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A reflection on Julian of Norwich, by Tim Summers

In this lockdown, moving in churchy circles as I do, I have heard the name of Julian of Norwich invoked a few times. Julian was a contemporary of Chaucer and we do not know her real name, for “Julian” was the saint’s name of the church to which she was attached. She was the author of the first work in English identifiably written by a woman, the Revelations of Divine Love, and she is currently being feted as an example of premodern "self-isolating". For Julian lived in seclusion in a cell attached to St Julian's Church, Norwich. Over the last couple of weeks I have read conjecture that her seclusion may have been partially a response to the Black Death then raging through England. Moreover, before her seclusion Julian was ill and close to death. The visions or "showings" that her writings describe occurred during her slow recovery. Whatever the mix of factors that motivated her retreat to a solitary cell, Julian's writings give us a source of comfort in a time like the present. She is the author of mystical insights which crop up throughout later English spiritual writing. God’s love for humanity is revealed to her in the person of Jesus. “And in this vision he also showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was round as a ball. I looked at it with my mind’s eye and thought, ‘What can this be?’ And the answer came in a general way, like this: ‘It is all that is made.’” And here is the passage from which T.S. Eliot took his line in "Little Gidding": "In my folly, before this time I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well. This impulse was much to be avoided, but nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed because of it, without reason and discretion.

"But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.'"

All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. To claim such an otherworldly comfort might seem naive, and perhaps tactless and even faintly blasphemous, at a time when we are under profound stress, people are ill and dying, and our future is uncertain. But if it is blasphemous, the blasphemy is against the prince of this world and not the kingdom of God. For the insight found in Julian's vision is what lies at the heart of the Gospel. It is the only ground for a "peace which passes all understanding," for the strange serenity and resignation of Christian saints and the lovely atmosphere of icons.

All things will ultimately be put right by Christ.

The image is a painting of 1912, "Julian of Norwich" by Stephen Reid.

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