Sunday, September 25, 2011

Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography

By Amy Frykholm, 147 pages, Paraclete Press.

Julian of Norwich, (1342 – 1416), dissatisfied with an ordinary spiritual life, desired something deeper. Like many saints and theological reformers, she loved Jesus so deeply that she wanted to share in his suffering.

Perhaps this zeal, the author notes, came from her inability to reconcile the sense of God as loving and forgiving with the popular teachings of the medieval church on hell and purgatory. The outbreak of the pestilence, which caused tremendous suffering in Norwich, also contrasted with this merciful image.

Medieval Christians valued suffering as a path to Christ's passion. Julian, like many, wished to share in the Lord's pain physically as well as spiritually.

Wracked with illness in the heat of her spiritual search, she finally had her breakthrough: "in an instant, everything changed. The pain that had preoccupied her for days went away, like the lifting of a curtain. Then the cross that the priest held in front of her face started to bleed...A voice spoke in her vision and said, 'With this the Fiend is overcome.'" She realized that she was
"watching Christ die," and had received her request of suffering along with Jesus on the cross.

This countered the heavy sense of sin with which she, as a member of medieval society, had been burdened.

Julian's Franciscan spiritual advisor played a vital role in her spiritual development from this time on, showing her how to pray through the Bible (lectio divina), encouraging her to write her visions and thoughts down, and supporting her decision to become an anchoress, a female hermit tied to a parish church under the protection of the local bishop.

As the years passed, rather than forgetting about the visions, her memory of them was enriched through her prayer and study, and she found deeper and deeper meanings to them. Yet their essential message, about God's mercy, remained the same.

Readers get a sense that Julian's work, including her spiritual counseling to visitors, was not without its dangers. Her writing was accomplished entirely outside of ecclesiastical structures, even if it was done with the advice of her counselor.

The religious unrest that would eventually explode into the Reformation and the resulting bloody religious wars was already deeply felt. Authorities, civil and religious, regarded women leaders and thinkers as a threat, so Julian must have been scared. Frykholm reminds the reader of the great new direction that Julian's theology was taking.

Led by the Franciscans and their ministry to the growing urban areas of Europe, the church was focusing more and more on the inner state. While the sacraments retained their central role in church life, the friars encouraged reflection on one's personal relationship with Jesus.

Frykholm shows how this change included women, who were taking religious matters into their own hands more and more, though with a trusted spiritual advisor. The friars often allowed such people to speak freely and to develop a critical self-awareness.

As Frykholm shows, Julian of Norwich was only one of many, women and men, who were challenging the medieval Church's institutional structures. This springtime of mysticism included The Cloud of Unknowing, Thomas a Kempis' Imitatio Christi, and a host of fourteenth-century mystics who, though obedient to the Church and its sacramental system, practiced a more interior spirituality.

Julian of Norwich played a central role in this revolution.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting.

    You got a mention on my Top Ten Tuesday post this week.