A Woman to Know: Julian of Norwich

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. — Julian of Norwich

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. — Julian of Norwich

(Julian is pictured on the far right; image via Wikimedia Commons)

On May 8, 1373, 30-year-old Julian of Norwich experienced a series of what she later described as visions from God — or, as she wrote of them in her book, “shewings” from Jesus at her bedside. At the time she live-dreamt these visions, Julian had witnessed five cycles of plague decimate her native town of Norwich. When these divine revelations struck her, Julian lay dying, receiving last rites and preparing for death. Then, as she recalled in her work, Jesus appeared at her bedside:

… in this vision He also showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was round as a ball. I looked at it with my mind’s eye and thought, ‘What can this be?’ And the answer came in a general way, like this: ‘It is all that is made.’

Julian recovered miraculously. She sat up in bed and immediately began documenting these revelations in her illuminated script.

At the time, she was living a life with plenty of time to ruminate, channel and record such holy visitations. As a younger woman, she’d taken a serious vow: to live as an “anchoress,” never leaving a walled-in cell attached to St. Julian’s Church in Norwich, England (hence her name). People brought her food and water and took messages back and forth to the church, but Julian herself lived within the cell until she died at an unknown date somewhere in her mid-70s.

Some speculate she took the anchoress vow to save herself from contamination so she could survive further bouts of the plague. But others who’ve read her vivid descriptions of loss, love and grief think she may have lost the entirety of her family to the devastating disease, which could have prompted her decision to completely herself from daily life in the Middle Ages.

Her renowned wisdom drew many to the church. They asked to see Julian of Norwich, seek her advice on spiritual suffering or hear her speak of the revelations she’d received. Scholars today say the book she wrote, “Revelations of Divine Love,” may actually be the first-ever book written in English by a woman. Because she was a “lay woman” uneducated in Latin, she wrote in Middle English instead — the language of the common people. This accessibility popularized her book so widely that Thomas Merton later called her “the greatest English theologian.”

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