Saturday, March 10, 2012

Julian of Norwich by Amy Frykholm

In the midst of what historian Barbara Tuchman has called the ‘calamitous’ fourteenth century – marked by war, famine, plague, and unrest – one woman wrote a book. It was the first book composed by a woman in English and remains one of the greatest theological works in the English language. So little is known about this woman and even her name – Julian of Norwich – is in question. Yet her achievement – A Revelation of Love - is extraordinary. Very few people – male or female – at that time wrote anything in English. Even though it was the language of the common people, English was rarely used for literary purposes. But Julian’s achievement isn’t just in having written a book in English, but in the nature of what she had to say.

Playfully and subtly maneuvering amid political dangers and social limitations, with open curiosity and dry humor, Julian took a heavy world of religious obligation and turned it on its head. In her book, which is both an account of visions she received and a book of spiritual direction and theological reflection, she wrote, ‘The soul must perform two duties. One is that we reverently marvel. The other is that we humbly endure, ever taking pleasure in God.’ In Julian’s understanding, the right relationship between God and the soul was not primarily guilt for sin, but wonder, release and unity. She wrote that the righteousness required of us was simply this: delight in God’s good world.

This delight traveled a hard road through Julian’s life. To reach it Julian had to traverse the enormous suffering she saw around her and experienced herself…

By the time of Julian’s birth in 1342, Norwich was six hundred years old, and had a population of ten thousand. It was the second largest city in England and growing fast. Waking early to the morning mist, Julian would have heard the chatter of the first women on their way to draw from the city’s wells, and the rattle and clang as butchers and blacksmiths welcomed first customers. In the churches, sleepy priests started mass early for travelers, workman and pilgrims headed out beyond the city walls. The noisy snuffles of pigs and lowing of cows filled the streets as children released animals from their pens and drove them out through the city gates to pasture. As she and her mother walked the streets they saw boats and barges arriving from Yarmouth that carried sea coal, barrels of iron from Sweden, herring and onions, wood from Riga, Flemish lace and light dry Rhennish wine, the color of sun through white curtains. The boats sent back fine wool, leather, latten and wheat along with the proud products of the city’s artisans – stained glass, intricately carved wood, illuminated manuscripts, and jewelry.

Julian and her mother would have avoided the main thoroughfares of the city, sometimes paved though often pits of mud. Down the center of the streets ran a ditch into which people threw slop water, the remains of supper, and butchers the smoking entrails of the daily slaughter. But avoiding rank smells was impossible. Norwich was caught up in the construction of new churches and chapels, along with thriving industries of dying, tanning and fishing. The ripe scent of butchering and the dung-soaked hides of the tanneries added to a thick stew of human and animal stench: sweat, rotted standing water, lime, dripping animal fat, and malt.

Often Julian watched and heard the procession of the parish priest, headed by his clerk holding a lantern and ringing a bell and an acolyte carrying the cross, headed to the home of a neighbor to give the last rites to the sick and dying: “Hail! Light of the World, Word of the Father, true Victim, Living Flesh, true God and true Man. Hail flesh of Christ, let Thy blood wash my soul.”

Whenever Julian entered the Church, a scene of judgment and damnation spread out before her. There on the chancel arch in vivid reds and yellows, greens and blues was the Last Day. Tiny naked white sinners sent from God’s throne to hell. Money lenders boiled in oil. Adulterers stripped and beaten. Grinning devils that dragged, prodded, and beat souls into hell while Christ sat above watching, unmoved.

But preoccupied as people were with eternal damnation, the hell that descended on Norwich during Julian’s childhood seemed to have been handcrafted for the living. The first pestilence arrived when she was six years old, after the season of Epiphany in 1349. Within a year more than three quarters of the population of Norwich were dead; an entire world erased amid the wails and shrieks of her neighbors and huge open pits of decaying bodies. Boats stopped coming to port. No one went to market, crops went unplanted, there was no one to collect trash or repair the streets. No one rang the bells or took animals to pasture. All the priests had died or fled. It was three years before the painful process of reconstruction could begin. In 1362 the pestilence struck again, this time its target being infants and children, perhaps Julian’s own. The visions that formed the basis of her lifetime search for sacred meaning and her book came to her at the crisis of her own illness ten years later.

During her visions and for decades afterward, Julian wrestled with understanding what she had seen. The God of her visions and the God of the Church to which she was devoted contradicted each other, sometimes painfully. The church of her time was beginning to take violent measures to protect its powers. By the time Julian took up a pen putting words to parchment, the church hierarchy had actively banned the use of English in religious contexts, except in sermons, confessions and other practical matters. People were carried out of the city of Norwich and burnt if an English-language Bible was discovered in their homes.

Breathtaking for its daring, Julian’s book was formed outside the structures of the church hierarchy, not for clerics or even nuns, but for her ‘even Christians’, the common people of the church who she loved. Her language, as it developed, was a mix of the spiritual and material. Her images – hazelnuts, herring, pellets, eaves – were drawn from everyday life and were meant to remind her readers that we are united with God even through our physical being. Her language had the quality of finely made homespun. Crafted, yes, but refined, no. It had the echoes of stories told. around peat fires and the smell of their smoke, of rhymes and songs sung by mothers to their children.

“God is being and wants us to sit, dwell and ground ourselves in this knowledge while at the same time realizing that we are noble, excellent, assessed as precious and valuable and have been given creation for our enjoyment because we are loved.”

After a lifetime of seeking Julian finally saw that God and the soul shared something so intimate that even sin could not disrupt it – the soul and God were one.

Julian of Norwich; A Contemplative Biography by Amy Frykholm; Paraclete Press, Brewster, MA, 2010

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful prose. I've never read J of N but reading this made me feel that she had a soul alive to life and God and that is what flows into her writings.