Book Review: Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich seems to be fairly in vogue at the moment. Over the last couple of years, this work of hers seems to get mentioned more and more as a source of great inspiration. As a literary work, it stands out as being one of the earliest books we have preserved written in English by a woman. At this point, I must admit that for many years, having heard of Julian of Norwich, I had assumed that she was man as I have never come across a woman called Julian before.

Upon noting the time period and knowing a little about the book (aided greatly by the helpful introduction by A.C. Spearing) this was always going to be a book that was somewhat out of my comfort zone. Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised when I say that when it comes to views on the medieval catholic church, I am broadly in line with John Calvin and when it comes to mysticism, I take a dim view not unlike that of Karl Barth. So Julian of Norwich was never going to sit as easily on my shelf as, say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jürgen Moltmann or Alister McGrath.

One could be so minded as to approach it with a pre-emptive critical attitude, looking for errors and things to disagree with. It is a very tempting stance to adopt, nomatter what we read, whether it be in areas of religion, politics, science, history, philosophy, etc. Yet I do not think that that would be a particularly helpful approach. Maybe some of you reading this are aware that by and large, I subscribe to a reformed understanding of christianity and read this with the viewpoint, “What does this protestant think he’s doing, reviewing of the great catholic writers of the middle ages?” Maybe.

Instead, I have tried (harder perhaps than normal) to maintain an openly cautious view. That is, to always be willing to listen to what an author has to say, but not to be quite so open-minded as to accept in uncritically. One must test everything by an appropriate measure. So if I am reading science, I must assess by the empirical evidence available. If it is philosophy then I must measure against….um….I’ll have to come to that one. In matters of christianity it is to assess by its accordance with the scriptures. Test everything and hold on to what it good. So, on with the bulk of the book.

It comes divided into two parts: the shorter version and the longer version. The shorter version describes the “showings” that Julian had while she was ill. She tries to enumerate them, though as she writes they come across very much as one. When she was in the throes of illness, someone held up a crucifix in front of her face. And in her vision it became more than a statuette; it bled. She was the only one who saw it, none of the others in the room with her saw what she saw.

The longer version also recounts the showings, so there is some repetition. More than that, though, this part records Julian’s later reflections. So it is inherently more theological than the shorter part, but not ‘theological’ if we think of that term as a rigorous study of the scriptures, their linguistics and the cultures out of which they came. This is more a kind of dream interpretation, in a kind of Freudian way, if you will forgive my anachronistic analogy.

One of the points brought out in the introduction and is evident throughout is that Julian doesn’t want to be seen as sticking her neck out. So at several junctures she wants to emphasise that what she is speaking of is in accordance with the teachings of her church, that being a pre-reformation medieval catholic church. Examples of this include her advocacy of penance and salvation coming about by works that we do. There is no place for grace in her theology. It is this, possibly more than anything else, which ought to give us cause to doubt whether her vision was truly from God or if it was simply an expression of flawed catholic understanding of christianity.

One of the things that struck me was Julian’s constant used of the word blessed to describe Jesus (and sometimes Mary), with particular regards to his body, his face, his blood during the fairly grim affair his execution. I grant that it may be an issue with the translation, but it seems to me to be very odd to describe Jesus’ death as being in any way blessed. It goes quite against the grain of “cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree” and, in spite of the presence of blood in her vision, it goes someway to sanitising the cross. While it may be the means through which blessing comes, it is not, in my view, a blessed thing itself. If we heed Julian we forget that it was an instrument of death, of humiliation, of utter defeat. It is only if we take in the whole of Easter and take in the victory of the resurrection that blessing can flow. Yet Julian barely mentions the resurrection. This again, shows her sticking to the core tenets of catholicism, with its lopsided view of the Easter weekend.

It is also worth noting that Julian departs from anything that could be described as mainstream theism, as she openly advocates a form of panentheism by stating that God is in everything.

At chapter 51 (don’t worry, they’re all quite short!) the tone changes and Julian presents us with a parable: The parable of the Lord and the servant. This is ostensibly a picture simply of a person falling over. But the discussion that follows actually very closely follows a Pauline mode of thought by identifying Jesus with Adam. So while Paul saw Jesus as the new Adam through whom new creation would come, Julian takes the view that they play a similar role in the fall, only that while Adam fell and sinned, Jesus was then made to fall and become sin because of this. Therefore the two people become one, the servant, as they fall at the feet of the Lord.

After this, there comes an interesting few chapters where Julian identifies Jesus as mother. It is this, more than anything else where I think the renewed interest in her lies. For it plays very much into a 21st century conversation of gender politics, particularly those upset by historical church patriarchy and the all too frequent portrayal of God as being intrinsically male. So we are offered a much more maternal view, which fits in well with Jesus’ own description of gathering people under his wings like a hen would. My own thought on this, is that may reflect more on the perceived gender roles of mothers and fathers at the time, that it may be necessary to view Jesus as a mother, though I wouldn’t deny Julian’s view on this point, as it is most creditworthy.

So we come back to the question that must be asked by anyone who approaches Julian’s writings: was this a vision or a delusion? How we answer this will radically affect what we take away with us.

Julian seems to recognise that some may think that this was a vision of delirium alone. As such, she includes a chapter to say that there was an additional “showing” whereby Christ told her that this was all truly a vision and not a delirium. She concludes with a rather stark warning, that one must wholly accept everything she has to say or else be branded a heretic. To do so, though, goes against scripture which she holds so dear, by encouraging us to be wholly undiscerning, to not test her words. I have read her words, prayed about them, tested them and found them wanting. So while there is much here that is good and worth considering, one cannot in good conscience wholly and uncritically believe this to be a true vision, but rather it probably came about as a result of a delirium caused by illness which brought to mind much that was already in her mind, whether through her own meditations and the teachings of the church which she was a part of.

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5 responses to “Book Review: Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich

  1. Tanya Marlow

    Hey- don’t hold back- say what you really think! 😉

    I haven’t read her stuff and I’d always dismissed her before as panentheist and, to be frank, a little bonkers, but I really loved this biography of her life which put the mystical things into the context of the time. All theology is a conversation, and for me it was good to know what the other half of the theological conversation was in order to better understand her. I now think there is some merit in her works (though admittedly I haven’t read them in full…)

    I definitely recommend this book though – Julian of Norwich by Amy Frykholm. It read more like a well-written novel with theological asides- quick and an intelligent and enjoyable read. Go on; I dare you. 😛

    • I try to say what I think. Am always ready to be challenged if someone thinks a review is unfair.

      I would accept the challenge if Frykholm’s book wasn’t out of print at the moment. Not available on Wordery or Amazon. But a reading dare wouldn’t be right without the chance to “double dare” – so for a book of similar length and price, I would dare you to read Stanley Hauerwas’ autobiography: Hannah’s Child (the review of which may be found on this blog).

      I’ll mention Julian again on Wednesday where I’ll be giving a similar critique to the Church Times top 100 christian books, where they placed Julian at no 4, I’ll let you guess if I though that was too high or too low…

  2. I had to study Julian as part of a course on Christian Spirituality last year. I always find it a bit strange how people venerate the writings of people like Julian (and Teresa of Avila etc), given that they were medieval Catholics with little access to the Bible in the vernacular. In some Anglican circles you would be more welcome talking about Julian than you would the Bible!

    As you so rightly say, Scripture must be our rule in evaluating these things. To be honest I think there is little in Julian which one couldn’t find better elsewhere, and given the mix of good and bad theology in her writings I would hesitate to recommend it.

    I’m not sure I agree with you on the delirium, however – I wonder if her experience was genuine, she just didn’t have the framework to interpret it. Hard to tell from this distance really.

    • Perhaps the “better elsewhere” may have built on Julian. I know she’s become rather popular in the last few years, but I confess ignorance as to how views of her have changed over the centuries. I think my key inference about delusions harked back to Charles Foster’s Wired For God, which was a sort of updating of William James’ work. Interestingly, having flicked through it before posting this review, I couldn’t find a reference to Julian in that book, though there examples of other “saints” (in the catholic sense of the term) who had similar visions after changes to the physiology, whether that be brought about by illness or ascetic practices such as extended fasting.

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