and in the way of prayer, it expanded beyond the small space from which it emerged. Every encounter became a form of prayer: encounters with the hospital staff who cared for us; with my family and friends on the other end of the phone; with the other patients tending their own new babies (all of us awestruck and exhausted). Prayer extended onward and outward, far beyond the fluorescent-lit walls of the maternity ward, to encompass the communities, the city and the world that awaited my Julian.

I’ll end with these words from the 14th-century Julian:

He showed me a little thing the size of a hazelnut, in the palm of my hand, and it was as round as a ball. I looked upon it and I thought: ‘What can this be?’

And the answer came: It is all that is made.

I marvelled how it might last, for it was so small I thought it might suddenly have crumbled to nothing.

And the answer came to me: It lasts, and ever shall because God loves it. And so all things have their being through the love of God.


Dr Lia Dong Shimada