'Only in Thee I have all'

A pilgrimage through Lent with Julian of Norwich

First Talk Notes

 

Introduction to Julian

 

In some ways, it is difficult to introduce Julian of Norwich, for the simple reason that we have no biographical details about her whatsoever. We don’t even know if ‘Julian’ was her name: whilst it certainly was more of a unisex name then that it is now, it probably simply comes from the fact that she spent much of her life at St Julian’s church in Norwich, a church dedicated not to her but to St Julian of Le Mans, and so either she took that name herself or it was later given to her.

 

There are various theories about her history: the use of maternal imagery in her writing has led some to ask whether she had been a mother, for example, and the strangeness in the eyes of some modern artists of a single secular woman touched by such religious fervour has led them to depict her in the habit of a Benedictine nun, when we know she was nothing of the sort. There is a small chance she might have had a cat, and iconographers have run wild with that…

 

Julian deliberately gives us no biographical details, always wanting her readers not to consider her, but to look beyond her to the Christ to whom she’s always pointing.

 

Nevertheless, from our knowledge of the history of that time, we can fill in a few details of what was going on in her lifetime that it might be important for us to bear in mind, particularly four things:

The first is, of course, the Black Death, the plague which during her lifetime wiped out 50% of the population of Norwich. Norwich was England’s second city at that point, hugely busy and important, and the plague bit hard; death, disease, all the gorier aspects of life Julian knew all too well, and we shouldn’t be too shocked by any of the more graphic details of Christ’s death, for example, in her writings.

 

The second event going on in her lifetime is the Lollard heresy, which became rather big in Norwich, which was sort of a precursor to the Reformation, whose followers were routinely burned at the stake just up the river from where Julian lived, and Julian is keen to emphasise in her writings that she sees nothing that ‘Holy Church’ doesn’t teach her to believe.

 

The third thing that took place in her lifetime was the Peasants’ Revolt, which again greatly affected East Anglia and Norwich in particular: a great uprising of the poor against the wealthy and powerful, sparked by injustice, inequality and unfair taxation (particularly the poll tax…), and in Norwich this uprising was brutally suppressed by the Bishop of Norwich, leaving a great deal of resentment among the people towards the Church and the wealthy landowning religious houses. Small wonder that anchorites—those who lived in cells attached to churches and other city buildings and gave themselves to public lives of prayer—were so popular; there were 35 in Norwich alone in the time around Julian. Anchorites weren’t wealthy religious leaders, nor were they poor mendicants like Franciscans begging from an already poor population, rather they were self-supporting: using their own money or money left to them in wills, they sat outside of that great tension around wealth, and so became very popular figures in their community, with many going to them for spiritual advice and so on (and not the Church!).

 

And the fourth historical thing to say is that Norwich was the site of the first of the ‘blood libels’: the false accusations by Christians that Jews used the blood of or crucified Christian children in ritual, which gave rise to a tsunami of antisemitism, and led to the expulsion of Jews in this country a few decades before Julian. I mention that because the question of sin and blame for the death of Christ is important in Julian’s writings, and when considering who is to blame for Christ’s death, she even goes so far as to say, ‘I saw nothing concerning the Jews who put him to death’, which would have taken a huge amount of bravery to say, in the face of such popular antisemitism.

 

But in terms of what we actually know about her, all we have to go on is what she herself tells us, which is that in May 1373, when she was 30 and a half years old (she’s quite specific about that), Julian becomes ill to the point of death (perhaps the plague, we don’t know). The parish priest is sent for to give her the Last Rites, and as she’s drifting in and out of consciousness, he holds the crucifix in front of her face. She looks at it, and miraculously sees blood dripping down from underneath the crown of thorns on the model of Christ. She then loses consciousness, and over the next 24 hours receives a series of 16 remarkable visions.

Despite having received the Last Rites, she makes a miraculous and unexpected recovery, and decides to dedicate the rest of her life to praying and reflecting on what the visions that she was granted mean. She goes and becomes an anchorite in a little cell attached to the walls of St Julian’s church, a cell from which she would never leave. In fact, the Bishop would have read the funeral service over her as she entered the cell, and she would only eventually leave it in a coffin.

 

It wasn’t, however, a hermitic life, hidden away from the world. She had three windows: one into the church to hear worship and receive the Eucharist; one into an antechamber through which food was brought in, and its result brought out; and one out onto the street, where she could dispense spiritual advice to passers-by. And as her cell was on one of the busiest streets in one of the busiest cities in Europe, it certainly wouldn’t have been quiet.

In this setting she wrote two works: an earlier shorter text detailing the visions and what they meant, and a later longer text which takes the first text and expands it massively, to include several decades of prayerful reflection. She lived the rest of her life in that cell, probably 40 or even 50 years (a longevity perhaps helped by her ‘self-isolating’ from much of the disease and squalor around her?), and she died largely unknown and swiftly forgotten, survived only by this remarkable text (the first book written in English by a woman). The book itself largely disappeared until the 19th Century, when it was rediscovered in the British Museum (filed under ‘witchcraft’ I believe) and published once more in modern English.

 

Julian’s writings became sufficiently popular in the first few decades of the 20th Century that when St Julian’s church was destroyed during the Norwich Blitz in 1942, a newspaper appeal swiftly gained enough money to rebuild the church, and even to build a chapel on the site of her cell, which had been pulled down at the Reformation, allowing us in a few weeks’ time to go and stand where she stood, and to discern something of the love of God revealed to her in that place 650 years ago.

 

So, what is the book about? What do these visions reveal to her? Well, in many ways, it does what it says on the tin. The ‘Shewings’ or ‘Revelations of Divine Love’ are precisely that. They are visions that point to the manifestation of God’s love for his people in Jesus Christ. And it’s important to emphasise those words ‘in Jesus Christ’. These aren’t fluffy sentiments about love, these are challenging and beautiful images that centre around Christ’s agony and death on the Cross, which is the supreme revelation of divine love.

 

The visions themselves (and her writing about them) vary. Some are very graphic: crawling into the wound in Christ’s side to understand the depth of his love for us, and how in the Church we are incorporated into his body. Some are quite theological: she asks to be given a vision of sin, and she sees nothing at all, reflecting the Augustinian theology of evil being an absence of good, a turning away from good, and not a positive force in and of itself (always good to remember that this woman has had no theological education whatsoever—she might not have been able to read or write—and yet she has a perfect grasp on the theology of Augustine, Aquinas, Maximus…). And some are quite narrative: one of her visions is the story of a master sending out his servant to do his bidding; the servant falls into a ditch and is unable to complete his task; Julian expects the master to be angry, but he isn’t, in fact he is glad that his servant has fallen, because it means he gets the opportunity to exercise his love in rescuing the servant. God, Julian says, is almost glad that we have fallen, glad that we have sinned, as it gives him the opportunity to lovingly rescue us when we return to him, which is mind-blowingly controversial.

 

It's important to say that Julian doesn’t tell us anything new. Rather, like a jazz musician, she presents an old theme in new ways, ways that are beautiful, and engaging, and challenging, and that always (despite the range of their subject matter) point back to God’s love. At one point she asks God to reveal his meaning by all these visions, and what God says to her provides a handy summary of the whole book: 'Would you know your Lord's meaning in this thing? Know it well. Love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love.’

 

Julian on Prayer

 

So that was a whistle-stop introduction to Julian! Now onto the ‘meat’ of today’s session, which is what Julian has to say about prayer.

 

Prayer is really the most important element of Julian’s life and writings. It is the means of her visions, of her understanding, of her theology, of her worship: in short, it is the means of her communication and relationship with God. But in order for us to understand her theology of prayer—the heart of her relationship with God—we need to get our heads around how Julian understands this relationship.

 

I’m going to start with a quotation from Julian, one of her more famous quotations: ‘Prayer oneth the soul to God’/’Prayer unites the soul to God.’ Now this is a phrase that requires some significant unpacking, because at first glance it might seem to suggest that Julian understands her relationship with God as one that is not united, as if we are over here and God is over there and through prayer we slowly get closer to him until we’re united. This is not the case, as we know. Christians believe that God is transcendent and immanent, beyond and within creation, everywhere and in everything, nearer to us than we are to ourselves, as Augustine put it. And Julian is not disagreeing with this, she is not saying that we are somehow separate from God. In fact throughout her writing she is keen to emphasise that, by dint of our creation, the soul is already held in loving union with our creator God. What she is saying in this phrase, however, is that there is a disconnect between the reality and our experience of that reality. The reality is that we are already united with God, our experience is that we are distant from him. We are unable to experience the truth of our union with God.

 

Now, the way she seeks to illustrate this is by saying that the soul has two parts: substance and sense. The substance is its very being, its nature, what it is. The sense is our experience, our perception of it. The thing that blocks the sense from understanding the substance is sin. Sin prevents us from understanding that we are already united in loving union with God, and instead we live our lives feeling distant from him. Our selfishness, our sinful obsession with ourselves traps us in the realm of sense, and stops us from discovering our substance.

 

The good news, Julian says, is that there’s a doorway between the sense and the substance, and that doorway is Jesus Christ. Through Jesus Christ, we might come to experience the eternal truth of who we are, and in so doing feel our union with God. And if Jesus Christ is the doorway, then it is through conformity to Jesus Christ that we discover it. The manifold ways in which we turn from our sin and selfishness and turn to, and become more like, Jesus Christ, permit us to cross that threshold, permit us to experience our union with God. Prayer as one of the chief means of conforming ourselves to Christ, the Eucharist as its highest form for Julian, therefore permits us to experience this union. Or to put all of that a lot more succinctly: prayer unites the soul to God.

 

Now all of that is a complicated way of saying that prayer is never about connecting to something outside ourselves, transmitting a message to distant Planet God and hoping to pick up scraps in return. (That reminds me, somebody told me the other day the story of a fellow seminarian at theological college who began his prayers, ‘Dear God, as you will have heard on the news…’) Prayer is not like that. Prayer is not about shouting at a remote deity. Prayer, for Julian, is about connecting with the fundamental truth of our being, discovering our true identity in Jesus Christ.

 

Consequently she understands that prayer needs to be understood more expansively than specific practices. Spoken prayer, contemplation, receiving visions, intercessory prayer, receiving the sacraments: all of these are found in Julian’s work—and I’ve included some of them in quotations on the handout—and all of them are important aspects of prayer. But none of them captures the entirety of what ‘prayer’ is. Prayer is, for Julian, Jesus Christ: discovering, through all those different ‘means’, our true identity in him.

 

Prayer, therefore, is a form of death, a form of martyrdom. It means, fundamentally, dying to everything I classify as ‘myself’, and finding (like St Paul, and like Julian) that it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.

 

 

It’s for this reason that we have entitled this series ‘Only in Thee I have all’. Julian understands that her true happiness, her true joy, her true purpose can only be found in ‘noughting’ herself, considering herself (and her possessions) as nought, as nothing, in order that Christ might be all in all in her. The traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting (or ‘self-denial’) and almsgiving (or ‘charity’) on which we’ll be focusing are all facets of this ‘noughting’, of this dying to self, dying to the more selfish impulses of our minds, our bodies and our hearts, until we are truly dependent on God, and can say with Julian ‘Only in Thee I have all’. Prayer—in its many manifestations, traditions, and practices—is the chief means of doing that.

 

Second Talk Notes

 

Julian on Self-Denial

 

Last week, we considered how Julian understands prayer as a means of allowing the soul to understand its union with God. Prayer doesn’t connect us to a distant God, but does connect our experience and our reality, overcoming those things that block us from discerning our union with God. Prayer is a means of dying to ourselves and conforming ourselves to Christ. And in the final part of my talk I mentioned how Julian sees this process as ‘noughting’: considering herself, her possessions, the stuff of this world as ‘nought’ in comparison to the God she loves. I would like to explore a little more this concept of ‘noughting’ in today’s session, as we consider the topic of self-denial, the practice of saying no to ourselves and putting God first.

 

The word ‘noughting’ itself comes from the first of Julian’s visions. I say first vision, but really it’s a bumper pack of four visions in one: the vision of the blood trickling down from under the crown of thorns that I mentioned last week; a vision of the Holy Trinity; a vision of Mary, the mother of God, as a young girl; and finally a vision of the world, of creation. It’s this last one that’s important for us today. It’s one of her most famous visions. Julian says:

 

‘And in this thing he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: What can this be? I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God.’ (LT ch.5)

 

Julian understands that this is the universe in the palm of her hand, just as God would see it. Julian sees that it has three properties: the first is that God made it, the second is that he loves it, the third is that God preserves it. It’s a beautiful vision about God’s loving creation, constantly calling us into being, protecting us, caring for us, all through his love. But then Julian goes on:

 

‘This little thing which is created seemed to me as if it could have fallen into nothing because of its littleness. We need to have knowledge of this, so that we may delight in (noughting) despising as nothing everything created, so as to love and have [our] uncreated God. For this is the reason why our hearts and souls are not in perfect ease, because here we seek rest in this thing which is so little, in which there is no rest, and we do not know our God who is almighty, all wise, and all good, for he is true rest.’ (ibid.)

 

Much like the famous ‘Earthrise’ photo taken from Apollo 8 in the ‘60s, Julian is suddenly granted a God’s-eye view of our world, and is starkly aware of its tininess. All the stuff of our lives—the people we know, the places wherein we dwell, the possessions we call ours—all can be held in this tiny marble-like thing. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter—no, she sees that God loves it, God creates it—but she does recognise the futility of seeking ultimate meaning, truth, fulfilment, rest, joy in this tiny, rather flimsy thing.

 

But of course, that is the doctrine of the world, the society we live in. We are told that the acquisition of what we superficially desire—whether that be a new decadent foodstuff, a new gadget, even a new bedfellow—will bring us real joy. But Julian sees that isn’t the case. Not because she is some violent anti-materialist who believes the world is inherently sinful—far from it—rather, she says we cannot find true joy in those things, because we don’t really desire them. If our soul is truly united to God, then our deepest desire is God’s desire in us: God desiring God. It is only the satisfaction of this desire—what Julian calls ‘the ground of our beseeching’—that can give us true joy, rest, peace, meaning. Not in creation but in our creator. She can say, like Augustine, ‘Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee’ (Confessions, 1,1.5).

 

And that means learning to live with the people, pursuits, possessions of our lives differently. If we seek those things for the gratification of a superficial desire, as ends in themselves, then we will never find true joy. If, however, we can recalibrate our relationship with those things to fit in with our true desire of seeking God, then they will indeed bring us joy. If, as Julian sees, God gives us the gifts of creation out of his sheer gratuitous love, how can we use these gifts to honour and respond to that love?

 

Herein lies the central question of self-denial, and indeed the whole season of Lent! How do we deny our selfish desires, and understand our deepest desire? How do we turn away from shallow pleasure, and discover deep joy? Self-denial, however we practise it, is therefore deeply joyful. It’s not about hatred of self, hatred of our body, or hatred of the world, rather it’s all about love: recognising that we are truly loved, and recognising what we truly love, not our stomachs, or our loins, or our current accounts, but God.

 

‘And after this our Lord showed himself to me, and he appeared to me more glorified than I had seen him before, in which I was taught that our soul will never have rest till it comes into him, acknowledging that he is full of joy, familiar and courteous and blissful and true life. Again and again our Lord said: I am he, I am he, I am he who is highest. I am he whom you love. I am he in whom you delight. I am he whom you serve. I am he for whom you long. I am he whom you desire. I am he whom you intend. I am he who is all.’

 

 

Third Talk Notes

 

Julian on Charity

 

So, as you know, we’ve been looking in this Lent series at the three Lenten themes of prayer, fasting/self-denial, and almsgiving/charity. It’s on charity that we’ll be focusing today. Now charity is a big term, of course, and can be understood in various different ways, but for our purposes, we’ll be defining that as ‘loving activity towards our neighbours’, fitting in with the theme of almsgiving.

 

Now, Julian has lots to say about love for our neighbours, but none of it is born out of the idea that this is something we do because it is the right thing to do, or because we love them for who they are. Rather, all of it centres around her love for God, and how our love of neighbour flows out of that.

 

So to begin to understand how that works, let’s return to the famous quotation with which I began my introduction to Julian a couple of weeks ago. 'Would you know your Lord's meaning in this thing? Know it well. Love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love.’ That looks really good on a fridge magnet, and I’m sure you’ll be able to buy one next week, but there’s also a lot of fairly hefty theology in there. God is love, he showed her love, and he intended by it love.

 

What does that mean? Well, Julian understands that the love of God, which she witnesses in these visions, is not simply an action or disposition of God, but is integral to God’s very nature; God’s being is synonymous with his willing and with his doing—what God wants and what he does are what he is—and for Julian these can all be understood as love or charity.

 

She articulates this love or charity, as she understands it, in three forms: ‘uncreated charity’; ‘created charity’; and ‘given charity’. She says, ‘Uncreated charity is God, created charity is our soul in God’—that is, the love in which we are created and held in being—and ‘given charity is virtue, and that is a gift of grace in deeds, in which we love God for himself, and ourselves in God, and all that God loves for God.’ That is, the love of God at work in and through creation—which is ‘given’ to his world—that seeks God as its ultimate object: God is the author of love; God is that love; and God is the recipient of that love. This is what Julian understands by ‘God is love’.

 

Now, a couple of weeks ago I explained a bit of Julian’s theology of union: our being/soul is already held in perfect loving union with God; but because of our sin our sensory lives perceive a separation from him; so the closer we can get our outer sensory lives to be like God in Christ, the more we can perceive the truth of our union with him. This is really the driving thrust of her book, and for Julian, the whole of the Christian life. And therefore, as Julian now truly understands God to be love, she understands too that a deeper experience of our union with him must mean a growth in understanding of and active participation in his love. God is love. We want to be more like God. Let’s understand and share in his love.

 

So, how do we do that? Well, she’s already explained to us that there are three routes into understanding God’s love: uncreated, created, and given. We can never understand ‘uncreated’ love, as that’s the very nature of God himself. We can have a go at understanding ‘created’ love, the love that holds our soul in being, but as the soul dwells in God, it’s also pretty impossible. But we can understand and join in the third option, ‘given’ charity: the love of God in, through and for his creation. And because Julian understands that God’s love is not just an activity of God, but is God himself, when we join in with his love for the world, we are participating in God himself. We can come to experience our union with God most deeply and most easily by loving his world as he loves it. So, we love our neighbours not for ourselves, and not for themselves, but for God.

 

Now, understanding that we can participate in God himself should be a source of great encouragement and indeed wonder for us, but it should also terrify us. Because it begs the question, ‘What does it look like to participate in his love?’ or, ‘What does it look like to love the world as God loves it?’ And of course, we know the answer to that: it looks like a crude and humiliating method of execution on a cross. Jesus is the perfection of God’s love. And whilst crucifixion isn’t the earthly fate that will be awaiting any of us (I hope), it does illustrate what a dangerous business it is we’re signing up for.

 

Because the more we participate in God’s love—in acts of charity, service, stewardship for our world and our neighbours—the more we are drawn into that love, and so the more we participate in that love towards our world in our deeds, and so on and so on. And we need to be careful, because sharing in that motion of love is a slippery slope that will end with us not just giving up our time, or our energy, or our money, but laying down our lives in charitable love for others. ‘Greater love hath no man than this.’

 

This is the mechanism that is at the heart of our almsgiving, our charity. Julian understands that our charity towards our ‘fellow Christians’ (by which she understands all humanity) is not about assuaging guilty consciences, or doing the right thing, or feeling good about ourselves, but about love: loving them as God loves them, for the love of God. Julian understands that if our soul is truly held in loving union with God, then necessarily we are united not just with God, but with all the souls that now dwell in him. Loving God is inseparable from loving all our brothers and sisters, and loving them is inseparable from loving ourselves.

 

‘If I pay special attention to myself, I am nothing at all; but in general I am in the unity of love with all my fellow Christians. For it is in this unity of love that the life consists of all men who will be saved. For God is everything that is good, and God has made everything that is made, and God loves everything that he has made, and if any man or woman withdraws his love from any of his fellow Christians, he does not love at all, because he has not love towards all. And so … anyone who has general love for his fellow Christians has love towards everything which is. For in mankind … is comprehended all, that is, all that is made and the maker of all; for God is in man, and so in man is all. And he who thus generally loves all his fellow Christians loves all… And thus will I love…and the more that I love in this way whilst I am here, the more I am like the joy that I shall have in heaven without end, that joy which is the God who out of his endless love willed to become our brother and suffer for us.’ (ST, ch.6)

St Giles' Cripplegate Church
Fore Street
London EC2Y 8DA

 

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