Julian & Gregory


Julian of Norwich was an anchorite who lived from 1342 c.a. until 1416 A.D. St. Gregory Palamas was a monk of the Holy Mountain and later Archbishop of Thessaloníki and lived from 1296 until 1359 A.D. What do they have to do with each other?

Last week I read “Revelations of Divine Love” by Julian of Norwich, the “short text” as later in life she went back and significantly added to it. I bought it after browsing through the religious section at Borders in Copley Square and her name jumped out at me. I started to read it while sitting having dinner in an Uno’s on Boylston St. and the waiter had to grab my attention a number of times during that solitary meal. What caught my attention was the way in which Julian wrote about her experience of God. It reminded me of the writings of St. Gregory. While she did not experience the “Uncreated Light” of Gregory, she did have a most intimate encounter with God. The power of this encounter is felt even while reading the words off the page. While, most unfortunately, Julian is usually lumped in with more shall we say “interesting” mystics like Bernard of Clairvaux and Catherine of Siena, I think she deserves a second look.

In her work, Julian goes over a number of topics from sin to prayer and all of it is a very interesting read, not least because it offers insight into the mind of a young woman (she was 30 when she had her vision) living in 14th century England. And all of the things she goes over Our Lord spoke to her about in the vision as she lay on her sick bed. It is also remarkable at how “Orthodox” she is. So much of what she says agrees with what I have heard from our own priests and bishops. She also defers to “Holy Church” at every opportunity, she says repeatedly she does not know better than the Church, it is this humility that is apparent throughout. As she says in chapter 15, “God showed me the very great pleasure he takes in men and women who strongly and humbly and eagerly receive the preaching and teaching of Holy Church; for he is Holy Church; he is the foundation, he is the substance, he is the teaching, he is the teacher, he is the goal, he is the prize which every true soul works hard to win; and he is known and shall be known to every soul to whom the Holy Ghost reveals it.”

St. Gregory speaks of experiencing God’s energies, experiencing God, very really, in the world in which we live and breathe. Julian does the same, although perhaps in a more roundabout way. Julian was an anchorite, living in a cell attached to the church of St. Julian of Norwich (from which we get her name, we don’t know her real one). She worked on acquiring stillness in her heart, and through prayer, fasting, and silence she hoped she might be granted contemplation of God.

And in this vision he (Our Lord Jesus) showed me a little thing, the size of a hazel-nut, lying in the palm of his hand, and to my mind’s eye it was as round as any ball. I looked at it and though, ‘What can this be?’ …I thought it might suddenly disappear. And the answer in my mind was, ‘It lasts and will last for ever because God loves it; and in the same way everything exists through the love of God.’ In this little thing I saw three attributes: the first is that God made it, the second is that he loves it, the third is that God cares for it. But what does that mean to me? Truly, the maker, the lover, the carer; for until I become one substance with him, I can never have love, rest, or true bliss; that is to say, until I am so bound to him that there may be no created thing between my God and me. And who shall do this deed? Truly, himself, by his mercy and his grace, for he has made me and blessedly restored me to that end. …[the little thing] is all he has made; it is cast and wide, fair and good, but it looked so small to me because I saw it in the presence of him that is Maker of all things; to a soul that sees the Maker of all, all that is made seems very small.

The above passage is packed full of interesting imagery to get the point across. In her vision God showed her all that he had made, that appeared so small in the presence of the Maker, and it is his love that caused all to be made. How welcome is this idea in our age of cold rationalism and indifference.

The next long quote I wish to share is about prayer:

And so we pray for all our fellow Christians, and for all manner of men, according to God’s will, for we wish that all manner of men and women were in the same state of virtue and grace that we ought to desire for ourselves. But yet, for all this, often we do not trust God Almighty fully for it seems to us that, because of our unworthiness, and because we are feeling absolutely nothing, we cannot be certain that he is hearing our prayers. For often we are as barren and as dry after our prayers as we were before, and so we feel our folly is the cause of our weakness; I have felt like this myself.

And our Lord brought all this suddenly into my mind… as a comfort to me against this kind of weakness in prayers, he said, ‘I am the foundation of your prayers: first it is my will that you should have something, and then I make you desire it, and then I make you pray for it; and if you pray, then how could it be that you should not have what you pray for?; And thus in his first statement… our good Lord shows us something immensely helpful. Where he begins by saying, ‘If you pray for it’, there he reveals the very great joy and unending reward that our prayer will receive from him. And where he says next, ‘Then how could it be that you should not have what you pray for?’, there he gives a serious rebuke, because we do not trust as strongly as we should.
For it is God’s will that we should pray, and he moves us to do so in these preceding words. He wants us to pray with sure trust, for prayer pleases him… And thus prayer makes accord between God and man’s soul… when we do not see God, then we need to pray because we lack something, and to make us open to Jesus; for when a soul is tempted, troubled and isolated by distress, then it is time to pray and to make oneself pliable and submissive to God. Unless we are submissive [to God’s will], no kind of prayer can make God bend to us [our will], though his love is always alike.

I leave you with these words, to contemplate and go over. I found that she really does speak for more people than she knows. And she speaks a very real truth, that we must trust God with all our heart and that we pray. Pray that we might do his will and not our own. That God may open those doors that he wishes us to go through, that we are knocking at. That God might firmly close those doors that will only do us harm if we go through them. Of course we are still free to go through them and perhaps God might make something good come out of it. It might take a while, but it will come. For, as Julian says, “So what our blessed Lord’s teaching means is that we should take heed of the following: ‘Since I have turned the greatest possible harm [Adam & Eve’s sin and expulsion from Paradise, separation from God] into good [our reunion with God through the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection], it is my will that you should know from this that I shall turn all lesser evil into good.”

I suggest you go and pick yourself up a copy of “Revelations of Divine Love.”

2 thoughts on “Julian & Gregory

  1. Iand, 3 Comments:

    1) You’re missing a couple of words in your opening line.

    2) That nun is the picture has a rockin headcovering!

    3) I am a little disturbed by Julian’s use of the idea of becoming “one substance” with God. No doubt she innocently means traditional theosis, but her use of the technical term there is a little disturbing.

  2. 1) Thanks.
    2) Actually, most women wore wimples back then.
    3) She qualifies it in the next sentence. You have to remember she probably dictated this to someone who could write, she had not studied theology beyond that of the local parish, and her vocabulary was most likely not informed by the various debates and scholarly arguments raging around theosis. And you should remember that this was translated from Middle English and there may have been a different connotation attached to it. But I think it just comes down to her not being a scholar and merely a peasant who had dedicated her life to God.

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