My initial thought, knowing that this Sunday’s reading was the story of Mary and Martha and their differing relationships with Jesus, was to compare and contrast the gifts each of them brought to discipleship, in one sermon. But as the week moved along I realized this was going to take two Sundays, not just one. So today, honouring the tradition of Mary, the more mystical or contemplative of the sisters at Bethany, I’m going to share the work of one of Mary’s spiritual descendants, a woman who played a pivotal role in my Sabbatical this spring: the 14th century mystic, Julian of Norwich.
But first, a brief word about mysticism. British philosopher Alan Watts wrote that “religion, to be of any use, must be mystical… [for] the essence [of mysticism] is the consciousness of union with God.” He went on to write, “institutional Christianity has hardly contemplated the possibility that the consciousness of Jesus might be the consciousness of the Christian, that the whole point of the Gospel is that everyone may experience union with God in the same way . . . as Jesus himself.” It would seem that this inability to grasp the depth of this holy connection goes right back to the days of the gospels, as one could argue that this is why Jesus so vigorously affirms Mary’s decision to spend time in his presence. She understood the uniqueness of spending deep time with Jesus, and the spiritual power of being present to the moment. In a world of action, she was willing to stop for contemplation. There are many other parts to religious life, but in Mary we see the religious life fed by a personal experience of the Divine.
That strand of Christianity, the contemplative/mystic tradition of our Wednesday night Evensong services, leads forward to Julian of Norwich. When I was in seminary, Julian was one of those religious figures I knew only by name; but in the nine days I spent in Norwich, I came to know her well, walking beneath her statue each time I entered the Cathedral. I am also greatly indebted to author Karen Manton, whose small book about Julian, with illustrator Lynne Muir, is nothing short of a work of art.
When Julian was 30 years old, in the year 1373, she was gravely ill and nearly died. At this time, Christ came to her through a series of visions, in which she came to know the mysteries of the Divine in a deep and holy way. God and Christ and Spirit spoke to her in these visions, not so much by voice as “through her understandings”. Much of what she experienced, was at the foot of the cross, learning how the sufferings of Jesus could speak to the lives that people were living in her day.
Julian needed to ponder what she had been told and shown by God, and gave her life to this task. She went to live in a tiny little parish Church in Norwich called St. Julian’s, which had a small apartment attached, known as a cell or anchorhold. The people of the Church looked after her needs, and she in turn provided spiritual counselling and guidance for them. And in the safety of this little space, she wrote down what God in Christ had revealed to her at the foot of the Cross. Her writings were collected in a book called “Revelations of Divine Love” which, as far as we know, was the first book ever written in English by a woman, written pretty much the same time that Geoffrey Chaucer was doing his writing.
Some of the content of these revelations is amazingly modern. One aspect, was the use of feminine language to speak of God and even Christ. While consistently using the male pronoun when referring to the three persons of the trinity, Julian spoke of Jesus as the mother of our souls, writing “Thus in our Father God almighty we have our being, and in [Christ] our mother of mercy we have our reforming and our restoring… and by giving in grace of the Holy Ghost we are fulfilled” (Manton, p.50, showings 58.14.56-59). In the visions of Julian, Jesus cares for us with a mother’s love, nursing us through his sufferings as a mother feeding a newborn, offering us re-birth and then teaching us all that we need to know to grow in faith and love.
In a turn of phrase that is still used by Christian mystics, Julian spoke of unity with Christ by coining the term “one-ing.” The identification between Christ and the whole of creation, is complete going both ways: we enter into the person of Jesus, and Jesus experiences and understands the struggles and pain of our lives, not as two separate entities, but one. “Here I saw a great oneing between Christ and us” wrote Julian (Manton p.59, 18.8.15-18). “When he was in pain, we were in pain, and all creatures who might suffer pain suffered with him… the firmament, the earth, failed in their nature for sorrow, in the time of Christ’s dying.” In these holy visions 600 years ago, Julian saw beyond the connection between the Christian and Jesus, even beyond the connection between humanity and Jesus: Julian saw the unity or one-ing between the earth itself, and the creative power of Christ.
In Julian’s cell there is a dish of hazelnuts, and amongst the prayer candles that had been lit, were a few hazelnuts strewn here and there. It seemed odd, then I read the card beside the dish and stood in awe. I’m not even going to try to explain these next words, just receive them as a gift from Julian, who held at a cellular level how far beyond our rational intellect, is the power and presence of God. She wrote, “And in this God showed a little thing the size of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand; it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: What may this be? And it was answered generally thus: it is all that is made. I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly fall to nothing, it was so little. And I was answered in my understanding: it lasts and ever shall, for God loves it; and so all things have being by the love of God. In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it; the second that God loves it, the third that God keeps it.” (Manton pp. 40-41, 5.1.9-19)
But these may not be Julian’s best-known contribution to Christian thought and devotion.
Life in the 14th century was not easy. England was involved in the 100 years’ war with France. There were many disputes in the Church and within the town, some of which erupted into murderous violence. But worst of all, “the Plague” hit Norwich three times, killing 50% of the city’s population during Julian’s lifetime. Many people came to believe that the plague was a punishment for something that they had done, or that someone else had done. Nearly everyone understood God as a great man in the sky and in these years when premature death visited every family, the general consensus is that God was very, very angry with them. And on top of all that, Julian herself was terribly ill, lying, she thought, on her deathbed.
In the midst of this, God said to Julian a message she could sum up in four words: ALL SHALL BE WELL. I want you to imagine for a moment how much those words would have meant to her, coming directly to Julian in a time of mystical clarity with the suffering Christ on the Cross, spoken to her when so many around her were dying because of war or illness, at a time when she wondered if she would survive. Jesus looked at her with love, and said “ALL SHALL BE WELL.” Here’s the full quote, from Julian (Manton p.110, 68.16.66-73):
And this word: you shall not be overcome, was said sharply and mightily, for sureness and comfort against all tribulations that may come. He did not say: you shall not be troubled, he did not say you shall not struggle, he did not say you shall not be diseased; but he did say: you shall not be overcome. God wills that we take heed at this word, and that our faithful trust be strong in well and woe, for he loves us and delights in us…and all shall be well.
It’s one thing when you’re having a hard time, for someone to casually say to you, “oh, don’t worry about it, things will get better.” Or to be really worried about yourself, or your family, or the world, and hear someone say “just look for the silver lining.” But when I am talking with someone who has lived through hard times, and THAT person tells me to hang in there and wait for things to get better, and shares with me what helped them endure their hardships, I am truly encouraged by that. If someone who has suffered loss in their life reaches out to me when I am worried or afraid or grieving a loss in my life, I feel the very love of God reaching out to me. So to imagine the visions that Julian experienced, of the suffering Christ himself saying, “life will still have troubles, and struggles, and even illnesses, but you will not be overcome,” well, I can scarcely imagine how encouraging that would be. No wonder this became the turning point in Julian’s life, and her great legacy over 600 years later.
Being able to spend time in St. Julian’s Church, was to stand on Holy Ground. There I felt the presence of Lady Julian, and could imagine what it was like for people in her day who were struggling with their own problems, coming up to her window to seek her advice. Standing in that Church reminded me in another way that God never leaves or forsakes us, because the Church had been nearly completely destroyed by bombing in World War II. They knew the footprint of where the old church had been, but nearly everything I saw inside dated to about 1953 rather than 1380. But they did overcome the consequences of war, they did rebuild, a small Anglo-Catholic congregation still worships there, and little groups around the world still gather to spend quiet time with God, in Julian’s name.
Today I give thanks: for the faith and clarity of Julian, which opens me to the wisdom of Jesus’ dear friend Mary and so many other contemplative women and men who have been open to God’s voice over the centuries; for the ability we have to learn from the past as we prepare for the future, in a complex world; and for all gatherings, including this one here today, that bring us closer to a loving God. In the name of that God, and Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, may our lives call out in praise. Amen.
Manton, Karen (text) and Muir, Lynne (illustrations/calligraphy). The Gift of Julian of Norwich. Leominster, UK: Gracewing, 2005.
Watts, Allan. Behold the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion (London: Vintage Books: 1947, 1972), pp. xix and 5-6. Accessed via Richard Rohr’s daily email series, at https://cac.org/incarnational-mysticism-2019-07-14/?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2019-07-20%20DM%20Weekly&utm_content=2019-07-20%20DM%20Weekly+CID_d9185ea554b11bf92d13a2f45f28d65d&utm_source=Campaign%20Monitor%20Google%20Analytics&utm_term=Sunday
More about Julian:
Center for Action and Contemplation (Richard Rohr): https://cac.org/tag/julian-of-norwich/
St. Julian’s Church, Norwich: https://www.stjohnstimberhill.org/st-julians-c1flt
The Julian Meetings: https://thejulianmeetings.wildapricot.org/
The Order of Julian of Norwich: https://www.orderofjulian.org/About-Julian
© 2019 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, Canmore.