This post was written by Emilee Snyder, a Masters student at Princeton Theological Seminary specializing in Church History. It’s part of the “Theologian Spotlight Series.” Other posts in the series can be found here.
Ever since being introduced to the life and work of Julian of Norwich, she has quickly become one of my favorite, and most impactful, theologians. For me, the key to capturing the heart of Julian’s theology and legacy is to recognize her quiet modification of the character of the Godhead, reintroducing into medieval thought Trinitarian compassion and closeness, traits previously reserved strictly for Christ – this is precisely what I hope to convey in this brief post, for her innovations were momentous not simply in her time, but continue to be so in our time, as well. All communities, not simply late medieval Norwich, are enriched by the sound reminder of the divine pathos, particularly a context entrenched in suffering as Julian’s own community was.
Julian of Norwich (c. 1342 – c. 1416) was a female anchoress in fourteenth-century England, spending the later years of her life secluded in a cell adjoining a Norwich church so as to devote the entirety of her days to the contemplation of the Divine. Over the course of her religious experience, she received various “revelations” from God, recording these first in 1373; twenty years later, in 1395, she supplemented this shorter text with greater theological insights and subtle, yet sharp, theological innovations. These works, collected in Revelations of Divine Love, make up the gravity of her religious influence.
Before we tackle the great innovations of Julian, let’s begin with the theology she inherited (and ultimately revised). Any reader of Julian’s Revelations (or of mainstream medieval spiritual works in general – more on this to come!) will likely be struck by her emotional, vivid depictions of the suffering Christ, a dominant theme in most medieval forms of piety. This affectionate piety, or cruciform contemplation as I like to call it, passionately recalls the suffering of Christ so as to realize the magnitude of love displayed therein. For example, Julian graphically describes the “great drops” of Christ’s “thick, dark red” blood falling “from under the crown of thorns … as though they had come out of the veins.” His pierced and broken flesh, she continues, was “slashed all over” and “in weals from the scourging,” “[sagging] with its own weight from hanging for such a long time” as the grip of thorns and nails widened his fresh wounds.
Jarring as Julian’s imagery may be for modern readers, we must recognize this contemplative style as wholly normative in her time. For Julian, as with affectionate piety as a whole, these graphic images are evoked as expressions of Christ’s unfailing love for humanity, a love so vast that he was compelled to endure the pains of the cross. This suffering love is the heart of Julian’s cruciform piety, the realization of which is precisely the end of this spiritual pursuit. These two components are thus tightly tethered to one another: Christ’s “love for our souls is so strong that he chose the pain willingly and eagerly, and suffered it meekly and was well-pleased to do so,” she argues. Though agonizing and excruciating, Christ’s love for humanity, both individually and universally, was so infinite that enduring the passion was, in fact, nearly irresistible: “I truly saw that he was willing to die as often as he was able to die, and love would never let him rest until he had done it.”
In terms of Julian’s compliance with orthodox spirituality – so far, so good. From Anselm of Canterbury, to the Franciscan spiritual tradition, the humanness of Christ, his willful suffering and extravagant love therein was center stage in medieval devotion. At this point, it seems Julian is simply a product of her spiritual age. But let’s take another step back into medieval spirituality as a whole, briefly. For all of the unparalleled fixation on the suffering love of Christ, medieval piety was equally insistent on the righteous vengeance of God. The two, in fact, went hand in hand. For, the suffering Christ endured was ultimately to satisfy God’s wrath toward human sin, avenge the ultimate injury and offense committed by humanity. The selfless, cruciform love of Christ, in this scheme, necessarily implied a wrathful God with justice to settle.
Not so, for Julian.
With impressive boldness, Julian reconstructs the character of God so as to reintroduce the Trinity’s compassion, closeness, and kindness to a context accustomed to God’s wrath, justice, and vengeance. Commenting on the Trinity’s involvement in Christ’s suffering work, she dictates from her revelation that “Jesus wishes us to consider the delight which the Holy Trinity feels in our salvation.” She radically continues, “The whole Trinity took part in the Passion of Christ … dispending an abundance of virtues and fullness of grace to us through him.” Preserving God’s immutability, she clarifies that “only the son of the Virgin suffered,” yet her theological innovations are nonetheless sharp: that the whole of the Trinity was involved in the passion of Christ, that the Cross is ultimately revelatory of the Trinity, went far beyond traditional medieval thought. For, to suggest that the cross is ultimately revelatory of the Trinity is, for Julian, to posit that the Trinity itself is “nothing but love, compassion, and pity,” components of a divine characterization that differed drastically from prevailing understandings of God in her day, ones which centered on wrath, anger, and judgment. Herein is Julian’s masterful deviation.
That her audience was inflicted with countless trials makes this reconstruction particularly telling. By the time Julian wrote the Short Text in 1373, England had suffered through three episodes of the Black Death, a fatal epidemic that, some scholars argue, sliced the population in half by the end of the fourteenth century – intersecting these visitations of the plague in England was a harvest failure in 1369, that triggered economic decline and national disorder. All such trials simply exacerbated sentiments of divine wrath and eternal punishment; Julian’s emphasis on divine empathy, closeness, and compassion finds its antecedent here.
Julian even takes this a step further, extending the gracious companionship of God to the context of sin. Not only were the trials of Norwich not to be seen as punishment for sin, but sin itself was reconstructed by Julian as an accident incurred amid honorable duty, an event God looks at with pity and kindness, rather than fault and blame. The implications of this nuanced view of sin are unmistakable. Here, we have a female anchoress altering the reigning account of human failure to accentuate the unfailing companionship of the Godhead.
Julian is also frequently remembered for her “Christ as Mother” idea, calling Jesus “our true mother,” who feeds us “not with milk, but with himself, opening his side for us and claiming all our love.” Julian’s theological goals here are unchanged: by way of this maternal imagery for Christ, she further reiterates God’s nearness and compassion. That this maternal understanding of Christ is representative of the Trinity as a whole further reiterates Julian’s emphasis on an intimate God who is a companion and comfort in suffering and trials.
Julian’s resolve to affirm God’s compassion and closeness to a culture accustomed to the opposite, particularly amid suffering and confusion, is compelling to me. Sure, you and I may not be inflicted by the Black Plague, but to reduce Julian’s spiritual theology to her own context alone is, I believe, to miss her point entirely. It is rather a theology applicable to all Christians, societies, and ages, for there are instances for all of us when the vast love and close comfort of God seems all but true.
As Julian affirms, in fact, our errors often lay in our failure to see God right beside us, rather than our own flight from God. With a promise such as this, it’s easy to see why Julian is so insistent that all shall be well. There’s no better way to end this piece than with these very encouraging words from Julian herself:
There is a deed which the Holy Trinity shall do on the last day, and when that deed shall be done and how it shall be done is unknown to all creatures under Christ, and shall be until it has been done. And he wants us to know this because he wants us to feel more ease in our souls and more at peace in love, rejoicing in him and no longer considering all the tumults which might keep us from the truth. This is the great deed ordained by our Lord God from eternity, treasured up and hidden in his blessed breast, only known to himself, and by this deed he shall make all things well; for just as the Holy Trinity made all things from nothing, so the Holy Trinity shall make all well that is not well.