"Julian of Norwich expresses herself in a woman’s voice that sounds decidedly different from the exclusively male voices in which she would have been accustomed to hearing the gospel proclaimed. Her voice is not that of a celibate cleric, nor a canon law expert, nor an ecclesiastical judge. Nor does her writing have a monastic tone to it. Julian’s book is full of a distinctly feminine sensitivity, along with incisive, analytical reasoning, rich imagery, and down-to-earth common sense. It is neither a treatise nor a catechism, nor is it a systematic guide to the spiritual life, yet it is full of rich teachings on prayer, the practice of faith, hope, and love, as well as personal advice on how to deal with one’s own sense of sinfulness, recurring depression, life’s suffering, and the fear of death.
Julian employs a circular, rather than a strictly linear, method of examining and interpreting Christian truths. She chooses favorite themes, words, and phrases, and returns to them again and again, layering them each time with ever-deeper meaning. This circularity does not in any way undermine her ability to analyze, argue, and categorize her teachings in a rational, linear mode when she so chooses. She allows intuition to inspire her logic and rational explanations to support her mystical insights. Throughout, her moral angst drives her to probe relentlessly, to dare to make astounding theological leaps of thought and faith, but she has no desire merely to be clever, to impress, or to compete with the authoritative reasoning of the scholastics or the didactic sermons of the churchmen. In fact, she cuts through theological hair-splitting and well-accepted religious attitudes, “sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb 4:12), revealing the hidden marrow of meaning. As Thomas Merton wrote of her in the twentieth century:
Julian is without doubt one of the most wonderful of all Christian voices. She gets greater and greater in my eyes as I grow older . . . I think that Julian of Norwich is with [John Henry, Cardinal] Newman the greatest English theologian. She is really that. For she reasons from her experience of the substantial center of the great Christian mystery of Redemption. She gives her experience and her deductions, clearly, separating the two. And the experience is of course nothing merely subjective. It is the objective mystery of Christ as apprehended by her, with the mind and formation of a fourteenth-century English woman.
Besides being a mystical theologian, Julian is willing to reveal her own inner battles, to admit her personal failings as well as her deeply felt longings. . . . Julian may not tell us a lot of intimate details about her day-to-day life, but she does much more: she opens and entrusts to us her mind and heart. She discloses her mighty struggle to integrate her faith in the God she has been taught to believe in with the God of her mystical Revelations. She confronts her confusion head-on. One might even say she writes the first-ever spiritual autobiography in English.
Julian addresses the reader directly. She wants each of us to see as she saw, to hear as she heard, to understand as she came to understand. She speaks as a daughter, wife, mother, and concerned friend on every page of her work. . . . She is, by turns, frankly emotional and searingly self-critical, profoundly tempted by doubt and buoyed up by hope. Julian’s pressing questions are not limited to her time; they resonate in every age. They are the same metaphysical questions we keep asking, over and over again. Julian’s asking of these questions, our questions, and her way of telling us how the Lord answered them, reveal a woman passionately concerned about the salvation and ultimate happiness of people she dearly loved. She also shows herself to be a woman of deep prayer, extraordinary faith, and prophetic powers. Julian grows on us. For every man or woman, young or old, believer or skeptic, Julian has a gift. It is the gift of her questing spirit, her daring conviction. It is the gift of her personal witness to Christ’s immense and incomparable compassion. Julian’s Revelations were not written just for the evencristens of her time. Hers is a timeless gospel, composed over six hundred years ago, by one woman for all women and all men who long for the assurance of a love that can never fail."
I sincerely hope that you will draw close to the wisdom of Julian of Norwich by listening to my weekly Life, Love, & Light podcast series on this website that goes in-depth to explore her sixteen Revelations. I also examine how each Revelation is directly relevant to the very plague and protests, sufferings and fears, struggles and hopes of our own time. There is a Guided Meditation at the end of each podcast for you to make your own. May Julian bless you all abundantly!
Please Note: The excerpt quoted above is from the Introduction to my book,
Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich
(Orbis Books). Copyright © 2013 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved.
Today, May 8th, is Julian’s Feast Day—the day she received her Revelations of Divine Love from Christ on the cross. Let us pause to thank her for her presence in our lives and for her exquisite writings. And let us listen to what Julian is telling us in this challenging time of the Coronavirus: to live our whole life in love with Christ!
But he wills we take heed thus: that he is the ground of all our whole life in love, he is our everlasting protector, and mightily defends us against all our enemies that are extremely dangerous and terribly fierce towards us.
This theme of Christ as “the ground of our whole life in love” colors and highlights every aspect of Julian’s theology. Christ is not the unapproachable “other,” the distant God-man whose anger must be appeased by every extreme means possible. He is, in a very real sense, what we are, in our flesh and blood and bones, having taken on the fullness of our human nature, save sin, in order to help us combat the suffering of temptation and guilt, and to show his sublime peace and love. Christ knows exactly how our minds work, what our failings and compulsions are, and longs to teach us how to reorient our attitudes and desires toward the highest good. And he has endured every possible physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual agony we go through. This is the Christ Julian knows to be at the foundation, the very ground, of our being. This is where the “godly will” resides, that never completely wills sin: in our Christ-redeemed nature.
And this is the supreme friendship of our courteous lord, that he keeps us so tenderly while we are in our sinne. And furthermore, he touches us most intimately, and shows us our sinne by the sweet light of mercy and grace.
Julian is convinced that even when we are in the midst of harming ourselves or others, and seem to be abandoning God, he does not abandon us. Instead, he whispers in our heart and mind, moves our conscience to feel remorse, and leads us to ask forgiveness, guiding us by his own “sweet light of mercy and grace.” However, Julian is acutely aware that when we sin, “we see ourself so foule,” that we think (indeed, we assume) that “God is wroth with us for our sinne.” Here, Julian is describing her own sense of personal guilt, with a keen understanding that Christians persistently harbor a wrong view of God as being wrathful.
She explains that though we may remain convinced that God must be angry at us while we are in sin, it is precisely his ever-present mercy and grace which enable us to turn back to him, confess our failure, and ask forgiveness. Christ gathers us up like his prodigal son (or daughter) and encloses us in the royal robe (the restored innocence of our baptism), calls his servants to kill the fatted calf and prepare a banquet (the Eucharist), and invites all the saints to join in the celebration: “because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (Lk 15:32). What Julian is describing here is not only the parable of the prodigal son, but also the never-ending story of the exorbitant love of the prodigal Father.
And then our courteous lord shows himself to the soul merrily and with the happiest possible expression, with friendly welcoming, as if it had been in pain and in prison, saying thus: “My dear darling, I am glad that thou art come to me. In all thy woe I have ever been with thee, and now see for yourself my love, and let us be oned in bliss.” Thus are sins forgiven by grace and mercy, and our soul honorably received in joy, exactly as it shall be when it comes into heaven, as often as it comes back to God by the gracious working of the holy ghost and the power of Christ’s passion.
In contemplating Christ’s mercy and grace in never leaving us alone, even in our sin and suffering, Julian understands how “all manner of thing” is already being prepared for us in heaven, “by the great goodness of God.” This is so true that, whenever we feel ourselves “in peace and in charity, we are truly safe.” And we are, by implication, already saved.
Julian reports exceptionally intimate terms in this passage, such as “My dear darling” and let us “be oned in bliss,” more often employed between earthly lovers than between the sinful soul and God. She remembers the depth of personal feeling Christ showed her as he conveyed this Revelation about sin. He was not only joyous, friendly, welcoming; he was also deeply loving and all-embracing. His ardent desire for unity is that of a lover for the beloved, not in a sexual sense, but in that of complete spiritual oneing. Just hearing words like these spoken by Christ in one’s heart would be enough to convince the soul of his unconditional love.
During this time of global pandemic, fear, anxiety, and isolation, let us open our hearts to the Lord who longs to forgive, heal, reassure, and comfort us so tenderly. Let us trust “mightily” (as Julian would say) that nothing can separate us from the loving care of God—not sickness, sadness, or the loss of those we love. On the contrary, Christ is completely “in with us” in all our suffering, constantly strengthening us to bear our cross. All he asks is that we turn to him and ask for help. Then he will embrace us and tell us: “My dear darling, I am glad that thou art come to me. In all thy woe I have ever been with thee, and now see for yourself my love, and let us be oned in bliss.”
May Julian bless you abundantly on this, her very special day! And please join us in making “A Virtual Retreat with Julian of Norwich”—in the Life, Love, & Light podcasts: https://lifelovelight.buzzsprout.com/
Note: Quotations and excerpts above are from Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Orbis Books, 2013). Copyright © by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved.
I want to wish you all the blessings of Easter hope, and joy, and peace even -- and most especially -- in this time of coronavirus. We may feel isolated from our loved ones, unable to attend church liturgies in person, and anxious about health, loss of jobs and income, and the difficulty of getting food. But in spite of our fears, we venture in our hearts with the women to the tomb and find it empty of death. We hear the words: "He is not here; he has risen!" The fact that Christ is risen means that all our sufferings, all our mourning and weeping, all our deaths are not the whole story. There is always the reality that Christ is alive within us, working through every circumstance in our lives to bring us closer to himself and into his own eternal glory. Christ's resurrection is our certainty that our ultimate destination is eternal life, not death.
As many of you know, Julian of Norwich experienced Revelations of the great sufferings of Christ on the cross. Then, in a moment of transformation, Christ’s face changed from suffering to exquisite joy. Julian became “completely merrie” as she calls it; giddy with elation! Then Christ spoke to her: “Art thou well satisfied that I suffered for thee? . . . It is a joy, a bliss, an endless delight to me that ever I suffered my passion for thee. And if I might suffer more, I would suffer more.” Do we ever think about how much Christ wanted to suffer for us?
As a young girl, Julian of Norwich had sought the “mind of the passion,” by which she meant a deeper compassion in her own mind and heart for Christ’s sufferings and death. She had never expected to hear Christ reveal to her his own mind about why he suffered. From this locution, she became acutely aware that he endured his passion to convince her of his love and of his great compassion for her sufferings. The realization is heart-stopping. What Julian is telling her readers is that everything we suffer is not a loss, not pointless, and will never be forgotten by Christ. He considers our trials and agonies as part of his own. He took them on, even as he took on our flesh and blood. Christ’s suffering became, in a very real sense, his initiation into what human beings endure. And Julian understood that because of Christ’s stupendous sacrifice on the cross, every physical pain, every emotional loss, every spiritual torture, whether small or great, becomes part of the process of our salvation.
In fact, the only existential “mind of the passion” that we can have is through our personal sufferings. Our pain-filled lives, even more than our meditations on the passion, are our truest union with Christ on the cross. And Christ, by suffering within us and for us, radically changes the very meaning of human suffering from incomprehensible tragedy to transformation in glory.
By asking, “Art thou well satisfied that I suffered for thee?” Christ was forcing Julian to examine how completely she accepted his sacrifice on the cross. He was saying to her, in effect: “Are you finally convinced that I loved you this much?” It took Julian years to fully appreciate the magnitude of Christ’s gift and the depth of his compassion, much less to be able to accept it with all her heart.
During this Easter season, let us meditate on how much Christ longs to show us his love. Allow him to reassure us that all our sufferings, like his own, will be turned into joy. Perhaps that will give us courage to endure this pandemic with a measure of patience and foresight. We might even be able to give thanks in advance for the great work of salvation that the Lord is accomplishing in us all. Happy Easter!
Note: Quotations above are from Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Orbis Books). Copyright © 2013 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved.
It is one week before Good Friday. Let us take time to reflect on the description that Julian of Norwich records of Christ’s sufferings on the cross, as seen in her Revelations. These are without parallel in medieval literature—or any literature for that matter. In the Second Revelation, Julian writes:
And after this, I saw with bodily sight in the face of the crucifix that hung before me, in which I beheld continually a part of his passion: contempt, spitting, soiling, and buffeting, and many exhausting pains, more than I can tell, and often changing of color.
Again in the Fourth Revelation, Julian describes:
And after this I saw, beholding the body plenteously bleeding in semblance of the scourging, as thus: the fair skin was broken very deep into the tender flesh, with sharp smitings all about the sweet body. The hot blood ran out so plenteously that there was neither skin nor wound, but as it were all blood. And when it came to where it should have fallen down, there it vanished.
Julian envisions the outpouring of Christ’s blood on the cross as “plenteous” and “precious,” because it is the boundless blood of the Son of God. It is also “our own nature” because it is very human blood, just like ours. And as precious as it is, so is it plenteous, sufficient to cleanse every and all sin, if only humankind will allow itself to be purified by it.
Behold and see the virtue of this precious plenty of his dearworthy blood! It descended down into hell and burst their bonds and delivered them, all who were there who belong to the court of heaven. The precious plenty of his dearworthy blood overflows all the earth, and is ready to wash all creatures of sinne who are of good will, have been, and shall be. The precious plenty of his dearworthy blood ascends up into heaven in the blessed body of our lord Jesus Christ, and there is in him, bleeding, praying for us to the father, and is and shall be as long as we need.
In the Seventh Revelation, Julian records Christ’s final agony: After this, Christ showed a part of his passion near his dying. I saw the sweet face as it were dry and bloodless with pale dying; and afterward more deadly pale, weakening; and then [it] turned more deadly into blue; and afterward more brown blue, as the flesh turned more deeply dead. For his passion showed to me most explicitly in his blessed face, and especially in his lips, there I saw these four colors—those lips that were before fresh and ruddy, lively and pleasing to my sight. This was a terrible change, to see this deep dying. And also the nose withered together and dried, to my sight, and the sweet body waxed brown and black, all changed and turned out from the fair, fresh, and lively color of himself into dry dying.
The greater Christ’s dehydration, the more acute his suffering became. Drying was, in Julian’s eyes, the source of his unquenchable thirst, both physical and spiritual. . . . As gruesome as Julian’s depiction of Christ’s physical sufferings may seem to us, it is still not as detailed as that offered by modern doctors and medical examiners who have studied the physical process of death by crucifixion. These experts provide a long list of the tortures and affronts to Christ’s body, which I recount in Julian’s Gospel.
In the Eighth Revelation, Julian is led into a realistic vision of the terrible dying of Jesus Christ. And thus I saw our Lord Jesus growing weaker a long time. For the oneing with the godhead gave strength to the manhood for love to suffer more than all men might suffer. . . . No tongue may tell, or heart fully think, the pains that our savior suffered for us, taking into account the worthiness of the highest, worshipful king and the shameful, pitiless and painful death. For he that is highest and worthiest was fullest noughted and most utterly despised.
Julian fully expects to see Jesus die on the cross in front of her:
And I looked for the departing of life with all my might and expected to have seen the body completely dead. But I saw him not so. And just in that same time that it seemed to me, by all appearances, that his life might no longer last, and the showing of the end must needs be near--suddenly, as I beheld the same cross, his face changed into a joyful expression. The changing of his blissful countenance changed mine, and I was as glad and merry as it was possible to be. Then our Lord brought this merrily to mind: “Where is now any point of thy pain or of thy grief?” And I was completely merry.
Julian waited and waited, but Christ did not die as in the gospels . . . Instead, as Julian looked steadily into the cross, Christ’s face was transformed before her eyes. His countenance looked so exquisitely joyful that it caused Julian’s own expression to change. Suddenly, she became “glad and merry,” implying happy, cheerful, ebullient, almost giddy . . . as if she had never had a pain in the world. And the locution that spoke within her mind in that moment was equally startling: “Where is now any point of thy pain or of thy grief?”
In that instant, Julian experienced the radical changeability of even the worst suffering. . . . Historically, we know Christ did not escape death. He really “bowed his head and gave up his spirit” on the cross (Jn 19:30). His side was really pierced with a soldier’s lance (Jn 19:34). He really was taken down from the cross and wrapped “in a linen cloth”; his body really was laid “in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid” (Lk 23:53, Mk 15:46).
However, Julian’s unique gospel account of Christ’s passion and sudden transformation is based on a lifelike vision happening before her eyes. Moment by moment, her mind has been inspired by grace to experience the sensory images, the words, the vivid impressions, the intellectual understanding, and the emotional reactions. Like the images we project and perceive every moment of our lives, none of these mental images is absolute and unchanging. Therefore, every situation, every emotion, can (and does) change eventually. For Julian, in a mysterious and wonderful way, the image changed in an instant.
In this astounding transformation, Julian’s mind leapt into eternity. . . . It was as if Julian herself had died, letting go of all her assumptions about earthly reality and the inevitability of death. Her mind was privileged to glimpse the glory of Christ’s reality in the bliss of heaven, where sorrow and suffering do not exist.
I understood that we are now, in our lord’s intention, on his cross with him in our pains and in our passion, dying. And we, willfully abiding on the same cross, with his help and his grace, into the last point, suddenly he shall change his countenance toward us, and we shall be with him in heaven. Between that one [the pain on the cross] and that other [being in heaven] shall all be one time, and then shall all be brought into joy. And this is what he meant in this showing: “Where is now any point of thy pain or of thy grief?” And we shall be fully blessed.
As we accompany Christ during Holy Week—"in our pains and in our passion, dying” during this agonizing time of pandemic—let us take heart that the cross of Good Friday always leads to the empty tomb of Easter Sunday. And every form of dying—no matter how fearful it may seem to us right now—prepares us for the certain joy of resurrected life that nothing can ever take away. Like Julian, may our Good Friday “mourning” be turned “into dancing” (Ps 30:11) as we become “glad and merry” with Easter gratitude!
PLEASE NOTE: Excerpts quoted above are from Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Orbis Books). Copyright © 2013, by Veronica Mary Rolf.
The world is full of fear. The unseen coronavirus is not only affecting our bodies, but stirring up the dreaded virus of fear and panic within our minds. The disease has “gone viral” in unexpected ways. Many of us are forced to work from home, cut off from coworkers and social contacts. Students are taking their classes online and forbidden to play sports with their friends. We are prevented from attending churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques for fear of contamination. We can’t go to the movies, theatre, concerts, sports events, museums, libraries, even stores. We are warned to stay six feet away from another person. Not to hug, kiss, or shake hands. We are advised to self-quarantine, even if we don’t feel sick or haven’t been near anyone who might be sick. We feel isolated, anxious, perhaps even frustrated at our own helplessness.
What would Julian of Norwich say about all this? She would look at us with great compassion as we pour out our concerns. She would tell us that she thoroughly understands. During the four deadly outbreaks of plague in her own fourteenth century, Julian witnessed inconceivable suffering, unspeakable loss. She knows the fear. The anxiety. The daily threat of infection and sickness; the possibility of death. And yet . . . she chose to turn her own suffering and loss into prayer; her own sense of isolation and frustration into an ever deepening relationship with her Lord and her fellow human beings. When she was granted an extraordinary vision of Christ’s passion on the cross, Julian sought refuge to all her questions, doubts, and fears:
“I cried inwardly with all my might, seeking into God for help, meaning thus: ‘Ah, lord Jesus, king of bliss, how shall I be eased? Who shall tell me and teach me what I need to know, if I may not at this time see it in thee?’”
In answer, she was shown a short, vivid, parable of a lord who had a servant who is sent out and rushed to do his Lord’s will out of great love. Then he falls headlong into a ditch. He suffers “very great soreness,” perhaps injuring his legs, his arms, his back, his head. He groans and moans and wallows in the muddy ditch, writhing in pain. And because he is in such agony, he cannot rise up and get out of the narrow confinement. He is incapable of extricating himself from his position.
He experiences seven great pains. The first was the severe physical bruising he suffered from the actual fall, which caused him great injury all over his body. The second was the sheer heaviness and clumsiness of his body lying in the ditch, as if dead, unable to escape from the mud and stench and offal. The third was the terrible weakness, both physical and emotional, that followed on these two. The fourth was that he became so confused and blind in his reasoning powers and so stunned in his thinking, that he had “almost,” writes Julian, “forgotten his own love” for his lord. The fifth was that he was unable to rise from his pit of agony. The sixth was the most excruciating pain of all: that he was convinced he lay in this pitiful condition all alone, with no one to come to his aid and to comfort him. Julian looks all around the scene as it appears in her imagination and cannot find anyone to help him, neither “far nor near, neither high nor low.” The seventh pain was that the ditch in which he lay “was a long, hard, and grievous” place in which to be trapped. The ditch was so tight and narrow that he could not budge. It was a terrible confinement.
Julian’s reaction to this painful drama was to marvel at the servant’s “meekness” and patience in suffering so much woe. She looked carefully at the scene, trying to discover if she could detect in the servant “any defect, or if the lord could assign to him any manner of blame.” She wanted to know if he was guilty of some dire fault that had precipitated his fall. What could it be? But she could discover none at all.
"For only his good will and his great desire were the cause of his falling. And he was as unhateful and as good inwardly as he was when he stood before his lord, ready to do his will. And rightly thus continually did his loving lord very tenderly behold him, and now with a double expression."
Julian’s understanding was led deeper, into a more spiritual perception of the lord’s facial expression. And there she saw the lord “highly enjoy” the honorable and reverential restoring to which “he will and must bring his servant by his plenteous grace.” She further understood that she had to hold both levels of meaning, the outward and the inward, in her mind at the same time.
"Then said this courteous lord, meaning: 'Lo, my beloved servant, what harm and trouble he hath had and taken in my service for my love—yea, and out of his good will! Is it not reasonable that I reward him for his fright and his dread, his hurt and his maiming, and all his woe? And not only this, but is it not my responsibility to give him a gift that is better for him and more honorable than his own health should have been? Otherwise, it seems to me I did him no honor.'”
Julian acknowledges that with these words, “an inward ghostly showing of the lord’s meaning” descended into her soul. She understood that yes, because of the lord’s great goodness and his own high stature, “his dearworthy servant, whom he loved so much, should be highly and blissfully rewarded without end, above that which he should have been if he had not fallen.” And his falling and all the woe he suffered would be turned into “high, transcendent honor and endless bliss.” It simply had to be so.
It took Julian twenty years to fully decipher the puzzle of the parable. It was only when she realized that Christ was indeed the Servant who ran from heaven to earth to do his Father’s will, then fell into the deadly ditch of suffering on the cross, and lay in the narrow confinement of the tomb, that it became clear to her: Jesus himself is in the ditch of suffering along with us! He knows every fear, every worry, every pain – precisely because he, too, experienced it.
When God looks at us, God sees his own Son, the Suffering Servant (Is 53:1–12), and will stop at nothing to pull us out of the ditch of our pain in order to bring us into eternal peace and joy. Julian realized from the parable that we are God’s most precious creatures. And, like Christ, we merit eternal bliss. God eternally anticipates the good ending of our life story. For God, it is only the beginning.
So even as we endure our fears and sufferings right now, let us embrace the golden opportunity to set aside some of our “self-quarantine time” at home—20-30 minutes morning and night—to sit quietly in meditation, gently breathing in the Lord’s loving presence and breathing out divine love to heal and comfort the world. If we do so, we will transcend “social distancing” and discover a “spiritual intimacy” that is beyond any we have ever experienced. And we will feel we are truly able to help our loved ones as well as those around the globe for whom we feel such compassion. Like Julian, we will see that sitting in silence and stillness to behold the divine dimension at work especially in this time of crisis, will allay our own fears . . . and give profound meaning to whatever we must undergo. “Alle shalle be wele” precisely because God is love.
PLEASE NOTE: Excerpts above are from Julian's Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Orbis Books), Copyright © 2013 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved.
At the beginning of her account of the Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich explains that she already had some feeling for the passion of Christ, but she wanted to experience more, “by the grace of God.” She longed to be like Mary Magdalene and the other women whom she described as “Christ’s lovers,” standing at the foot of the cross, so that she “could have seen bodily the passion that our lord suffered for me, that I might have suffered with him as others did that loved him.”
And therefore I desired a bodily sight, wherein I might have more knowing [greater understanding] of the bodily pains of our savior, and of the compassion of our lady [Christ’s mother] and of all his true lovers that were living at that time and saw his pains. For I would have been one of them and have suffered with them.
Surely Julian did not make such a request because she thought she deserved a vision for being devout. She was quick to add that she never asked for another shewing (her word for a visionary experience) until she would see God at her death, for she believed firmly she would be saved by God’s mercy. She simply wanted to have a physical sight of Christ on the cross in order to share his sufferings more intimately and to love him more deeply. She was convinced that after such a bodily vision she would have a truer understanding of and sympathy for all that the Lord had endured for our sins. This was “the mind of the passion” Julian longed for: to undergo in some measure what Mary Magdalene and the other “true lovers” of Christ saw, heard, and felt at the crucifixion. In other words, like so many of us, she didn’t just want theoretical knowledge; she craved real experience. . . .
In Julian’s fourteenth century, meditation manuals proliferated, not only for parish priests and cloistered nuns and monks, but also for the laity. They urged the faithful to enter deeply into the scenes of Christ’s passion and death through imagination and recollection. . . . All these manuals were designed to arouse in the soul a deep repentance for sin, a profound identification with the sufferings of Christ on the cross, and a burning desire to devote one’s life to God. . . . As a result of this practice of “affective devotion” every true Christian, like the early martyrs, was supposed to be ready to suffer anything and everything in imitation of Christ—even death.
Meditating on Julian’s Revelations of her visions and locutions from Christ on the cross is a grace-filled way to enter into the sufferings of Jesus during this Lenten season. With Julian, we, too, might ask for “the mind of Christ” in order to understand what he suffered for us and why he did it. Then we may receive the extraordinary understanding that Jesus gave to Julian:
“It is a joy, a bliss, an endless liking to me that ever I suffered my passion for thee. And if I might suffer more, I would suffer more.”
Think of it! Jesus loves us so much that he was willing to suffer even more for us than he did on the cross. Like a mother who is willing to suffer anything for her child, Christ our Mother wants us to know he will do anything to free us from our self-destructive mental patterns, our deliberate misdeeds, our human tendency to self-loathing, depression, even despair, and our lack of trust in divine love! Christ on the cross longs to help us carry our own crosses in loving union with him, if only we are willing to be still and silent enough to experience the depths of his love in the practice of meditation. Can we not commit to spending quiet time every single day during this Lenten season to contemplate what Christ endured for our salvation? And to thank him for loving us so much? What a Lenten resolution that would be!
PLEASE NOTE: Excerpts above are from "An Explorer’s Guide to Julian of Norwich" (InterVarsity Academic Press, 2018). Copyright © 2018 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved.
Across six centuries, the voice of Julian of Norwich speaks to us about love. She communicates personally, as if she were very much with us here and now. Even more than theological explanations, we all hunger for love. Our hearts yearn for someone we can trust absolutely—divine love that can never fail. Julian reveals this love because, like Mary Magdalene, she experienced it firsthand. Julian tells us about her mystical visions of Christ’s love on the cross and how that love totally transformed her life. Unlike other medieval mystics (who may appear sometimes too extreme, too ascetic, or too intellectual for our postmodern taste), Julian comes across as a flesh and blood woman, thoroughly sympathetic to our human condition. And in heartfelt terms she expresses her profound awareness of God who became human like us, suffered, died, and was transformed into glory.
Why is Julian so appealing today? I think because she is totally vulnerable and transparently honest, without any guile. She is “homely”; in medieval terms, that means down-to-earth, familiar, and easily accessible. She is keenly aware of her spiritual brokenness and longs to be healed. So do we. She experiences great suffering of body, mind, and soul. So do we. She has moments of doubt. So do we. She seeks answers to age-old questions. So do we. Then, at a critical turning point in her revelations, she is overwhelmed by joy and “gramercy” (great thanks) for the graces she is receiving. We, too, are suddenly granted graces and filled to overflowing with gratitude. Sometimes, we even experience our own divine revelations.
Again and again, Julian reassures each one of us that we are loved by God, unconditionally. In her writings, we hear Christ telling us, just as he told Julian: “I love you and you love me, and our love shall never be separated in two” (58:13-14.307). Indeed, Julian’s teachings have greatly endeared her to Christians and non-Christians alike. Everyone can relate to her as a spiritual mentor because we sense that, even though she lived and wrote six hundred years ago, Julian the mystic, the seeker, and the theologian is very much “a woman for all seasons.” Julian’s voice of prophetic hope, speaking to us from the fourteenth century, is one that we in the twenty-first century desperately need to hear.
As we approach St. Valentine's Day and hear a wide range of talk about human love, let us turn to Julian's Revelations to learn about unconditional divine love. Then we may begin to fathom what real love is all about.
PLEASE NOTE: The excerpt above is from "An Explorer’s Guide to Julian of Norwich" (InterVarsity Academic Press, 2018). Copyright © 2018 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved.
Some of you may wonder about the connection between my two books on Julian of Norwich and my newest book, Suddenly There is God: the Story of Our Lives in Sacred Scripture" (Cascade Books, 2019). I offer an excerpt from Julian's own teachings as a partial explanation of the intimate relationship I see between Julian's Revelations, sacred Scripture, and beholding God's appearances -- both in contemplative prayer and in life -- Suddenly!
In her Second Revelation, Julian of Norwich teaches us that God wants to be seen in every circumstance. The more difficult the circumstance, the more crucial it becomes that we seek his presence within it. God wants to be sought so that our hearts remain open and receptive to divine help. God wants to be waited for in patience and in hope. Most of all, God wants to be trusted. Julian understands that the continual seeking of the soul is very pleasing to God, and the “finding of God” fills the soul with incomparable joy.
For [the soul] may do no more than seek, suffer, and trust. . . . The seeking with faith, hope and charity pleases our lord, and the finding pleases the soul, and fulfills it with joy.
Where is God in Suffering?
However, you may object: It is one thing to “seek” God in every love, happiness, creative work, achievement, and birth. But how are we supposed to “seek” God in every disappointment, betrayal, illness, tragedy, or death? At such times, the soul feels completely alone and abandoned. Our faith becomes sorely tested. Where is God in suffering? Yet Julian is insistent that we must continue to seek God and walk by faith through the longest days and darkest nights. She assures us that even though we may think our faith is “but little” and fragile, nevertheless through the daily practice of believing in God’s abiding presence, we will gain great grace to endure the tough times. Julian considers this blind “seeking” of God every bit as necessary as enlightened “seeing.” She is certain that, eventually, God will reveal himself and teach the soul how to experience the deep comfort of divine presence in contemplation. This “beholding” is the highest honor and reverence human beings can give to God, and is extremely profitable to all souls, producing the greatest humility and virtue, “with the grace and leading of the holy ghost.”
For a soul that fastens itself only onto God with great trust, either in seeking or in beholding, it is the most worship that that soul may do, as to my sight.
Julian understands two kinds of divine werking from this revelation: seeking and beholding. Both are gifts of God. Seeking is what is given to all of us to do, through the teachings of holy church. Beholding (or mystical contemplation), on the other hand, is given more rarely, directly by God. Julian further defines three ways of seeking. First, we must seek willfully and faithfully, without growing lazy in our efforts. We must seek “gladly and merrily, without unskillful heaviness and vain sorrow,” because these are self-indulgent moods that can undermine the spiritual life. Here Julian gives us a subtle indication of her own personal struggles against spiritual lethargy and depression. Second, the true seeker abides in God steadfastly, without "grumbling and striving against him." This is a wonderfully apt description of the complaints and disobedience that obstruct the flow of grace. The third way of seeking is that “we trust in [God] mightily, with full, seker faith.” Julian is certain that these three ways of seeking will bear abundant fruit in beholding. Then God will suddenly reveal his presence when the soul is least expecting it.
For it is his will that we know that he shall appear suddenly and blissfully to all his lovers. For his werking is private, and he wants to be perceived, and his appearing shall be very sudden. And he wants to be believed, for he is very pleasant, homely, and courteous. Blessed may he be!
What Would It Mean?
What difference would it make in our lives if we really sought Jesus within all our experiences? Not just the joyous ones, but the suffering ones, too. Even if people reject us and hurt us, even if events in our lives are painful—what if we chose to trust that the Divine Master is working from deep within the suffering in order to transform it? What if we dared to believe, like Julian, that our fastening onto God with seker trust, “whether in seeking or in beholding,” gives God the greatest possible worship? Would it not make all the difference in how we deal with our problems? Would it not give meaning to our suffering? And might it not change our mental attitude from that of “victim” to a “loving companion” of Christ on the cross?
PLEASE NOTE: The excerpts above are from An Explorer’s Guide to Julian of Norwich (InterVarsity Academic Press, 2018). Copyright © 2018 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. This article may not be copied or reprinted without the express permission of the author.
Suddenly There is God": The Story of Our Lives in Sacred Scripture (Cascade Books Imprint, 2019) is available from the publisher, Wipf and Stock: https://wipfandstock.com/suddenly-there-is-god.html
Also at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/153267449X?pf_rd_p=ab873d20-a0ca-439b-ac45-cd78f07a84d8&pf_rd_r=T0ASTV6SSNT5Z40YE98T
In the First Revelation, as Julian of Norwich beheld Christ on the cross, she also longed to see Mary, his mother. But by her own accounting, she did not Mary “in the flesh” as she saw Christ, but rather “ghostly, in bodily likeness.” This implies that Julian saw Mary appear suddenly and distinctly in her imagination, without any effort on Julian’s part to conjure her. Julian was granted a glimpse into the beauty of Mary’s soul and the holy awe in which she contemplated God:
God showed me in part the wisdom and truth of her soul, wherein I understood the reverent beholding in which she beheld her God, that is, her maker, marveling with great reverence that he would be born of her who was a simple creature of his making. For this was her marveling: that he who was her maker would be born of her who was made. And this wisdom and truth, knowing the greatness of her maker and the littleness of herself that is made, made her say so meekly to Gabriel: “Lo me here, God’s handmaiden.”
In this meditation, Julian is keenly aware that Mary was, like herself, “a simple creature,” uneducated, and without any earthly nobility. Yet Julian understood truly that Mary was more worthy than all other creatures God had ever made, because she was conceived without sin. All other creatures are therefore below her. And above her is “nothing that is made but the blessed manhood of Christ, as to my sight.”
This Christmas season, let us take time away from the hustle and bustle to enter into the stable – the silent stability of daily meditation – to join with Mary and Joseph, in “reverent beholding” of God in the flesh of a newborn baby. May we be graced to see that Christ is breaking through the darkness to reveal Divine Reality that is always and everywhere at work – even and perhaps especially when we cannot see or feel it. Christ is our Light who transforms the meaning of everything from sadness to serenity, from fear to courage, from helplessness to hope.
Let us open wide the manger of our hearts to receive this newborn God-Child, knowing the greatness of our maker and the littleness of ourselves. May we also “marvel with great reverence” that the little Lord Jesus is being born anew "of us" this very day through our own love and compassion, mercy and kindness, laughter and friendship. And may this be our marveling: that he who is our Maker is born of we who are made! And in this "wisdom and truth" may we always be ready to say: “Lo, me here, God’s servant” in whatever life situation we find ourselves. Then our Christmas will itself become a light to help dispel the despair of our discordant world.
PLEASE NOTE: Excerpts above are from Julian's Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Orbis Books), Copyright © 2013 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. This article may not be copied or reprinted without the express permission of the author.
I Am the Ground
In the Fourteenth Revelation, Julian tells us what the Lord told her about prayer:
“I am the ground of thy beseeching. First it is my will that thou have it, and next I make thee to will it, and next I make thee to beseech it—and thou beseechest it! How should it then be that thou shouldst not have thy beseeching?”
In an astounding moment, the Lord completely inverts the idea that prayer is initiated in any way by Julian (or us!) with the Revelation that it is entirely his own idea. He identifies himself as the instigator and basis of all prayer. First, in his great goodness, Christ wills to give her some grace, then he makes her conscious of the desire for it. Next, he inspires her and gives her the desire to enter into prayer in order to beseech it. And then, she actually does beseech it in her prayer. Finally, Christ asks Julian the all important rhetorical question: “How could it then be that you would not receive what you were beseeching me for?” (since it was Christ himself who conceived the grace he wanted to give Julian in the first place!). Of course, this Revelation assumes that what Julian will be led to pray for will be to her most immediate benefit, as well as her eternal salvation, and will bring the greatest blessings upon those for whom she prays.
Julian became convinced that when we pray it is in response to God’s desire to grant what we most urgently need. Our prayers of beseeching do not cause graces and gifts to come to us from God. It is God’s own goodness, the ground of all that is, that initiates every good thing he ever chooses to give us. He is ready to give before we
Prayer of Thanksgiving
In addition to petitionary prayer, Julian stresses the prayer of thanksgiving. This is “a true, inward knowing,” whereby we dedicate all our energies to the good work that the Lord directs us to do, “rejoicing and thanking inwardly.” Julian reveals that sometimes this prayer of thanksgiving is so overwhelming that it breaks out in full voice saying: “Good lord, grant mercy, blessed may thou be!” And at other times, when the heart feels dry and empty, or else is undergoing temptations, then prayer “is driven by reason and by grace to cry aloud to our Lord, remembering his blessed passion and his great goodness.” Either way, the strength of the Lord’s own word will enter into the soul, enliven the heart, begin a new spiritual work by means of grace, and enable the soul to pray more blissfully and to rejoice in him. “This is a very lovely thanking in his sight.”
Three Aspects of Prayer
Julian summarizes three aspects that should determine our understanding of prayer. The first, as already mentioned, is to know from whom and how our prayer originates. Christ made clear that he is the instigator of prayer when he said, “I am the ground.” And he revealed how prayer develops because of his goodness when he said, “First, it is my will that thou have it.” The second aspect concerns the manner in which we say our prayers. Our will should always be turned entirely toward the will of the Lord, not in fear but in great enjoyment. Christ clarified this for Julian when he said: “I make thee to will it.” And the third aspect focuses on the fruit and goal of our prayer, which is “to be oned with and like our lord in everything.” “And to this meaning and for this end was all this lovely lesson shown. And he will help us, and he shall make it so, as he says himself. Blessed might he be!”
Additionally, Julian suggests that both our prayer and our trust should be equally “large,” which in Middle English implies generous and ample, even ambitious. “For if we do not trust as much as we pray, we do not give the fullest worship to our lord in our prayer, and also we hinder and trouble ourselves.” Julian considers that the reason we become hesitant and lacking in trust is that we think the impetus to pray is coming from ourselves instead of from Christ. If we were absolutely certain that Christ is the “ground in whom our prayer springs” and that prayer is itself “given to us by grace of his love,” then we would naturally trust that we would have “all that we desire.”
This Thanksgiving Day (and every day) let us have confidence that the deepest desires of our heart really do arise from “the ground” of our being. And that it is Christ himself prompting us to pray for them, preparing us to receive them, and encouraging us to trust “mightily” that he desires to fill our hearts to overflowing. And let us “give thanks-in-advance” for all that the Lord is accomplishing in and through us, though we know not how. Happy Thanksgiving to all!
PLEASE NOTE: Excerpts above are from Julian's Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Orbis Books), Copyright © 2013 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. This article may not be copied or reprinted without the express permission of the author.
All text copyrighted © 2013-2018 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. No copying or reprints allowed without the express permission of the Author.