Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Julian of Norwich: A Mystic for Our Time

Today is the feast day of Julian of Norwich if you're Catholic.  Anglicans and Lutherans celebrated her feast day on May 8.  In these pandemic days, it feels like we've been celebrating her by emulating her for two months--well some of us have.

Of course, if we're being honest, most of us have much more room in our lockdown spaces than Julian of Norwich did.   As a 14th century anchoress, she lived in a small cell attached to a cathedral, in almost complete isolation, spending her time in contemplation. She had a series of visions, which she wrote down, and spent her life elaborating upon. She is likely the first woman to write a book-length work in English.

And what a book it is, what visions she had. She wrote about Christ as a mother--what a bold move! After all, Christ is the only one of the Trinity with a definite gender. She also stressed God is both mother and father. Her visions showed her that God is love and compassion, an important message during the time of the Black Death.

We are going through our own time of plague, and we may be having all sorts of visions.  Many people report vivid dreams and nightmares.  What would happen if we took those visions seriously?  What if we started with those visions and explored them in our writing?

Julian of Norwich took the world in a direction it hadn't been before. She's one of our first known female theologians written in English, and because she did it, others coming afterwards would take their own visions and their words seriously too--as did other people.

And yet, she didn't set out to change the world.   I comfort myself by reminding myself that Julian of Norwich would be astonished if she came back today and saw the importance that people like me have accorded her. She likely had no idea that her writings would survive. She was certainly not writing and saying, "I will be one of the earliest female writers in English history. I will depict a feminine face of God. I will create a theology that will still be important centuries after I'm dead."

These days, I often repeat Julian of Norwich’s most famous quote: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” Would Julian of Norwich be pleased that so many of us derive comfort by repeating those words? Or would she shake her head and be annoyed that we have missed what she considered to be the most important ideas?

I remind myself that she would have such a different outlook than I do. She was a medieval woman who served God; she likely would not even view her ideas as her own, but as visitations from the Divine. If I could adopt more of that kind of attitude, it could serve me well on some of my more stressful days when divesting could be the most helpful thing that I could do.

In these days, divesting ourselves (of our plans/expectations for the future, of our need to be sure of the future, of our worries and fears, of my disappointment in the federal response to this huge crisis) on and on I could go) would be helpful for many of us.  Let us repeat the words of Julian of Norwich, even if we don't believe them:

“All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” 

No comments: