Review of Richard Norton, Julian of Norwich: Apostle of Pain, Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse UK, 2020
Across the world 2020 and 2021 have been very much years of pain which have affected us all in a myriad of ways and the pandemic will, I fear, continue to be with us, bearing its marks, for many a year to come. Richard Norton’s book is a timely publication, offering hope by showing how Julian – in her own place and time suffering not unlike us – understood pain and over 600 years on from the Short Text and the Long Text of Revelations of Divine Love still has pertinent and helpful things to share.
Julian herself desired to share in something of Christ’s Passion. Later in the fifteenth century the imitatio Christi – the Imitation of Christ – was composed as a medieval expression of living and suffering, a sharing in particular in Christ’s own suffering. In 1373 Julian herself suffered a life-threatening illness. And all of this suffering posed a big, paradoxical problem, raising a variety of spiritual and theological questions.
‘Where was God in this?’ we ask today. And the answer is, as it always has been, right there in the middle. ‘They brought this on themselves because they were bad people,’ is a question which fortunately we hear less frequently expressed today, yet bothered the thinking medieval mind. Pain and evil were inextricably bound together throughout the Middle Ages and threads of that thought still continue down to this day. Yet, at the same time, during the Middle Ages there existed a belief and a very strong belief that there was a certain joy, a certain ‘sweetness’, in this suffering because it was a way of following Christ. Julian’s illness and recovery was seen – and can still be seen – as a resurrection experience.
A very great friend of mine, the art historian Sr Wendy Beckett, suffered much in later life yet she, like Julian, regarded these periods as blessings sent to her by God. Today, it is a rare soul that can and does have such a depth of understanding, hence the significance of Norton’s book.
After a beautifully written Preface and Introduction, there are five chapters. The first clearly explains Paul Ricoeur’s arc of hermeneutics. I must admit that I had not understood Ricoeur until reading this chapter. I found this explanation and its application to Julian invaluable.
We then move backwards from Ricoeur to explore pain and the imitatio Christi before Julian, taking in such a broad sweep as religious writers, founders of monastic orders, and mystics as they understood the Passion, Christ’s wounds, blood, and Sacred Heart, and influenced Julian in her understanding of the same.
The third much briefer chapter focuses on the seventh and eighth showings and how Julian experienced union with God grounded in the context of divine love. The penultimate chapter, and the kernel of Norton’s book, is an examination of Julian’s ‘spiritual transformation through pain,’ her movement from physical suffering and mental torment to spiritual joy and one-ing with God.
We then have a chapter entitled ‘Closing Thoughts’ in which Norton explains why Julian may be called the ‘Apostle of Pain’ but we do not stop there. There is an Appendix headed ‘Julian of Norwich and Covid-19, Coronavirus: A Pastoral Response’. I haven’t read writing like this since the 80’s and pastoral and spiritual (if they can be separated) responses to HIV/AIDS and it is fascinating to compare the two approaches.
There will be many other publications both during and after the pandemic but this is one of the first and Norton has set the standard, and has set the standard high.
Luke Penkett CJN, ObJN
Hon. Librarian and Archivist,
The Julian Campus, Norwich