Revelations Of Divine Love: A Beacon of Hope in Despairing Times

Sara Hayter

Julian of Norwich: Making Waves 650 years on

2023 saw the bustling city of Norwich turn into a pilgrimage and celebration of a woman who lived 650 years ago. Starting in March, Norwich was ablaze with special memorials, celebrations and events held to mark this incredible medieval woman, known only as Julian of Norwich. March was filled with the Online Julian Lent course, a series of talks about Julian’s faith and devotional life. April was awash with church services in the city marking this incredible woman’s life and writing. May 2023 ushered in new talks, quiet reflections, prayer workshops and festivals. And so, the rest of 2023 proceeded this way with the Spector of Julian and her seminal work, Revelations of Divine Love, shining brightly over the joyful festivities in her honour. What was it about this woman that captured the hearts and imaginations of people 650 years on? The answer lies in her writing. For a medieval woman, so celebrated and revered centuries later, we know remarkably little about her. Julian, not her real name, born around 1342, lived in Norwich. The city was bustling during this period of the Middle Ages as a city of commercial goods and religious fervour, but it also succumbed to terrible tragedy and upheaval in Julian’s lifetime. The Black Death ravished the city’s population, and terror, fear and the horrors of the disease could be felt throughout the rest of the country. The Peasants Revolt in 1381 saw Norwich in the grip of violent uprising and protests. The cries of revolt was all around, and in her enclosed cell next to St Julian’s church, Julian must have heard the rallying sounds of protest and chaos outside. Julian lived, enclosed in a small room by the side of St Julian’s church in Norwich. Her life as an anchoress was one of reflection, poverty and devotion to God. Julian’s life of seclusion, poverty and prayer meant she did not step foot into the outside world, however, she was a respected figure within the community. She was visited by those wanting spiritual advice and a calming, reassuring presence. Despite being safe from the perils and strife that afflicted her community, she heard their pain and suffering all too clearly. A visit to the anchoress, must have been of immense comfort and she was supported by donations to sustain her practical and material needs.
Revelations Of Divine Love: A Beacon of Hope in Despairing Times
Image of Jesus on the Cross. Image by K. Mitch Hodge, Unsplash

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Revelations Of Divine Love: A Beacon of Hope in Despairing Times
Mother holding a baby, picture by Phil Hearing, Unsplash. Julian's notion of God as Mother is one of the central themes of the book.

Revelations of Divine Love

A turning point in Julian’s life was when she was around thirty, and suffering from a serious illness to the point of death, she had a series of visions, that would be the inspiration to what we now think to be the first book written by a woman in the English language, Revelations of Divine Love. Believed to be near death, and summoning a priest holding a crucifix, Julian experienced sixteen visions. The anchoress would go on to make a full recovery, and thankfully, would write about her unique visions of Jesus and the Passion. Twenty years later, reflecting on this extraordinary moment in her life, Julian would revisit her visions, reflecting on their meaning. It is in her writings that the reader gets an intimate view of Julian, in terms of her spirituality and devotion. Her writings reveal an extraordinary insight into her faith, and in particular, Jesus’s crucifixion. The short text describes her visions of Jesus’s suffering in short and shape snippets that are bloody and vivid. Jesus’s suffering coincides with Julian’s bodily affliction and illness. Julian opens her writings by admitting that she longed to see and experience bodily suffering, and to see Jesus’s Passion, in the knowledge that, she may suffer with him, as those that did who loved him. This longing for mortal illness did indeed occur when Julian was an adult. She reveals in the book that God had sent her this illness, which seized her body for three days and three nights. In her suffering, visions of God’s mercy, love and compassion is juxtaposed with his bleeding and brutalised body. What is so incredible about Julian’s words, is the detail and her incredible love and devotion to her faith. Revelations of Divine Love is indeed a unique insight and voice within medieval Christian theology. What makes Julian’s revelations of God striking and profound centuries on, is the emphasis on God’s love and goodness. Julian’s description of a loving God, that is nurturing and maternal is unique. Her preoccupation of God as mother, has medieval precedence. Julian was not the first to cloak God in maternal language, however her vivid description of Christ’s motherly love is certainly bold. When reading Revelations of Divine Love, one is struck by Julian’s convictions, and her boldness to impart her knowledge, despite the limitations of her sex. Women who project their religious convictions and insights of God could be charged with heresy. Margery Kempe, another significant pious woman, knew the danger in speaking about her faith. Her open devotion to Christ in public, which saw her publicly weeping and begging forgiveness from God, caught the suspicions and annoyance of the clergy. Kempe was suspected of heresy and even thrown in Jail. Being a woman and being bold enough to speak openly about faith causes controversy. Julian of Norwich must have been all too aware of this as she put her experiences and insights to paper, however, her commitment to explore, analyse and impart her knowledge of God’s love, compassion and mercy illustrates Julian’s courageous nature and steadfast belief in her visions. In her short text, she acknowledges the weakness of her sex, and still goes on to say that she is moved by love to disclose what God has shown her, “But just because I am a woman, must I therefore believe that I should not tell you about the goodness of God, when I saw at the same time that it is his will that this be known?” Margery Kempe sought spiritual guidance and confirmation from Julian when she visited her in her cell in 1413. It was a significant meeting for both women, and Julian was moved by Kempe’s visions and conversations with Jesus, as she confirmed these were genuine. Julian’s revelations of the goodness and love of God amidst awful suffering is as relevant today as it was during her times. Her words and experiences still connect and move people over 600 years later.
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Julian’s exact date of death is unknown, but she started to feature in people’s will’s in the year 1415. Julian’s writings were discovered in 1670 and first published that year by Serenus de Cressy, a monk and confessor for the nuns at Cambrai. Revelations of Divine Love has become a much loved devotional text, and by the publishing of this book, Julian’s legacy continues to shine a light of love, compassion and motherly tenderness to an ever increasingly turbulent and divided world centuries on. Her words of the goodness of God, that all shall be well, even in times of utter despair is no less relevant today than during the despair of the Middle Ages. It is this, in her words, that people will always connect, contemplate and celebrate this incredible woman. As last year's celebrations show, this extraordinary anchoress, theologian and author's star will continue to shine brightly on, with her words of love, compassion and tenderly motherly love taking on new and profound relevance in these ever changing times.
Revelations Of Divine Love: A Beacon of Hope in Despairing Times

Sara Hayter

My name is Sara. My academic background is varied. My first degree was in Film, TV and Radio studies at Staffordshire university. I then went on to study my MA in Film studies at the University of Southampton. My most recent degree, which I have is my Masters in History at the University of Birmingham, specialising in medieval history. When I’m not studying, I write a history blog called Medieval Musings, and have been doing this since 2017. I love medieval history, especially women’s history and theories of gender and sexuality. My love of medieval history resulted in me returning to academia to study History at MA level in 2021. When I am not in history mode, I love nothing more than being a mum to my happy and energetic five year old daughter.
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