Written by Phoebe Thompson
For a very long time I thought that Julian of Norwich was a man. After all, who calls their beautiful baby daughter Julian?
When I discovered that she was not only a woman but the first woman ever to write a book in England and ALSO from Norwich, my home town (the clue was in the name really), I immediately became her biggest fan.
Julian of Norwich lived in the fourteenth century, from 1342 until 1416 or later. Very little is known about her, apart from the few facts she herself mentions in her writings. She was a recluse, vowed to a solitary, enclosed life of prayer and contemplation. She lived in a small cell on the side of St Julian's Church, Norwich (I’m guessing this was named after her, and not some glorious fluke).
She was a mystic, meaning that she spent her entire life contemplating God and seeking a greater understanding of him. In Revelations on Divine Love she notes down her most powerful visions, and at the start of the book asks God for three things:
'The first was to have recollection of Christ's Passion. The second was a bodily sickness, and the third was to have, of God's gift, three wounds'
It’s worth pausing here to consider just how bizarre these requests are. The first is that Julian desired above all else to have a bodily vision of Jesus on the cross, so that she could in some way partake in his sufferings. Rightly or wrongly, Julian believed this to be the absolute apex of religious experience, and was pretty serious about it, giving her entire life in devotion to this task. Would we confine ourselves to a small room for life, forgoing work, relationships, food, and the great outdoors simply to have a vision of Jesus?
The second ‘gift’ Julian asks for is to have a bodily sickness. Now I don’t know about you, but generally I pray against sickness, not for it. And yet so serious was Julian about identifying with the suffering of Jesus that she actually wanted to suffer so that she might be like him. Other mystics over the years have prayed for similar things; St Teresa of Avila prayed that she might be ill in order that she could contemplate on Jesus for every part of every day. This understanding of suffering, and view of suffering as a ‘gift’, feels so alien to us today. But there is something incredibly profound about the way of sacrifice modelled by Julian and others, and their resolute commitment to know Jesus above all else.
The third gift is similar: her prayer is that God might give her three wounds. For many mystics, embodying the wounds of Jesus was a sign of deep intimacy with God. To start to physically manifest the wounds of Jesus was to be near to him, to be like him. They believed that it was possible to actually bear the wounds of Jesus physically on their bodies, which, again, was the highest accolade for a Christian on earth. I think, given the option, I’d probably rather not have wounds on my body… thanks very much.
Julian never set out to be a leader. But her faith was so extraordinary, so extreme, so radical and so all-encompassing that people flocked to her in her little cell, read her books (even she was convinced that no one would read a book by a woman) and still go on pilgrimage to the little site where she lived in Norwich today. It’s her utmost devotion to Jesus that resonates through the centuries and still challenges us. She is a leader not because of what she did or the big world-change that she brought about (she lived in a cell after all) but because of her desire to know and be known by Jesus, forsaking all else.
I only hope that I might be able to pray the following, one day, with the sincerity of Julian of Norwich:
'God, of your goodness, give me yourself; you are enough for me, and anything less that I could ask for would not do you full honour. And if I ask anything that is less, I shall always lack something, but in you alone I have everything'.