Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 13 March 2011
13 March 2011 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
Mother Julian of Norwich
The holy season of Lent, with its forty days of prayer and fasting, began this week in the beautiful yet haunting liturgy of Ash Wednesday: ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return’. In the Anglican tradition, the Priest invites the congregation to ‘the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word’.
As part of this Lenten observance, I want to use these three Sundays of March, which fall in Lent, to draw on some unique spiritual writings which have had an immense impact on Christian spirituality in this country, and which I would like to commend to you for your own devotions in the coming weeks. Although I will be looking back at a period some 600 years in the past, the riches of this religious tradition still speak penetratingly to our own times.
Each week I will be looking at a different set of spiritual writings from the second half of the fourteenth century: two are English, one German—though writing in Latin in The Netherlands. Two are men, one a woman. Two are anonymous, one attested both in his writing and elsewhere.
They are Mother Julian of Norwich (who I will speak about today), Thomas à Kempis, and lastly the author of the Cloud of Unknowing. Each one made a serious contribution to Christian spirituality in their own day and, more importantly for us, has stood the test of time.
But before I get to Mother Julian of Norwich, I want to say a something both about the times in which they lived and also the importance of this period for us here in Westminster Abbey.
The second half of the fourteenth century was a tumultuous time in English history, if ever there was one. The Hundred Years—that epic conflict between the House of Valois and the House of Plantagenet—began in 1337. This was the period that the Black Death afflicted Europe and arrived in England in 1348: the cost was not only human but social as well—The Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 was symptomatic of a reduced agricultural labour force flexing its muscles in the face of intransigent landlords.
Across the Channel, the Black Prince—immortalised in the bronze image you will find on his father’s tomb just around the corner—took to the field and defeated John II of France. He died before he could ascend to the throne leaving it to his ten-year-old son Richard II. Richard was crowned in 1377, but remained under the powerful and simmering influence of John of Gaunt, and then later the outright hostility of those around Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV. In literature, this was the age of Chaucer, writing not in French or Latin, but in the developing Middle English: who lived here beside Westminster Abbey; whose ‘Canterbury Tales’ appeared in 1387; and whose tomb lies in the South Transept.
Theologically and spiritually, this was also a time of great transition, not least because the spread of literacy beyond the walls of the monastery led to an appetite for religious and spiritual writings. There were important developments in the field of doctrine with a gradual move towards the humanising of Christ.
In the first Christian millennium, Christ was widely seen as ‘a remote, awesome judge and hero, who had fought and conquered the devil to gain the possibility of salvation for the human souls seized as a consequence of Adam’s sin’ . This ‘hero’ image of the atonement did not die out, but side-by-side with it the picture of Christ as the suffering man grew up in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and is associated with the names of Anselm, Peter Abelard, and Bernard of Clairvaux.
They saw the atonement not as a military metaphor for the defeat of the devil, but rather an attempt by God to draw ‘human love towards God as an object for identification and imitation’ . As Bernard puts it: I think this is the principal reason why the invisible God willed to be seen in the flesh, and to converse with men as a man. He wanted to recapture the affections of carnal men, who were unable to love in any other way, but first drawing them to the salutary love of his own humanity, and then gradually to raise them to a spiritual love.
Alongside this humanising of the divine passion and a focus on the suffering of Christ, went a development in what we might call spiritual contemplation. The Cloud of Unknowing begins with the words: ‘Here begins a book of contemplation … in which the soul is made one with God’. This unification of the human soul with divine nature was an attempt to return our spirits to a stage before the Fall: ‘this is the work in which humanity would have continued if we had never sinned’ . So the practice of Christian contemplation was not only a spiritual discipline of the inner life—a glimpse of heaven before we get there—but was also the clarion call for a way of life, a daily pattern cut off from the distractions of the material world.
This was the world into which Julian of Norwich was born, most probably in 1342, and we know she was still alive as an elderly woman in 1416, the year after Agincourt. Mother Julian was not a nun but an anchorite—one who had entered into an enclosed solitary life in a fixed place in order to give serious attention to a life of contemplation. She was the anchoress who occupied a cell at St Julian’s church in Norwich—hence the name by which she is known—in a city which was then one of the most prosperous in the land, commercially and culturally.
Mother Julian presents herself as ‘uneducated’—in Middle English she writes ‘that cowde no letter’—but the reality is very different. While the language of learning and university might have been Latin, English was coming into its own right, as was the widespread ability to read and write. Mother Julian occupies this landscape and brings to it great intelligence and sophistication. She may not have known Latin, but she knew life and she knew God. She also knew how to avoid the danger of being held up as an academic teacher and so was keen to downplay her undoubted abilities.
Among many things, Mother Julian is honoured for the fact that her book, ‘Revelations of Divine Love’ is the first to be written in English by a woman. Her style is discursive rather than disputational. And she had good reason to be cautious. Wycliffe had encouraged women to teach, but of course he was held in deep suspicion by the Church.
In fact, her book is not one but two: she received her first revelations and wrote them down in short form in 1373, and then some years later expanded these into a longer and more theologically nuanced version some twenty years later.
What also marks Mother Julian out is the radical nature of her theology when placed against the standards of her times. Let me point to just two aspects and then invite you to seek her out for yourselves.
The first is the place of sin and the wrath of God. For many in her time—as in ours—human suffering was seen as God’s angry response to human sin. But Mother Julian saw sin as the result of ignorance rather than of evil. We sin because we do not understand God, and so she imagines sin to be part of our learning, growing and walking with God. We learn through our experiences of trial and failure, therefore it is not sin that is the problem, but our inability to learn from it. In our human suffering we draw near to Christ’s suffering in the Passion and so draw nearer to him.
This changes the way Mother Julian looks upon hell and eternal judgement for the unbeliever. Let me quote: ‘The Holy Church teaches me to believe that all these [unbelievers] shall be condemned everlastingly to hell. And given all this, I thought it impossible that all manner of things should be well, as our Lord revealed at this time. And I received no other answer in showing from our Lord God but this: “What is impossible to you is not impossible to me. I shall keep my word in all things and I shall make all things well”’.
As she puts it, ‘I saw no wrath except on man’s side, and [God] forgave that in us’. In other words: in a manner she could not articulate because of the religious strictures of the day, she could not believe that God’s anger would be everlasting.
The second aspect which is most noteworthy is her description of God as Mother. In a way entirely in keeping with her times, she speaks of the Virgin Mary as ‘our Lady is our mother in whom we are all enclosed and we are born from her in Christ’, but then goes on to add: ‘And our Saviour is our true mother in whom we are eternally born and by whom we shall always be enclosed’ . Intriguingly, this notion of God as mother is absent from her first 1373 version of the Revelations, but it appears almost as a mature reflection in the later extended edition.
Drawing on the Old Testament tradition of the Motherhood of God exhibited in Wisdom, she says: ‘Jesus is our true mother by nature, at our first creation, and he is our true mother in grace by taking on our created nature’. The pain and agony of the Cross is also an act of giving birth, by which we human-beings, born of human mothers to pain and death, are reborn through Christ’s ‘pangs … and sufferings’. This description of sin and forgiveness is truly compassionate and human, and one which speaks directly to our time, 600 years later, especially in the holy season of Lent: ‘But often when our failings and our wretched sin is shown to us, we are so terrified and so very ashamed that we hardly know where to put ourselves. But then our kind Mother does not want us to run from him, there is nothing he wants less. Be he wants us to behave like a child; for when it is hurt or frightened it runs to its mother for help as fast as it can; and he wants us to do the same’.
So I commend Mother Julian of Norwich and her Revelations of the Divine Love to your spiritual reading this Lent. May her hope-filled belief in the generosity of God, who cares for us as a true parent, inspire you as it did her first readers over 600 years ago. ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’.
1 Revelations of the Divine Love, ed. Elizabeth Spearing intro. xiii
2 Revelations of the Divine Love, ed. Elizabeth Spearing intro. xiv
3 Sermons on the Song of Songs 20, in The Works of Bernard of Clairvaux, vol 2, trans. Kilian Walsh (Spencer Mass, 1971), p. 152 (quoted in Spearing xiv)
4 Cloud of Unknowing ch. 4
5 Revelations of the Divine Love, ed. Elizabeth Spearing intro. xxvi Ch 32
6 Revelations of the Divine Love, ed. Elizabeth Spearing intro. Xxi Ch 57
7 Revelations of the Divine Love, ed. Elizabeth Spearing intro. xxi Ch 59
8 Revelations of the Divine Love, ed. Elizabeth Spearing intro. xxii Ch 60
9 Revelations of the Divine Love, ed. Elizabeth Spearing intro. xxii Ch 61