I finally read this book! Many years ago I first read (probably in C.S. Lewis) Julian of Norwich’s most famous bumper-sticker quote: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” It’s a comforting thought, even if you don’t know anything else about her theology or the larger context of her work.
Julian is famous for being the first woman to write and publish a book in the English language. It’s probably not a distinction she would have cared about. This was a fourteenth-century woman who asked God to give her a painful, near-death illness at age 30, so that she might better appreciate Christ’s sufferings. Then she locked herself up in an anchorite’s cell outside the church in Norwich for the rest of her life, only talking to people who came to her window for advice. Her one book was the record of the visions she received from God during her illness, which is still read and appreciated by Christians today.
For a medieval Christian who was heavily into penance, suffering and deprivation, Julian had a remarkably positive and joyful view of God. She says at the end that “love” is the only theme of her book, and certainly God’s love is present on every page. Her view of the world is not an Augstinian view permeated with original sin, but something much more like the modern-day “creation spirituality” movement — her emphasis is always on the fact that a good God created a good world and loves the people He created. She celebrates God as both Mother and Father in language enjoyed by many modern Christian feminists. Julian also assures readers that though she has no desire to deviate from the church’s teaching on sin, death and judgement (not deviating was a very prudent choice in 14th century Roman Catholicism, if you wanted to go on living and stuff), God will, in the end, make “all things well” through means He has not yet revealed. This has led to her being acclaimed by universalists who see in this “all well” a promise that everyone will someday be saved (though Julian never says this explicitly). She is absolutely convinced both of God’s omnipotence and God’s all-powerful love, and sees no conflict between the two.
Despite all the ways in which Julian’s writing resonates with twentieth and twenty-first century spiritual thinking, she was very much a woman of her times. Her descriptions of the visions of Christ’s passion put Mel Gibson to shame — she has that medieval Catholic fascination with the physical torture and suffering of the crucifixion. Her constant reminders that she is a humble, simple creature who would never go against the teaching of the Holy Church are no doubt at least partially motivated by prudence — she does not contradict Catholic doctrine in any way, but little touches like calling Christ our Mother certainly put a different spin on traditional teachings!
M.L. Del Maestro’s translation into modern English is good, though still a bit slow going — I read it as a devotional book over several weeks rather than all in one stretch. The most readable translation of Julian’s writing I’ve ever found was done by Karen Armstrong in her book Four English Mystics, but those were only excerpts, not the complete book. Finally reading the whole book has given me a lot to meditate on and I’m sure I’ll be rereading sections of it in years to come.