Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 18 July 2010

18 July 2010 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon in Residence

Some Late Medieval Spiritual Classics (3): Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich

The Revelations of Divine Love, by Julian of Norwich is the record of Julian’s own experience, of sixteen visions or ‘shewings’, which she had on 8 and 9 May, 1373.  For Julian, prayer is fundamentally longing for God.  Since it is God himself who implants that longing, it will in the end be satisfied.  And this is why she said that ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.’

Through the Sundays of July I have been looking at some of the English spiritual writing of the fourteenth century, asking what it has to say to us today.  So far I have spoken about two classic texts, The Cloud of Unknowing and Walter Hilton’s Ladder of Perfection, which give guidance on how to pray, and especially about contemplation.  Today I want to talk about the most popular of all the fourteenth century mystical writings, The Revelations of Divine Love, by Julian of Norwich.  This is the record of Julian’s own experience, of sixteen visions or ‘shewings’, which she had on 8 and 9 May, 1373.  Julian then spent more than twenty years reflecting on what had happened to her.  She drew from her visions a whole way of interpreting the Christian Faith which has become ever more popular as more people have got to know her writings.  Given the number of people who surrounded her bed when she was ill, Julian was probably living at home when she had her visions.  In the later part of her life, she was enclosed in a cell at Conisford, Norwich, where she devoted herself to prayer.  There she lived until at least 1416, when she would have been in her late sixties.

Julian tells us she asked three gifts from God: to understand Christ’s suffering and death; to suffer physically while still a young woman; and to have what she calls ‘three wounds’- the ‘wound’ of true contrition for sin, the ‘wound’ of genuine compassion, and the ‘wound’ of sincere longing for God.  Her prayer was answered when at the age of thirty she became seriously ill.  She was expected to die and received the last rites of the Church.  However, she didn’t die: she lingered on for two more days.  On the third morning, when her body seemed all but dead, suddenly, she says, ‘all my pain was taken away, and I was as fit and well as I had ever been’.  It was during that morning that she had fifteen distinct visions, with one more during the following night.  I shan’t go through them in detail: that would take too long.   Julian was very concerned to see what she could learn from them, so we shall concentrate on the mature understanding of God, which came to her over the following years.

Though Julian’s visions begin with a vivid description of Christ hanging on the cross, she does not dwell on Christ’s agony.   What she dwells on is Christ’s love.  At the end of her book, she reflects on the meaning of the visions she has received:

You would know our Lord’s meaning in this thing?   Know 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.  … So it was that I learned that love was our Lord’s meaning. … Our beginning was when we were made, but the love in which he made us never had beginning.  In it we have our beginning. (p. 212)

Julian has an astonishing sense of God’s love pervading the whole universe, and of the whole universe as being loved into being.  This is how she sees the whole creation:

He showed me … a little thing, the size of a hazel-not, on the palm of my hand, round like a ball.  I looked at it thoughtfully and wondered, ‘What is this?’ And the answer came, ‘It is all that is made.’  I marvelled that it continued to exist and did not suddenly disintegrate; it was so small.  And again my mind supplied the answer, ‘It exists, both now and for ever, because God loves it.’  In short, everything owes its existence to the love of God. (p. 68)

This conviction of God’s love for everything, and of the fragility of creation, are immensely appealing, especially when we have become so much more aware of the fragility and the beauty of our planet, which in the vastness of space now seems very little indeed.

Julian’s sense of the all-pervasive love of God raises the question of sin.  Sin means the rejection of God’s love; it is sin that brought about the suffering and death of Christ.  Julian’s vision gave her a powerful and vivid sense of what Christ went through because of his love for human beings.  With this went a sharp sense of the awfulness of sin.  But she is deeply puzzled by its existence.  How can it exist in a universe fashioned out of God’s love?  Julian has two answers, the first of which does not agree with traditional Christian teaching: that none of us completely fall into sin – there is a part of us which remains untouched by sin, and so at one with God.  The good thing about Julian’s way of putting this is that it rings true to experience; none of us is wholly bad; there is good in everyone.  However, if, by looking at things this way we say there is bit of each one of us that does not need to be ‘ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven’ by Christ, we may fall into a facile optimism about human nature.  Julian does not do that – she recognises that we need to be transformed by Christ transforms in our innermost being.  She trusts the loving purpose of God to the point where she can say that ‘Sin was necessary – but it is going to be all right’ (p. 103): ‘All shall be well.’

Julian is famous for talking about the motherhood of God.  She is clear that ‘God is as really our Mother as he is our Father’ (p. 167).  Sometimes, she is more specific and speaks of Christ as our mother ‘for we are ever being born of him’ (p. 164).  Christ represents the nurturing, generative love of God.  It is typical of Julian to move away from Biblical language to language that more nearly reflects her personal experience of the Trinity, in whose love she believed herself enfolded.  Motherhood, she says, ‘means love and kindness, wisdom, knowledge, goodness’ (p. 170).   One of her favourite words for God is ‘courtesy’.  Again and again, she speaks of the ‘courtesy’ of God.  ‘Courtesy’ is a wonderful word to express the gentle, loving and undemanding approach of God to the human soul – but it is a long way from the harsh and confrontational language Jesus used towards the Pharisees.  We could say that Jesus wanted to shock the Pharisees into a new understanding of the love of God, and that this strategy sprang ultimately from love towards then, but it is pretty hard to maintain that language like ‘You brood of vipers’ and ‘Woe to you, hypocrites’ is in any way courteous!

Julian’s sense of Jesus is immediate and present; it is the fruit of what has been shown to her in her visions.  For her, Jesus is the Christ, the Son, the second person of the Trinity, and his incarnation is to be understood as an expression of the life of the Trinity.  So when we respond to Jesus Christ in prayer, this is because of the impulse of love within the Holy Trinity.  We do not initiate prayer.  In prayer, we are caught up into the life of the Trinity.  God himself is ‘the ground of our beseeching’: the Holy Spirit prays within us, as Paul says, ‘with sighs too deep for words’. 

For Julian, prayer is fundamentally longing for God.  Since it is God himself who implants that longing, it will in the end be satisfied.  She is extraordinarily positive about God’s purposes, which will be fulfilled in the whole of creation.  For anyone caught up in the worst horrors of the twentieth century this can be extraordinarily difficult to believe.  Yet Julian also lived amidst hunger, sickness and death.  For her, the key to believing in the love of God lies in the way her visions led her deeper into the mystery of the cross.  In the end, like Paul, she became convinced that  ‘neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Rom 8:38-9)  And this is why she knew in her innermost being that ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.’

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Website design - Design by Structure