By Fr John Julian ONJ, Paraclete Press, £21.50
In her Revelations Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) wrote: "It is necessary for us to have awareness of the littleness of created things and to set at naught everything that is created, in order to love and have God who is uncreated." The Revelations is based on the series of mystical experiences of the Persons of the Trinity the "simple creature" Julian underwent in 1373.
While she remained ever faithful to the Church and its teachings, Norwich's theology gave an almost revolutionary sense of optimism to late medieval English Christians.
This positive thinking is startling given all that the people had to encounter in the 14th century: a terrible famine around 1315, the Peasants' Rebellion (1381), the Black Death (from 1348), the Hundred Years War, and the assassination of an English king and archbishop.
The political, social and economic upheavals of the time contributed to changing religious practices, of which Julian was an essential part. As more Europeans moved into the cities and left their ancient communal ties behind, their faith became more individual and inner-directed, something that the Franciscans and Dominicans helped to foster as they evangelised in the growing cities. The 14th century was the age of mystics just as the 13th had been the century of scholastics such as Ss Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas. While the scholastics had specialised in philosophy and theology, the mystics of the next century focused on the inner life; such mystics as Julian combined doctrine with keen psychological insights.
The following from Julian's Revelations echoes St Augustine's psychological understanding of the Christian inner life: "For this is the reason why we are not fully at ease in heart and soul: because here we seek rest in these things that are so little, in which there is no rest, and we recognise not our God who is all powerful, all wise, all good, for He is the true rest."
Throughout her Revelations Julian moves between discussing the Trinity and the nature of God to the human being and the nature of sin and virtue, and how these, along with grace, influence the inner life.
Human nature is profoundly touched by God. In fact, central to her optimistic theology, she asserts that within the soul grace overpowers the effects of Original Sin.
This leads to some fairly skilful balancing between, on the one hand, the medieval Church's emphasis on sin and the depravity of human life, and, on the other hand, the deep love God has for us. She considers love to be the determining good. It forms the heart of her theological optimism. While she doesn't go so far as to argue for universal salvation, one can easily read such a dogma into her "And all shall be well" mystical experience from Jesus, wherein Jesus promised her the world's well-being with these famous words.
Given this reassurance, Julian does not fear God's judgment, unlike, we can assume, most Christians at the time: "God judges us based on the essence of our human nature which is always kept constantly within Him, whole and safe without end; and this judgment comes from His rightfulness," she writes.
However novel this approach seems, in fact her notion that sin has no substance follows the traditional thinking of Latin theologians dating back to St Augustine and centuries later reiterated by Aquinas. Her development of this gave a better balance to the thinking of the time, focused as it was on the agony of Christ's Passion and the potential everlasting agony of hell.
One thing Norwich did borrow from her time was this focus on physical suffering as a way to participate in the suffering of Christ. She writes of her prayers to God for physical and psychological pain, for through this she would be purified and redeemed. She does not develop at length such a theology because it was such a given of the theology of the day. She articulates well the goal of such suffering; it is for the unity of the soul with God. While the soul is already united with God, something she makes clear many times, she is aiming for an even deeper unity, or a unity that she can more clearly perceive.
She refers to this unity with God as "one-ing" or being "one-ed," a term which the editor leaves for the modern translation. This search for unity with God originates in her mystical experience, which gave her the spiritual knowledge of this oneness. Again, we see the focus on the interior life, rather than on sacramental or ethical practices.
One's experience of God becomes the central goal of being a Christian, perhaps even more than helping the poor, living ethical lives, or participating in the Church's sacramental life. The kingdom of God is an interior reality, rather than something to be achieved on the outside, in the world.
At times, then, her spirituality seems to follow the logic of many 21st century evangelicals, focused as they are on a therapeutic, individualised spiritual experience: "We can have knowledge of our self in this life by the continual help and strength of our own transcendent human nature. In this [self]-knowledge, we can increase and grow by the furthering and aiding of mercy and grace, but we can never fully know our self, until the last point, and at that point this passing life and all manner of pain and woe shall have an end," Norwich writes.
Her interior vision of Christianity will undoubtedly strike a note with countless modern-day Christians, though it is unclear if it is healthy that we today should be further encouraged to focus on ourselves.