Introducing "A Book of Showings" by Julian of Norwich
Ed Friedlander, M.D.
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icon by Robert Lentz Professor Elizabeth Kirk introduced me to Julian's book during my first week at Brown. It was a high point of my undergraduate career. In modern times, the book has usually been titled "Revelations of Divine Love". Julian was little-known in 1969, but nowadays we hear much more about this medieval mystic, whose record is considered by some to be the oldest book in the English language. ("And by a woman...")

If you have already read Julian's book, or if you don't want to read a webpage that's a little bit graphic, you will probably want to go directly to the links.

As a youngster, Julian had prayed to know exactly what Christ had suffered during His passion. During a near-fatal illness, her old prayer was answered in a near-death experience. It began with seeing blood flow from under the crown of thorns on a crucifix. The experience lasted for hours, during which she was surrounded by friends and was at least sometimes able to speak with them. She saw and heard Christ, was shown secrets, and had some questions answered. The record she left is extremely detailed, and exists in both a short and a long version. Afterwards she was much-sought-after as a spiritual guide, and lived in a cell at the parish church building in Norwich. "Julian" was probably not her real name, but the name of the saint to whom the church was dedicated.

Most of what is written for the public today about Julian today focuses on her personality and her era. I had the pleasure of attending a brilliant one-person play at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral which focused on Julian and her times, with only a brief reference to the showings. The actress imagined her comforting the dying John Ball/Bull, doomed hero of the peasant revolt.

Julian's experiences contrast with those of the "mystics" and "visionaries" who report ongoing visits and instructions from Christ (Margery Kempe, Brigid of Sweden, Catherine of Siena, Ellen G. White, the Mormon prophets). She promoted no political or social agenda (right-wing or otherwise), and admitted she found her experiences puzzling.

Some recent activists have used Julian to support their demands for "inclusive language" for liturgy (i.e., avoiding the use of "Father" and "He" for God whenever possible for the sake of political correctness.) Others have ridiculed Julian for her "hazelnut theology", with the promise of peace and salvation without a left-wing political agenda. Her cell (reconstructed along with the church after the WWII bombings) is still a popular site for visitors.

You will find less online about the actual content of the sixteen showings.

If I understand Julian correctly, here are some things that she learned during her interview which might be of special interest to a person considering whether to read the whole book.

  • When Christ was crowned with thorns, they were stuck through His scalp down the skull, causing intense pain. As the blood poured out, it was at first dark, then on exposure to air became bright red. (This of course is what really happens in heavy bleeding.) At first, each gust of wind caused the thorns to scrape across the skull surface, recreating the pain. After a while, the surrounding accumulations of blood became more firm, and the effect stopped. (I'm a pathologist and a past medical examiner for Kansas City. This is exactly what I would expect. Blood that has clotted firms up due to fibrin crosslinking by factor XIII, though I had never thought of it before returning to Julian's book after medical school.)
  • While Christ was still alive on the cross, His dehydration had already caused discoloration of His lips. Usually we see this drying effect only after a body has been dead for a day or more. The drying was excruciatingly painful for Him. (Again, as a pathologist I think this is probably accurate.)
  • God still does miracles, i.e., intervenes actively in our lives. These are always preceded by very rough times. It has always been this way and this is as it should be.
  • God cannot be manipulated by prayer. Asking the intercession of saints, and trying to make prayer more effective by citing arguments or mentioning special things or events, are not helpful. Prayer is effective when it is the result of God wanting a person to receive something, and putting the content of the prayer into the person's mind. Julian seems well-aware that this sounds as problematic as all other accounts of the power of prayer.
  • God still issues calls to individuals. Apparently He does not call the "beautiful people", whose lives and abilities seem perfect, for special assignments. Instead, he chooses the obviously flawed individuals, people who get ridiculed for some reason by others through no fault of their own.
  • From time to time, Christ reveals Himself to living persons, always as a warm, intimate, and "courteous" friend. This increases these people's faith tremendously, and they in turn are called to share this revelation with others. Julian was one such person, and she expressed the hope that people would not consider her a celebrity or focus on her, but on Christ.
  • Julian asked about the good Jewish people and whether they would be saved. It is clear that she was told "Yes", because right after she mentions this, she adds a few paragraphs saying how she was sure that nothing in the revelation contradicted anything she'd been taught in church.
  • No one comes to God except through Christ and His passion. When we see Him, we will understand this, apparently regardless of what we may have believed beforehand. Christ is tremendously pleased to have suffered to obtain our salvation. All people of good will have a part of themselves that has never consented to sin, and never shall. God cannot be angry with anyone, or do anything that is not consistent with His overwhelming love for us.
  • We cannot live lives free of sin, but we can by our own efforts and brainpower live fairly good lives. Julian's book is not intended as a guide to good living, but when she touches on this area, she refers to works of kindness to others more than to ascetic practices or formal worship.
  • During our natural lives, we are unhappy because we naturally form attachments to created things. We cannot really be satisfied with anything short of the relationship with God, and the more we focus on this, the more peace we have in the here-and-now.
  • "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and you can see for yourself that all manner of thing shall be well." At the end of history, Christ will do something so that everything that has ever happened has happened for the best. Nobody will have any reason to say, "If only..." Christ told Julian, "I do hold you securely." At the same time, human sin is horrible; seen as it is, it is worse than the pains of hell. When Julian asked (as most Christians at one time or another have asked) how this can all be true, Christ replied, "What is impossible for you is not impossible for Me." Julian was fully aware of a contradiction that cannot be resolved in human terms, and found peace in accepting this. Like every sovereign, God has secrets and this is as it should be. She concludes, "The more we busy ourselves to understand God's secrets, the less we know."

  • I am an Episcopalian, and thus free to make my own decisions about documents like this one (and pretty much everything else.) Julian is well-aware that much of the revelation, put in human language, does not make sense. She is also aware that there are heterodox elements, at least in light of the popular theology of her era. For me, this increases her credibility. Despite what you may hear about the Bible being unavailable to the laity during the middle ages, it is obvious that Julian was a serious Bible reader.

    Certainly Julian's book does not have breadth or scope of the Bible, and has authority for anyone only insofar as that reader finds it persuasive. But my own experience of life, and some of the surprising things I've seen and heard, has led me to take Julian very seriously. This only begins with Julian's "showings" squaring much better with the Christian Bible than what we hear about medieval devotion and piety. Rather than explain further, I invite you to begin or continue your own exploring. Perhaps you'll conclude, as I have, that the world is a stranger and ultimately far happier place than most people think.

    A preface to an edition of Julian's book tells about something that happened at her shrine. A former soldier whose eyes had been gouged out by a sadistic guard in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp felt an overpowering urge to visit Julian's cell. There, he was able to see the guard who had blinded him, now in torment for his deed in the afterlife. The guard begged forgiveness. The blinded soldier forgave him. Would I have been a strong enough Christian to do the same? I don't know. Did Julian arrange this? I'll leave this among the "secrets" that I don't need to know. I would be very interested in hearing from anyone who has more information about this incident.



    Julian's church:


    Julian and Margery Kemp:

    Margery visited Julian in 1415. She writes:

    [I] was bidden by our Lord to go to an anchoress in [Norwich] named Dame Julian. And so [I] did. She showed [me] the trace that God put in [my] soul of compunction, contrition, sweetness, and devotion, compassion with holy meditation and high contemplation, and very many holy speeches and fellowship that our Lord spoke to her soul and many wonderful revelations which she showed to the anchoress. [Margery wanted to know if she was deceived in her own visions, and sought Julian] because the anchoress was expert in such things, and could give good counsel...

    The anchoress, hearing the marvelous goodness of our Lord, highly thanked God with all her heart for this visit, counselling [me] to be obedient to the will of our Lord God and fulfill with all her right whatever He put in her soul if it was not against the worship of God and profit of her fellow-Christians, for it is were [contrary], then it was not the moving of a good spirit, but rather of an evil spirit.

    [Julian said], All fears other than reverent fears that are proffered to us, though they come under the color of holiness they are not so true. And hereby they can be known and discerned. [whilke is whilke] For this reverent fear, the more it is had, the more is softens and comforts and pleases and gives rest. False fear belabors and tempest-tosses. Than is this the remedy to know them both and refuse the false, just as we would refuse a wicked spirit that showed him[self] in likeness of a good angel. For just an an evil spirit, though he comes under the color and likeness of a good angel, his fellowship and his working (though he seem so fair). First he labors [i.e., hassles] and tempest-tosses and troubles the person that he speaks with and interferes with him and leaves him all in unrest. And the more he communes with him, the more he labors him, and the farther he is from peace. Therefore it is God's will, and our help, that we know them thus and sundry, for God's willl ever that we be secure in love and peaceable and restful as he is to us and rightly of the same condition as He is to us so He wishes that we be to ourself and to our fellow-Christians. Amen.

    The Holy Spirit may never do anything against charity, and if He did, it would be contrary to His own Self for He is all Charity. Also, he moves a soul to all chasteness, for chaste lovers are called the Temple of the Holy Spirit [I Cor 6:19], and the Holy Spirit makes a soul steadfast in the right faith and the right belief. And a person with a divided soul is always unstable and unsteadfast in all his ways. He that is always and evermore doubting, is like to the flood of the sea, which is moved and borne [i.e., carried] about with the wind, and that man is not likely to receive the gifts of God. What creature has these signs, he must steadfastly believe that the Holy Ghost dwells in his soul. And much more when God visits a creature with tears of contrition, devotion, or compassion, he may and ought to believe that the Holy Ghost is in his soul.

    Saint Paul says that the Holy Ghost ask intercedes for us with mourning and weepings that are unspeakable. That is to say, he makes us ask and pray with mourning and weeping so plentiously that the tears may not be numbered [Romans 8:26]. There is no evil spirit that can give these tokens, for Saint Jerome says that tears torment the devil more than do the pains of hell.

    God and the devil have forever been contrary and they shall never dwell together in one place. The devil has no power in a person's soul. Holy Scripture says that the soul of a righteous man is the seat of God, and so I trust, sister, that you are.

    [Julian remembers her vision:] But then I was left still awake, and then Our Lord opened my spiritual eyes and showed me my soul in the midst of my heart. I saw my soul so large as if it were a kingdom. And here are the conditions I saw therein. I thought it was a worshipful city. In the midst of this city sits our Lord Jesus, true God and true human, a fair person and of large stature, worshipfully holy Lord, and I saw him clad simply in worship. He sits in the soul rightly in peace and rest. And he rules and governs heaven and earth and all that is. The humanity with the Godhead sits in rest. And the godhead rules and government without any instruments or busy-ness. And my soul blissfully occupied with the Godhead, that is suffering mighty. Suffering wisdom, suffering goodness. The place that Jesus takes in our soul, he shall never remove it, world without end. For in us is his humble home, and it is pleasing to Him to dwell in this; it was a delectable sight and restful. For it is so in truth, world without end. And beholding this in the time we are on earth is totally pleasant to God and and a great speed [i.e., help] to us. And the soul that thus beholds it makes it becomes like Him Whom it beholds and is always in rest and peace, and this was a singular joy and a bliss to me that I saw Him sitting for the beholding of this sitting showed to me assurance of his endless dwelling.

    I pray that God grant you [i.e., Margery] persecutions. Set all your trust in God, and do not be afraid of what people say. For the more spite, shame, and reproof that you have in the world, the more is your merit in the sight of God. Patience is necessary for you, for in that shall you keep your soul.

    [Margery ends by saying:] Much was the holy fellowship that the anchoress and I had by communing in the love of our Lord Jesus Christ. Many days were [we] together.

    hazelnuts Hazelnut

    Back to Ed's.

    Obviously Julian has been among my favorites since college. However, I had not mentioned this to anyone since arriving in Kansas City, even the local clergy. During the re-enactment of her life which I mentioned above, the actress (who was from out of town and did not know me) interrupted the play to walk over to me, seated in the middle of an audience of maybe 200 people, and handed me the hazelnut to keep. This baffled me at the time. It still does.

    Lent, 2004

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