Introducing… Julian of Norwich
In this occasional feature, a contemporary writer introduces a classic thinker. This month: David Cornick on Julian of Norwich
Transparency, equality and ecology are amongst the preoccupations of our time; it is because she speaks to each of them that an unknown woman of the 14th Century has become such a valued spiritual guide for our days. We call her Julian of Norwich because her anchorite’s cell was attached to the church of St Julian, right at the heart of the bustling city, not far from the docks.
In May 1373, aged 30, she hovered between death and life and was granted a series of “showings” or “revelations” of God’s love. She recovered and recorded them in the first book in English written by a woman – known as the Short Text (ST). Some have speculated that she may have been a learned nun, others that she was “unlettered”, and yet others that she was a widow who had had children. What we know is that she recovered from her illness, became an anchorite, and spent the next 20 years pondering those “showings”. She wrote those reflections down, and they make up the Long Text (LT). One of today’s most learned students of medieval thought considers LT to be one of the greatest works of medieval theology – of the same quality (if not quantity) as Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas. Together, ST and LT are better known as A Revelation of Divine Love. Just as mysteriously, once written, the book seems to have been almost forgotten until the late 19th Century, and interest in the writer was not really aroused again until the first modern edition of her work was produced in 1901.
Her “cell” had one window which opened into the church so that she could be nourished by worship, and another that opened onto the noisy street so that people could come to her seeking wisdom, counselling and prayer. There was nothing remote about her solitary life in an age ravished by the Black Death and haunted by wars and the rumour of wars – even her bishop, Henry Despenser, was handier with a sword than with a psalter…
This is an extract from the October 2014 edition of Reform.