The book chosen for Lent is Sheila Upjohn’s The Way of Julian of Norwich: a prayer journey through Lent
Mother Julian is a mystic close to my heart. When I lived in Norfolk I would go to St Julian’s Church and pray there. Her story is a remarkable one, and worth saying something about in advance of Lent and reading Sheila Upjohn’s book.
Mother Julian is the first writer in English whom we can securely identify as a woman. As much medieval writing is anonymous, there may have been others, but The Revelation of Divine Love is the the first one we can definitely attribute to a woman. She wrote in the later fourteenth century – 1373 was when she had her first vision. It was the era of Langland and Chaucer, that is the first great era of writing in English. What propmpted Mother Julian to write?
In her thirty-first year Julian was visited by a severe illness. Not uncommon in that era, barely thirty years since the Black Death had killed off up to a third of the population of the country. What was unusual was that she had prayed for the illness, desiring, as she says in chapter 2 of her work to be “purged by the mercy of God and afterwards to live more to God’s glory.” She was given the last Rites, and as the priest held the Cross before her, it seemed to her as though it was bleeding. She did not die. She did live afterwards to witness to God’s glory.
On 8 May 1373 she experienced fifteen “showings” as she called them. They began “early in the morning at about four o’clock” and continued until well past midday. A sixteenth came to her the following night, sandwiched between two dreams of diabolic temptation. The “showings” came in three forms: by inward sight; by outward sight; and by visions formed in her mind. As she confesses in chapter 9, “I neither can nor may show the spiritual vision as openly or as fully as I should like to”. They were so compelling that she felt the need to record them, knowing that their message was not one just for her, but for all Christians. She was, however, conflicted. As she writes in chapter 46:
Now during all this time, from beginning to end, I had two different kinds of understanding. One was the endless continuing love, with its assurance of safekeeping and salvation – for this was the message of all the Showings. The other was the day-to-day teaching of holy church, in which I had been taught and grounded beforehand, and which I understood and practised with all my heart.Introduction, p. 2 citing chapter 46
She could not abandon what she called the “higher judgement” which she found, at times, to be in conflict with the “lower judgement” – the teaching of the Church:
In many ways, this makes Mother Julian the perfect guide for our Lenten journey. A theme to which I shall return tomorrow.