Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich (c1342-c1416), named after the church where she was a Benedictine anchorite, was one of the great mystics of the late Middle ages and the author of the first book written in English by a woman. At 30, believing herself to be at the point of death from a disease she had prayed for to renew her spiritual life, she experienced intense visions ("shewings") of Jesus Christ which she recorded shortly after her recovery in what is known as The Short Text, and then again some 20 years later in Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love. She was last known to be alive in 1416.

Although she describes herself as "A simple creature, unlettered", the later text shows evidence of familiarity with Walter Hilton (c1342-1396, author of The Scale of Perfection), Saint Catherine of Sienna (1347-1380, author of The Dialogue of Divine Providence and more than 300 letters extant) and the anonymous author of The Divine Cloud of Unknowing (c1375). She was psychologically acute enough to recognise the difference between reality and delusion.

Unlike most mystics of hr age she is no dualist, God being in our "sensuality" and "substance", the two aiding each other: "... either of them take help of other till we be brought up into stature, as kind worketh". Likewise, knowledge of God and self are inseparable: "God is more nearer to us than our own soul ... in falling and rising we are ever preciously kept in one love". She stresses the "homeliness" and "courtesy" of God's dealings: "... for love maketh might and wisdom full meek to us", which we should repay with a happy confidence and although she lived in turbulent times she was an optimist. The black earth and political turmoil had led people to believe that they were being punished she stressed a more merciful theology which leaned towards universal salvation.

She is unique in three points:

  1. The necessity of sin for self knowledge which leads to acceptance of God's purpose. We sin because we are ignorant or naive, not because we are evil; in order to learn we must fail; and in order to fail we must sin; and our suffering reminds us of Christ's suffering.
  2. God is all love and no wrath: "... for I saw no wrath except on man's side, and He forgives that in us, for wrath is nothing else but a perversity and an opposition to peace and to love" and so, in her terms, God did not "forgive" sin because that would imply that sin was wrong rather than simply being part of the learning process. God sees us as perfect and awaits our soul's maturity, unhindered by sin.
  3. God as "mother", shown in the literal maternal aspect of Christ with whom we have a relationship as close as that between mother and child; the closest there is.

Her words have echoed in our own time in Eliot's Fourth Quartet Little Gidding in "the ground of our beseeching" but mor3 famously in: "And all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."


Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love, Penguin, 1998 ISBN 0140446737