In the First Revelation, Julian of Norwich writes that Christ brought “our lady Saint Mary” to her understanding in a ghostly “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. Mary appeared young, not much older than a child, small and meek and in the position of prayer that she had taken at the time of her conception of the Savior. (It was a common medieval belief that at the annunciation, Mary was fifteen years old.) Julian was granted a glimpse into the beauty of Mary’s soul and the holy awe in which she contemplated God:
Also 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 became keenly aware that Mary was, like herself, “a simple creature,” uneducated, and without any earthly nobility. Yet Julian understood truly that Mary is more worthy than all other creatures God has 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.”
Later in the First Revelation, Julian writes about the Lord’s desire that we (like Mary) come to him in prayer “nakedly, plainly, and homely”; that is, without any attachments, self-justifications, or artifice. Simply like being “at home” with the one we love most:
For truly our lover desires that the soul cleave to him with all its might, and that we be evermore cleaving to his goodness. For of all things that the heart may think, it pleases God the most, and soonest benefits us. For our soul is so preciously loved by him that is highest, that it overpasses [transcends] the knowing of all creatures: that is to say, there is no creature that is made that may know how much and how sweetly and how tenderly our maker loves us. And therefore we may, with his grace and his help, stand in spiritual beholding, with everlasting marveling in this high, overpassing, unmeasurable love that our lord has for us because of his goodness. And therefore we may ask of our lover, with reverence, all that we will. For our natural will is to have God, and the good will of God is to have us, and we may never cease from willing nor from loving till we have him in fullness of joy. And then we will no more will. For he wills that we be occupied in knowing and loving till the time comes that we shall be fulfilled in heaven.
Thus in this First Revelation, Julian already declares what she will realize fully only in the last chapter: the “lesson of love” that all the following Revelations will show: “For of all things, the beholding and the loving of the creator makes the soul seem least in his own sight, and fills it most with reverent awe and true humility, and with plenty of charity for its evencristens.”
This insight becomes the essence of what Julian calls noughting or the forgetfulness-of-self for the sake of becoming one with Christ. When the soul learns to rest in adoration and love of the goodness of God, it does not need to perform any drastic self-mortifications to make itself feel small, humble, and insignificant. It is so overwhelmed with reverence and humility at the disparity between Creator and creature and, at the same time, so filled with an awareness of God’s stupendous love that the soul actually rejoices in its own littleness that makes it so utterly dependent on God.
Julian declares that the spiritual vision of Saint Mary was the best teaching she had on this point. Mary’s high wisdom in contemplating God, “so great, so high, so mighty and so good,” filled her with deep and “reverent awe.” Even Mary, the Mother of God, conceived without sin, saw herself “so little and so low, so simple and so poor in comparison with her God, that this reverent dread filled her with meekness.” Therefore, she was made full of grace beyond any other creature. It is her very “littleness” that makes her irresistible to God.
So let us come to the newborn Jesus “nakedly, plainly, and homely” this Christmas—like the shepherds—with nothing to offer except our love and “reverent beholding.” Let us kneel in the straw beside Mary and Joseph and place all our fears, sufferings, and losses of this past year into the manger. He who creates the universe has broken open heaven and come down, as Julian wrote, “to the lowest level of our need.” He who encloses us in divine love wants to be held when he cries and comforted by us. He who is born poor and outcast longs for us to shelter him in the cave of our hearts. Then he who is utterly helpless will become our deepest and most profound strength.
I wish you all a loving, contemplative Christmas and a New Year filled with the peace and joy that only Christ can give.
NOTE: Excerpts above and translations from the Middle English are from my book, Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Orbis Books. 2013). Copyright © 2013 by Veronica Mary Rolf
All text copyrighted © 2013-2018 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. No copying or reprints allowed without the express permission of the Author.