Near the beginning of her Revelations, Julian tells us that in her youth, she had “some measure of feeling for the passion of Christ.” Yet she was convinced that her ability to enter into the Lord’s sufferings on Calvary did not go deep enough. She wanted to feel more, to suffer more, in order to have a truer understanding of what Christ underwent to save the world from sin. She hoped that if she received a vision, the reality of Christ’s “bodily pains” would become so physical, so visceral, so immediate that she could experience them as fully as if she had been standing in front of Christ on the cross, next to Mary, his Mother, and Magdalene, and the “others who were Christ’s lovers.” She wanted to be a living figure in the scene of the crucifixion.
Her prayer was granted. After first seeing Christ come alive on the crucifix that hung before her, she was given a bodily sight of part of his passion. The gruesome experience became so intense that Julian admitted she could not describe the many impressions it had on her. She simply attested that she saw this sight of the passion “bodily, sorrowfully, and obscurely.”
Deep Drying and Deep Dying
“I saw the sweet face as it were dry and bloodless with pale dying; and afterward more deadly pale, languishing; 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.”
Julian watches Christ suffer and expire in front of her, as she had watched loved ones die in wave after wave of the Great Pestilence. She knows the shriveling of the nose, of the whole body, the progression of color from the blue of deep bruising to brown and thence to black, as the bodily fluids dried up, the blood clotted and ceased to flow. There is more, much more:
“For in that same time that our blessed savior died upon the rood [cross], it was a dry, bitter wind, wondrous cold as to my sight. And at the time all the precious blood was bled out of the sweet body that might pass therefrom, yet there dwelled a moisture in the sweet flesh of Christ, as it was shown. Bloodlessness and pain dried from within, and the blowing of the wind and cold coming from without, met together in the sweet body of Christ. And these four, two without and two within, dried the flesh of Christ over the course of time. And though this pain was bitter and sharp, yet it was very long-lasting, as to my sight. And the pain dried up all the lively spirits of Christ’s flesh.”
In Julian’s vivid personal experience of the crucifixion, she felt the wind blow frigid, as if blasting from the North Sea, across the broad waters and into Norwich. Julian knew the biting saltiness and searing coldness of that unrelenting wind, and it seemed to be howling that day on Calvary. The wind and the bitter cold are nowhere documented in the gospels, nor are there any details of the endless bleeding and descriptions of Christ’s great pains. In fact, the four gospel accounts do not describe his sufferings at all. This is Julian’s own gospel, told with great attention to the drying up of Christ’s face, lips, and all the life-elements of his body. She is finally and truly “there,” in the midst of the passion, as she had longed to be. And it is more dreadful than she ever could have imagined.
“And in this drying was brought to my mind this word that Christ said: ‘I thirst.’ For I saw in Christ a double thirst: one bodily, and another ghostly [spiritual]. This word was shown for bodily thirst, and for the ghostly thirst was shown as I shall say after. And I understood by the bodily thirst that the body had lack of moisture, for the blessed flesh and bones were left all alone without blood and moisture.”
Julian becomes fixated on the “drying” of Christ’s body. It reminds her of, and partially explains, the words spoken by Christ and recorded by John the Evangelist, “I am thirsty” (Jn 19:28). At this moment in Julian’s vision, as on Calvary, all the fluids in Christ’s body have dried up. He is parched, with a terrible human thirst. His tongue is stuck to the roof of his mouth, his lips are swollen, cracked and bleeding. What a pitiful cry Julian hears from the Son of God, who is himself the “fountain of living water” (Jer 2:13), the Savior who Isaiah wrote would “pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground” (Is 44:3). This is the same Lord who told the Samaritan woman at the well, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (Jn 4:10). And this is the Teacher who had cried out, saying, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink” (Jn 7:37–38). Now, he was like the psalmist, David, in the wilderness of Judah, crying out: “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” (Ps 63:1)
Julian does not spare us any aspects of what she saw in her vision. This is perhaps the most graphic account of the crucifixion in medieval literature. It is filled with details that remained indelibly imprinted in Julian’s memory as a result of her keen observation. In addition to the inexorable “drying” of the body, she describes the enlarging of the wounds in the hands due to the great sagging of the body, with hair clinging to the flesh and thorns, and the thorns mingled with flesh and hair, all caked with dried blood. She also tries to convey the drying and browning of Christ’s torn and sagging pieces of skin as “small rumpelde” (that is, slightly rumpled or wrinkled). His matted hair, his dark brown face, his body caked with dried blood, all take on the color of “a dried board when it is aged,” like the wood of the cross itself.
Julian confesses that she was at a loss to say what it was actually like to watch Christ die. She can write only that, “The showing of Christ’s pains filled me full of pains.” She knows that Christ suffered “once for all” (Heb 10:10), but she also believes Christ showed it to her “as if” she had been there, so that he could “fill me with mind [of the passion], as I had before desired.” In her Revelations, Julian experienced Christ’s agony in her own body, with true compassion for Christ on the cross. She literally suffered with him.
As we approach Holy Week, might we, like Julian, also seek the “mind of the passion”? Might we dare to "go deeper" into the reality of Good Friday? We have only to take time each day to meditate on Julian’s descriptions of the sufferings of Christ on the cross. In contemplative silence, we may stand at the foot of the cross next to Mary, his Mother, and Magdalene, and the “others who were Christ’s lovers.” With them, we may watch, and wait, and breathe in deep compassion with Christ . . . uniting all the sufferings of our tortured world and our own personal lives to his own. Thus, like Julian, we may help quench the Savior’s thirst for souls by giving him to drink from the depths of our own love.
PLEASE NOTE: The quotations above are from Julian's Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books), Copyright ©2013 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. This article may not be copied or reprinted without the written 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.