She was, by her own description, a simple creature. Shy and adverse to attention, she was a recluse of self-imposed sequestration. Her room was a cell from which she had limited contact with the outside world and though her writings were virtually unknown during her lifetime, she is a towering pioneer of English literature.
Emily Dickinson? Yes, but 500 years ahead of her, the same description could be applied to a much more anonymous person – Julian of Norwich.
Unlike Dickinson who apparently wrote continuously, Julian’s writing is limited to a single known book which has come to be called Revelations of Divine Love. She just called it Showings. The book is based on sixteen visions she experienced at thirty years of age: fifteen on May 8, 1373, and another on the following day. She saw visions of the sufferings of Christ and of the Trinity and then meditated on these visions for twenty years. Her book contains the visions and her interpretations.
So why has this obscure little book from a reclusive woman so greatly impacted literature and liturgy? For one, it is the earliest known writing of prose by a woman in the English language. More significance lies in the power of her words.
A recently published book by Janina Ramirez has given fresh momentum to Julian’s renown. Dr. Ramirez is an Oxford scholar and a BBC commentator on the Middle Ages. Her book Julian of Norwich, A very brief history is a concise weekender with a refreshing tone on a story worthy of broad attention.
In his work Seeds of Destruction, Thomas Merton wrote
Julian is, without doubt, one of the most wonderful of all Christian voices. She gets greater and greater in my eyes as I grow older, and whereas in the old days I used to be crazy about St John of the Cross, I would not exchange him now for Julian if you gave me the world and the Indies and all the Spanish mystics rolled up in one bundle. I think that Julian of Norwich is with Newman the greatest English theologian.
Beyond her theological impact, her life has influenced literature as well, including T.S. Eliot. Eliot found Julian’s hopeful, simple view of the power of God’s goodness to be a microcosm of the church at large. In Julian, the rituals of the devotional life were extensible to the redeeming power of God’s love. His masterwork Four Quartets cannot be fully understood absent an understanding of his references to Julian and others (including John of the Cross and the writer of The Cloud of Unknowing.)
Janina Ramirez has provided great service to both clergy and the lay reader alike. We would all be well served to spend a couple of days enjoying her highly readable book, and then likewise devoting several weeks to a slow, deliberate mediation with Julian and her single, essential masterpiece.