Why Julian of Norwich is a mystic for troubled times
Margaret Coles wrote in the Times on Saturday, May 8th 2021:
On this day in 1373 the Christian mystic and theologian Julian of Norwich received a series of visions of the Crucifixion. The messages imparted to her — that God is never angry and His love is unconditional — ran counter to the punitive orthodoxy of the time. She sought sanctuary as an anchoress, or hermit, living in a cell at the side of St Julian’s Church. There she pondered the meaning of the visions and wrote the spiritual classic Revelations of Divine Love.
Humanity is struggling to survive what feel like overwhelming odds. We have heard recently of a steep rise in loneliness among British adults and that nearly one in five of us feels hopeless about the situation. The Mental Health Foundation’s report Coronavirus: Mental Health in the Pandemic also tells us that love promotes health, “strengthening the immune system and cardiovascular function”.
Brian Thorne, emeritus professor of counselling at the University of East Anglia, has described his experience as a practising psychotherapist: “We are living in a new Dark Age, in which the world is enduring a loss of love, a loss of tenderness . . . for so many, the pain is so great that there can be no trust in relationships and no safety in the universe. The yearning to love and to be loved is stifled and replaced by a constant watchfulness and defensiveness. Lonely people, belonging nowhere and to nobody, cope as best they can. The search for intimacy has never been so desperate. Yet many people go in fear of ridicule, condemnation and rejection. They are filled with inner desolation and feelings of failure and worthlessness. Yet they are beautiful, and they are truly loved and they have reason to hope.”
Julian’s world, viewed from her little window, to which people came for comfort, reassurance and guidance, was harsher than we can imagine. She lived through a period of tumultuous change and suffering, war, famine and at least two plague pandemics. And yet she was able to assert with confidence that we are God’s beloved, his precious darlings. In Julian’s gentle, optimistic theology we find an assurance that God looks upon us with a compassionate understanding, “with pity, not with blame”.
“Do not blame yourself too much,” Julian writes. “When we begin to hate sin and to amend ourselves . . . there still persists a fear which hinders us, by looking at ourselves and our sins . . . and the perception of this makes us so woebegone and depressed that we cannot see any consolation . . . [this] is . . . blindness.”
Rumination and self-recrimination can drag us down into a cycle of negativity and hopelessness. God does not accuse us, she tells us, so we must forgive ourselves.
As the late Father Robert Llewelyn, unofficial chaplain to Julian’s shrine, explained to me: “We think we are honouring God in continuing with self-blame, but in truth we are dishonouring him . . . because we are denying the generosity of God’s love.”
Julian says our horizons are limited by our “poverty in love”. Why else would we condemn and punish ourselves when God has loved us out of any need of guilt?
Thorne says: “For some of us, it is very hard to simply accept Julian’s assurance of God’s love — her insistence that God never stops loving us, no matter what we feel and what we do — because many of us have never experienced anything approximating to that kind of love. For those who feel alienated and alone and for whom there is no meaning in life she reveals the tender compassion of God who created everything for love and preserves it by the same love.”
Speaking her words of comfort across the centuries, Julian promises that we are “enfolded” in love and held safe in an embrace which will never let us go.
“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Julian’s kind, comforting words are as fresh and relevant as though she had spoken them a minute ago.
Margaret Coles is a journalist, novelist and playwright