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Julian of Norwich

Category: Religious

We do not know what Julian of Norwich looked like and so various portraits have
been used to represent her; this one is by Rogier van der Weyden, who was a
Flemish painter

Julian of Norwich (Also known as Mother Juliana of Norwich) was an English devotional writer who lived from about 1342 to 1416. 

She died in obscurity with very little being known about her, but her Revelations of Divine Love, has become famous.  In this text, she describes a series of sixteen visions she had whilst seriously ill – very seriously ill.

No one knows what illness afflicted  Juliana because in the 1300s, they had none of the ability to diagnose disease that we do today, but her symptoms – to me at least – seem very close to Myasthenia Gravis.

 

Julian of Norwich – Revelations of Divine Love
AND when I was thirty years old and a half, God sent me a bodily sickness, in which I lay three days and three nights; and on the fourth night I took all my rites of Holy Church, and weened not to have lived till day. And after this I languored forth two days and two nights, and on the third night I weened oftentimes to have passed; and so weened they that were with me……..
And I understood by my reason and by my feeling of my pains that I should die; and I assented fully with all the will of my heart to be at God’s will.
Thus I dured till day, and by then my body was dead from the middle downwards, as to my feeling. Then was I minded to be set upright, backward leaning, with help,—for to have more freedom of my heart to be at God’s will, and thinking on God while my life would last.
My Curate was sent for to be at my ending, and by that time when he came I had set my eyes, and might not speak. He set the Cross before my face and said: I have brought thee the Image of thy Master and Saviour: look thereupon and comfort thee therewith.
Methought I was well [as it was], for my eyes were set uprightward unto Heaven, where I trusted to come by the mercy of God; but nevertheless I assented to set my eyes on the face of the Crucifix, if I might; and so I did. For methought I might longer dure to look evenforth than right up.
After this my sight began to fail, and it was all dark about me in the chamber, as if it had been night,
After this the upper part of my body began to die, so far forth that scarcely I had any feeling;—with shortness of breath. And then I weened in sooth to have passed.
And in this [moment] suddenly all my pain was taken from me, and I was as whole

Strictly speaking this is a near death experience, but the symptoms are about as close to Myasthenia gravis as you are likely to get. 

Some background to her visions

 

Julian appears to have eventually become an ‘anchoress’—a religious contemplative living a solitary life of meditation and prayer— but she became this after the illness and visions not before.  We only know this very scanty detail because of a bequest in a 1404 will to "Julian an anchoress at St. Julian's Church" and by a record in Archbishop Henry Chichele's 1416 register of a legacy to "Julian, recluse at Norwich," who was, according to the register, then alive at age seventy-four.

There is however evidence to indicate that even if Julian was not an anchoress before her visions, she was very very religious.  Here is an extract:

Julian of Norwich – Revelations of Divine Love
THESE Revelations were shewed to a simple creature unlettered, the year of our Lord 1373, the Thirteenth day of May. Which creature [had] afore desired three gifts of God.
The First was mind of His Passion;
the Second was bodily sickness in youth, at thirty years of age;
the Third was to have of God’s gift three wounds.

This is important to know, because her entire interpretation of the vision is based on her preconceptions of what she had wanted.  Her composer, to a certain extent, answered her prayers, but her interpretation is her own.

They seem a truly weird set of wishes, but she did have her reasons……… If we take the first one, it was a form of somewhat morbid, but possibly empathetic, curiosity fuelled by her religious beliefs...

Julian of Norwich – Revelations of Divine Love
therefore I desired a bodily sight wherein I might have more knowledge of the bodily pains of our Saviour and of the compassion of our Lady and of all His true lovers that saw, that time, His pains. For I would be one of them and suffer with Him. Other sight nor shewing of God desired I never none, till the soul were departed from the body. The cause of this petition was that after the shewing I should have the more true mind in the Passion of Christ.

 

The vision gave her an understanding of this, so she had her first prayer answered.  The second wish is curiosity too.  She wanted to know what happened to you when you died.   We need to remember that there was a rather unhealthy form of belief in the need to really suffer, truly suffer before you got to heaven.  In addition, we have to remember that the Christian Church was very hot on its hell fire and brimstone theories at the time, [it probably still is, but no one believes them anymore] the damned, the terror of the devil – quite frightening stuff and the poor little soul was frightened, she wanted to be ‘purged’ so that she didn’t go to hell. Very simple and quite understandable……….

Julian of Norwich – Revelations of Divine Love
In this sickness I desired to have all manner of pains bodily and ghostly that I should have if I should die, (with all the dreads and tempests of the fiends) except the outpassing of the soul. And this I meant for [that] I would be purged, by the mercy of God, and afterward live more to the worship of God because of that sickness.

The third wish is not all it seems at first glance.

Julian of Norwich – Revelations of Divine Love
For the Third [petition], by the grace of God and teaching of Holy Church I conceived a mighty desire to receive three wounds in my life: that is to say, the wound of very contrition, the wound of kind compassion, and the wound of steadfast longing toward God. And all this last petition I asked without any condition.

So not physical wounds, but abilities.  She wanted to be humble, compassionate and serve God.  And she did and she was after her vision, so she had her prayers answered.

After the visions, she documented them immediately in the short version of Revelations of Divine Love [which is what I have used as the source].  She then produced a longer version, but overall this was the only time she received visions.  She appears to have spent most of the rest of her life trying to live up to them and fully understand them.  The fifteenth-century contemplative Margery Kempe, for example, who visited Julian, described her as an ‘expert in giving good counsel’ [so compassionate and serving God].

We owe it to luck that her manuscript survived.  It enjoyed only limited circulation at the time and there were very few copies.  Revelations was rescued in the mid-seventeenth century by Augustine Baker, whose spiritual school, located among the exiled English Benedictines of France and the Low Countries, rescued the long text.

The work's most celebrated message, "All shall be well …" and "Love was His meaning," have been widely quoted and used in morale boosting Church postcards.  The quote was used  in T. S. Eliot's 1943 poem "Little Gidding." 

The Visions

The website contains examples of her visions.  I have had to shorten them somewhat, but the extracts have not been changed, I have just removed some repetitive passages that add nothing to the visionary aspect.

Observations

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