‘Revelations of Divine Love’ by Julian of Norwich is the first book written in English by a woman. But the work is read now not for historical interest but for the God she describes and the optimism she exudes; an optimism all the more remarkable for the setting in which she wrote.
Julian lived in Norwich from 1342 – 1416; but 14th century England was far from the Merry Old England of legend. It was the time of the Black Death which struck Norwich at least three times during her life. It was also a period of social unrest brought on by the shortage of labour, high taxes and bad harvests which led to the Peasants’ Revolt.
There are few sure facts about Julian’s life. But at the age of 30, while living at home with her mother, she believed herself to be dying with a serious illness. It was at this time she had a series of visions of Jesus. On her recovery, she recorded them in brief and then 20 years later, as an anchoress, wrote them down in a longer form in the Middle-English of Chaucer.
Optimism is in Julian’s marrow and expressed most clearly in her famous words: ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.’ Her future hope lies not in human strength but in God’s love. It is certain that we will fall; but even more certain that God will never stop gazing on us lovingly and helping us back to our feet. Our God is a courteous God who determined from before the beginning of time to bring us to the bliss of heaven.
The optimism of Julian’s theology stood in stark contrast to the religious teaching of her day, in which suffering was regarded as punishment. Monks and priests taught that the troubles people faced were the punishment of an angry God. This left an all-pervasive fear of sin, death and damnation amongst the people. For Julian, however, suffering was not punishment, but a mystery held within the bigger truth of God’s love. God is our maker, our keeper, our lover and our joy; and everything has a purpose even if it is hidden from us now.
Suffering is not explained by Julian, but offered as something intrinsic to our ultimate blessing; while sin is necessary to bring us self-awareness and humility. Sin does not require forgiveness because it is part of life’s learning process. And Julian further pushed the orthodoxy of her day with feminine imagery of God, shown in her repeated description of Christ as our mother.
It is in the 16th revelation that Julian is given the meaning of all that has gone before. As she writes: ‘You wish to learn the Lord’s meaning in this thing? Learn 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. Hold yourself there and you shall learn and know more of the same. But you shall never know or learn any other thing there.’