Lady Julian of Norwich, lesson of hope

Reflections on Life
By Melvin Arrington
The acclaimed English mystic known to us as Lady or Dame Julian (or Juliana) of Norwich (c. 1342-1416) was, in all likelihood, a Benedictine nun whose birth name has been lost to history. Lady Julian lived during the 14th century, an age that historian Barbara Tuchman in her study A Distant Mirror characterized as “calamitous.” Those were indeed dark and perilous times besieged by plague, wars, pogroms, famines and schism. Yet, despite all the societal upheavals and her own personal tribulations, Julian remained surprisingly upbeat and hopeful.

In 1373 she became deathly ill, a condition she had actually prayed for in an effort to become united with Christ in suffering. On May 8 of that year, while near death, Julian received 16 visions (or “showings”) of Our Lord, beginning with the Crown of Thorns. Although claiming to be a “simple unlettered creature” (probably a reference to not knowing Latin), she wrote, not long after her recovery, a volume of meditations based on these visions. This work, Revelations of Divine Love, now considered a classic of Western spirituality, is also noteworthy for being the first book in English authored by a woman.

Julian produced two versions of the Revelations, both written in Middle English: the “short text,” containing 25 chapters, composed shortly after receiving the “showings,” and the “long text,” consisting of 86 chapters, written over a period of twenty years. The latter offered a more detailed account as a way of explaining and clarifying the meaning of the visions.

Following her brush with death, she withdrew from the world and lived the remainder of her life as an anchorite or, to use the feminine form, anchoress, an urban recluse, confined to a small, cell-like room attached or “anchored” to the outer wall of the Church of St. Julian in Norwich, England – the same church by whose name we know her today. She spent those last years meditating on the 16 revelations and offering spiritual advice to all who came to seek her council.

I first became interested in the life and writings of this holy woman last fall while recovering from a life-threatening illness. Unlike Julian’s infirmity, which she had asked God for, mine was thrust upon me. I remember the emergency room physician telling me, “Well, it looks like you’re going to survive.” What? Wait a minute! Survive? My situation couldn’t be that grave! But it was, and as I soon learned, I was facing several months of medication therapy and recovery time. Later in that conversation the doctor remarked that he couldn’t figure out how I had made it to the hospital alive. Here’s my explanation: God must have intervened on my behalf and performed a miracle because He had something more for me to do. Miracles do happen, and when they occur, it’s for a reason.

To the modern-day observer the fact that Julian would pray for an illness that would cause terrible suffering and bring her to the door of death is beyond perplexing. Was this unusual petition made in an effort to purge some mortal sin? We don’t know. But clearly, she believed that through her agony she could draw nearer to Jesus. As for me, my ordeal brought me closer to Our Lord in a way I had never known before and gave me a renewed sense of hope. He can truly bring forth good from a bad situation. (Romans 8:28)

According to the Catechism, by the theological virtue of hope “we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.” (1817) Furthermore, this virtue “keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude.” (1818) The Catechism adds that hope “affords us joy even under trial.” (1820) During Julian’s close encounter with death she could claim this joy because of the reassuring words Our Lord had spoken to her, the same words we remember her by today: “I am able to make all things well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Although sometimes referred to with the title “Saint” or “Blessed,” this remarkable English mystic was never officially canonized or beatified. Nevertheless, the church commemorates her on May 13; in addition, the Catechism (313) cites her as an authority. The important lessons she can teach us may be summarized as follows: we all have a cross we must bear, and no matter the weight of that cross, no matter the trials and tribulations we face, the severity of the affliction or the intensity of the pain we have to endure – in short, no matter how bad it gets – “All shall be well.” As Archbishop Sheen says, “We need never fear the outcome of the battle of life; we need never ask whether we will win or lose. Why, we have already won, only the news has not yet leaked out!”

Lady Julian of Norwich was able to proclaim “all shall be well” because she could see the big picture. Her hope was based not just on this life but also on a longing for union with God and a desire to spend all eternity with Him in the world to come. If we have this same hope, we can experience a similar joy and peace that no one can take away.