Elizabeth Goodine



1342/1343:  Julian of Norwich was born.

1343 and 1362 (and periodically recurring throughout the fourteenth century):  Severe flooding occurred in Norwich.

1348–1349, 1361, 1369, 1375, 1383, 1387:  Plague struck Norwich.

1373 (May 8 or May 15): Julian experienced a series of visions during a near fatal illness.

1378–1417:  The Western (Papal) Schism took place. The Papacy was disputed with bishops in Avignon and Rome each claiming papal authority.

1381:  The Peasants’ Revolt took place across England.

1382:  John Wycliffe produced the first English translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible.

1382:  Lollard movement was begun by earliest followers of John Wycliffe.

1384:  John Wycliffe died.

Circa 1393:  The possible date that Julian entered her anchor-hold at Norwich.

1415:  The English defeated the French in the Battle of Agincourt.

1413–1416:  Margery Kempe visited Julian of Norwich.

After 1416:  Julian of Norwich died in Norwich, England.


Saint Julian, a late fourteenth to early fifteenth century woman from Norwich, England,  [Image at right] is known and remembered through her own recounting of a series of sixteen visions that she received while suffering a near fatal illness. According to Julian’s account, the visions came to her in May of 1373 at the age of thirty. Already a very devout woman , she relates that in her desire to become closer to Christ, she had previously asked for three specific gifts from God: “the first was memory of his passion; the second was bodily sickness in youth at thirty years of age; the third was to have from God’s gift three wounds;”  specifically the wounds of “true contrition,” “compassion,” and a “wish-filled yearning for God”(Revelations chapter 2, John-Julian 2009:67, 69). Julian’s hope in asking for these rather strange gifts, complete even with wounds, was “so that after the showing I would have a more true consciousness of the Passion of Christ . . . [and] so that I would be purged by the mercy of God and afterward live more to the honor of God because of that sickness. . . ” (Revelations chapter 2, John-Julian 2009:67, 69). Remarkably, she was indeed afflicted  by a severe illness at thirty years of age, [Image at right] during which she seems to have passed in and out of consciousness for several days. On the fourth night, when she was not expected to survive to daybreak, a priest was called in and last rites were administered. With a crucifix held before her face, death began its creep over her, until she was aware of nothing but her own tortured and labored breathing; and then, finally, a cessation of all pain and a feeling of wholeness (Revelations chapter 3, John-Julian 2009:71). As Julian puts it, she “marveled at this sudden change,” but “the feeling of comfort was of no full ease to me, for it seemed to me I would rather have been delivered from this world” (Revelations chapter 3, John-Julian 2009:73). Yet, no such deliverance from the world was to be. Instead, as her body lingered between death and life, the visions commenced and with them, God began to gift her with those very “wounds” she had earlier requested; that is, to reveal to her God’s own true contrition, compassion and yearning, and to teach her that God truly is love (all love) and that such love can never be divorced from humanity.

Entitled Showings or Revelations, these visions given to Julian were recorded in both a short and a long version. It is generally believed that she completed the former shortly after recovering from her illness; and that the latter, which is much longer, was written down after many years of prayer and reflection, since it includes not only the visions but also Julian’s own interpretations regarding the meaning of those visions (Spearing 1998:xii–xiii). By meditating on the memory of her experience over the course of years, Julian engaged in an ongoing relationship with God through which greater and greater knowledge of God’s love was continuously revealed to her. Thus, for her, even the long text  was “an unfinished text” because there was always more that God might choose to reveal through the process of her own remembering (Yuen 2003:198). Unfortunately, no original manuscripts have survived to the present day, but copies of both the long and short versions do exist (John-Julian 2009:17). [Image 3 at right] The long version consists of 86 short chapters and is notable for being the first book written in English by a woman. It is also significant that after lying in obscurity for nearly six hundred years, the work has grown increasingly popular since the latter part of the twentieth century. Julian’s visions, which reflect on the nature of God and God’s relationship to humanity, on the meaning of sin and redemption, on prayer, and ultimately on communion of the soul with God, seem to offer fresh possibilities for those seeking a deeper level of relationship with God as well as with their fellow human beings.

Very little is known about this medieval woman, apart from her writings, which continue to inspire people today. Due to a difference between two major manuscripts, there is some discrepancy regarding the exact date on which the visions came to Julian, yet it is clear that the illness and thus the visions began on either the eighth or the thirteenth of May 1373 (John-Julian 2009:35–38) when Julian was thirty years old (Revelations chapter 3, John-Julian 2009:69). For this reason, a birthdate of 1342/1343 is generally assumed. Ascribing a date of death is more difficult. The oldest surviving manuscript is a copy of the Short Version, which dates to the mid-fifteenth century. It includes an introductory note from which it can be ascertained that she lived at least until 1413 since the note reads: “this is a vision shown, through God’s goodness, to a devout woman, and her name is Julian, and she is a recluse at Norwich, and is still alive in the year of our Lord 1413.” (Revelations chapter 1, Spearing, 1998:3). In addition, a will that bequeathed funds to “Julian recluse at Norwich,” in 1416 supports the likelihood that she lived at least until that time. Some have assigned a death date into the 1420s based on later wills; one in 1429, for instance, leaves a gift to “the anchorite in the churchyard of St. Julian’s, Conesford in Norwich” (John-Julian, 2009:31). Testimonials such as these have led to some confusion since it is known that another Julian, known as Dame Julian Lampett, was an anchorite at Carrow Priory (also in Norwich) between 1426 and 1481 (John-Julian 2009:31-32). Another important piece of historical evidence that suggests Saint Julian lived until sometime around 1415 comes from the Book of Margery Kempe (c. 1440), in which that well known visionary writes about her own visit to Dame Julian, the anchoress at Norwich (excerpts in John-Julian, 2009:33–34 and Spearing, 1998:192–93). The date of this visit between the two women is not absolutely certain; it may have taken place in 1413 (John-Julian 2009:33) or as late as 1415 (Spearing 1998:xi).

One fact that is certain is that at some point in her life, Julian became an anchorite attached to St. Julian’s Church in Norwich, England. Yet, as with the date of her physical death, the date on which she was ritually entombed in the anchor-hold is also unknown. Instead, questions abound regarding much about this woman, including the very name, Julian, by which she is known to history, as well as about her religious vocation, her familial ties and social status, and her education.

Just how Saint Julian attained the name “Julian” has been a matter of much discussion in recent years. Although it had become commonplace to assume that she took this name upon entering the anchor-hold at St. Julian’s Church in Norwich (for instance, Spearing 1998:xi and Milton 2002:9), this notion is now being questioned, with some scholars even implying that it is more likely that the church took its name from her. In his extensive translation and commentary on the Revelations, Father John-Julian asserts that “there is no evidence of any kind that any English anchorite ever took a new ‘name-in-religion,’ to say nothing of taking the name of the patron saint of the church to which his or her cell was attached or affiliated. Historical records show that it was certainly not a ‘common practice’. . .” (John-Julian 2009:21–22). Likewise, following a systematic study of anchoresses of the Norwich diocese up to 1540 (including those enclosed at St. Julian’s Church as well as St. Edward’s Church in Norwich), E. A. Jones states that “There is, in fact, nowhere in any of the extant rites for the enclosure of an anchorite where a changing of name is stated or implied.” While such an assumption is generally based on a practice common to religious orders, anchorites were not considered a part of any order, a fact that weakens the comparison considerably (Jones 2007:1, 3). Furthermore, Jones notes that the name, Julian, “was not exclusively, or even principally, a male name in the Middle Ages” (Jones 2007:9). Citing two different studies as well as poll tax records from the fourteenth century, he found that Julian was never listed among male names but was quite common for women, an equivalent to the modern name, Gillian (Jones 2007:9). Thus, he argues that it is quite possible that Julian, may have actually been Saint Julian’s given name, and that she retained that name upon entering the anchor-hold at Norwich.

Alongside questions about Julian’s given first name, there are further uncertainties regarding her heritage and background. Just who was this woman? Where did she come from and how did she end up as an anchorite attached to St. Julian’s Church in Norwich? There has been some speculation that she was a Beguine, that is, a laywoman informally connected to other women who devoted themselves to prayer and the care of others, who took simple, rather than solemn, religious vows (Milton 2002:11). However, perhaps because Carrow Abbey, a convent with which Julian would have been familiar, is located within walking distance of St. Julian’s Church, a much more popular theory is that she may have been a Benedictine nun. Indeed, a striking portion of stained glass window, [Image at right] depicting her as such, was commissioned in 1964 for Norwich Cathedral, and in their extensive 1978 study and translation of Julian’s work, Edmund Colledge and James Walsh concluded that it was “clear that she had entered a religious order when still young” (Colledge and Walsh 1978:20).

Even so, there are several factors that point away from the possibility that Saint Julian was actually a nun. First, in her writings, Julian never speaks about life in a convent. Of course, this in itself, is merely an argument from silence. It must also be noted that while she speaks a great deal about her visions and her feelings surrounding them, she gives very few, if any, hints about her own personal life. More important, however, are small details that she does include while describing her experience. First, her mother and others were present during her illness. This would have been highly unlikely had she been a Benedictine nun residing at the convent. Second, Julian relates that it was her “curate,” who came to administer last rites and who placed the crucifix before her face. Since the word “curate” refers specifically to a secular or parish priest, it seems strange that Julian would have used it here had he been the priest associated with her convent (John-Julian 2009:26 and footnote #6, 70; Revelations chapter 2, Spearing 1998:5). In addition, in both chapters 4 and 8, Julian uses the Latin phrase, Benedicite Domino incorrectly, instead saying Benedicite Domine. Had she been a nun for whom this was a common and traditional greeting this would be an unlikely mistake (John-Julian 2009:26 and Revelations chapter 4, 75 and chapter 8, 89).

Unconvinced that Saint Julian of Norwich was a nun, in spite of the fact that Carrow Abbey is conveniently close to St. Julian’s Church, Father John-Julian has recently argued persuasively that she may have actually been a laywoman; specifically, Lady Julian Erpingham Phelip, a member of a prominent aristocratic family in fourteenth-century Norwich who was twice widowed and had three children from her second marriage. There is much to support this theory. Historical records of Norwich indicate that Julian Erpingham, elder sister of the Norfolk knight, Sir Thomas Erpingham, first married Roger Hauteyn who was killed, apparently in a duel with Sir John Coleby, in 1373. This Julian then remarried, this time to Sir John Phelip I of Suffolk and subsequently gave birth to three children, the last in 1389. According to Father John-Julian’s hypothesis, the timeline of Lady Julian Erpingham’s life coincides with that of Saint Julian. For instance, it may not be merely coincidental that Saint Julian became ill and experienced her visions in 1373, the very same year that Julian Erpingham faced the shocking and traumatic death of her first husband, Roger Hauteyn. Furthermore, with the death of her second husband in 1389, it is possible that she recorded the Long Version of her visions and then entered the anchor-hold in the years following. The fact that she had three children would not have disallowed that possibility since records show that her daughter, Rose, was married in 1389. As for the care of her younger sons, it is well established that in medieval England children of the upper classes were almost always fostered out to other families of high social standing in order to ensure a proper upbringing. Given the circumstances of Lady Julian Erpingham’s life, Father John-Julian points out that in 1389, she would have “‘faced four choices: a third marriage, the position of a secular “vowess” (under vows of chastity but living in the world), entering a convent, or being enclosed as an anchorite” (John-Julian 2009:24). Arguably, anchorite status may have been “the most attractive alternative” (John-Julian 2009:24). Furthermore, there was the very practical matter of support. Prior to enclosing an anchorite, a bishop needed to be assured that the person being enclosed had the necessary means of support for the remainder of her/his physical life. Such support could come from various places, however, the most common source was through the anchorite’s own holdings and family. Through her birth family, as well as through connections made via her second husband, Sir John Phelip, Lady Julian Erpingham Phelip clearly had the wealth needed to assure the bishop that she could be adequately taken care of and would not become a drain on Church resources (John-Julian 2009:24–5 and footnote #30, 415).

Finally, among the other uncertainties surrounding the question of “Who was Saint Julian?” is the matter of her education. Since she is the first woman to have ever recorded a book in English, a book that in the eyes of many is a theological masterpiece, one might be inclined to believe that she must have been highly educated. Yet, in the world of the fourteenth century, English was but the common spoken language. It was not a language associated with higher learning and certainly not with Roman Catholic Church writings. In England during this time, John Wycliffe, an Oxford academic, had advocated translating the Bible into English and was eventually deemed a “heretic” so dangerous that many years after his death in 1384, his body was exhumed, burned, and the ashes thrown into the river Swift (Gonzalez 2010:411–15). Given this context, it seems likely that had Julian been able to write in Latin rather than in English, she would have done so. Thus, many scholars take her at her word when, in chapter 2 of her work, she relates that “These revelations were shown to a simple creature that had learned no letter” (Revelations chapter 2, John-Julian 2009:67). Still, it is quite possible that these words merely exhibit Julian’s humility or modesty about her work. Such would certainly not be out of the realm of possibility for a woman writing in a man’s world. Thus, scholarly opinion regarding Julian’s level of education runs across the spectrum, from highly educated to little or no education. Perhaps she knew English, Latin, French, and maybe even Hebrew, or she may have known no language other than English. Perhaps she could read some of these languages, including English, but could not write them, a level of learning that would not have been uncommon for a woman of high social status in the fourteenth century (for a summary of various views, see John-Julian 2009:27–29). Perhaps Grace Jantzen, the well-known feminist philosopher and theologian, comes closest to accuracy in asserting that Julian’s reference to herself as “unlettered” “should be taken within the context of her time to indicate the lack of formal education such as would have been available to men in monastic and cathedral schools and universities” but which would not have been accessible to her as a woman in the fourteenth century (quoted, John-Julian 2009:28). Still, such a lack of formal education would not preclude the possibility that she could have achieved a high level of academic proficiency through informal personal study. In all of this, it is evident that Julian’s actual level of education, and the manner in which she achieved it, will most likely never be known with certainty. Still, the purpose for which she recorded her visions is abundantly clear: she wished to come closer to her God and in the process to help other ordinary people do the same. It is indeed possible that she knew other languages and could have written a theological treatise in Latin. It was by writing in English that she could best share her experiences with common people. As she herself put it:

I am not good because of this showing, but only if I love God better; and in so much as you love God better, it is more to you than to me. I do not say this to those who are wise, for they know it well, but I say it to you who are simple, for your benefit and comfort, for we are all one in love (Revelations chapter 9, John-Julian 2009:93).

Indeed, over the years, Julian’s message of love has resonated with those for whom she specifically wrote; that is, common people. In the latter half of the twentieth century, the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in the United States designated May 8 as the date on which to commemorate her (John-Julian, 2009:35–36). Furthermore, although never formally beatified or canonized in the Roman Catholic Church, she is often referred to as “Saint” Julian, “Mother” Julian, or “Blessed” Julian due to popular veneration, and the Catholic Church commemorates her as “blessed” on May 13 (“Blessed Julian of Norwich” 2021; “Saint Julian of Norwich” 2021).  There is hope among many that Julian’s status in the Roman Catholic Church could change as her popularity continues to grow. In 1997, the Jesuit Giandomenico Mucci listed Julian of Norwich among those on the waiting list for the title of “Doctor of the Church” (Magister 2011); and in 2010 Pope Benedict XVI dedicated a General Audience to Julian in which he emphasized her central message that God is love (Benedict 2010).


From our modern vantage point, it is difficult to imagine the attraction of the anchoritic lifestyle, and even more so, how an anchorite such as Julian would have had much influence on the wider community, or could possibly have gathered followers. After all, becoming an anchorite meant being ritually entombed, that is, literally living out the rest of one’s physical life in a cell and thus, cut off from the rest of the world. Yet, contrary to what might seem likely, studies have shown that there were a number of persons living the anchoritic life in England during the medieval period, and in Julian’s time, Norwich actually had more of these persons than any other English town (Spearing 1998:xi). Both men and women were drawn to this life, but for women in particular, it may have offered a measure of autonomy that could not otherwise have been achieved, even though such autonomy came at the cost of severe solitary confinement. In Julian’s case, her ritual tomb, or cell, is thought to have had three windows; the first, a very small “squint window,” situated such that it provided a very narrow view into the church, allowing her to gaze upon the altar and the sacrament. The second window would have opened into a room where one (possibly two) servants dedicated to her care would have done their work. It is from this window that food would have been provided to Julian, and also through this window that laundry, as well as anything needing disposal, such as bodily waste, would have been passed. It is the third window that would have provided Julian’s only contact with the outside world and, therefore, this third window from which she was likely to have had the most influence (John-Julian 2009:39).

As to the community, anchorites, including Julian, provided several benefits. While the bulk of their time was dedicated to prayer, often patterned after the Benedictine Rule (which prescribed seven periods of prayer spaced throughout every twenty-four hour period), time was also allotted for counsel (Milton 2002:10). This would take place only at that third window through which the anchorite could listen and talk, but which was usually curtained so that no one could see her face nor could she see theirs (John-Julian 2009:39). Evidence shows that many anchorites were highly regarded as counselors; that in fact, they acted as forerunners to persons in the counseling professions today, such as “psychiatrists, social workers and pastoral counselors” (Milton 2002:10). In some cases, they may have acted in other arenas as well, for instance, in fund raising for the poor, assistance in banking, and even in providing medical aid when necessary (Mayr-Harting 1975:337–52) As for Julian, it seems she was highly regarded in her own day since gifts were left to her in several wills, including by some persons of high social standing. It is reasonable to presume that these gifts were granted in gratitude for services rendered. In addition, it is certain that Julian did offer counseling services since a report of such was recorded by Margery Kempe (1373–1438) who wrote that she “was commanded by our Lord to go to an anchoress in the same city [Norwich, where she took advice from the friar William Southfield] who was called Dame Julian” (Spearing 1998:192). In this book about her travels and spiritual experiences, Margery also recorded several excerpts from the “holy conversation” that she had with the anchoress who “was expert in such things and could give good advice” (Spearing 1998:192).

Following her death, Julian and her work fell into obscurity. Since she had written in English it is quite possible that the work was suppressed lest it raise suspicions of heresy. During this time, Lollardy, a popular movement advocating many of the teachings of John Wycliffe (particularly the notion that the Bible should be made available to common people in their own language) was deemed a dangerous heresy, and its followers were severely persecuted by Roman Catholic Church authorities. In 1397, the situation grew even more dire as Church authorities succeeded in convincing Parliament to implement procedures that would authorize Church leaders to imprison and interrogate those suspected of heresy. Those deemed guilty would then be handed over to the secular arm of government for execution. The first decree in this set of procedures was issued in 1401 by King Henry IV and was called “On the Burning of the Heretics” which targeted Lollards in particular, referring to them as “diverse false and perverse people of a new sect” (Deane 2011:230). This Act enabled the arrest of heretics who could then be executed by secular authorities.  This political environment quite likely played a major role in the fact that Julian’s text was not widely circulated in the years immediately following her death. Nonetheless, it is clear that certain communities must have treasured and preserved it since the two surviving copies of the Long Version both date to the seventeenth century (John-Julian 2009:17).

Finally, this treasure which languished in obscurity for so long, is being rediscovered. Since the latter part of the twentieth century, a plethora of academic as well as popular books, articles, and devotions about Julian and her visions have been produced. Rowan Williams (b. 1950), the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, referred to Julian’s book as a work that “may well be the most important work of Christian reflection in the English language” (Back cover comment—Watson and Jenkins 2006 and quoted, John-Julian 2009:3). Likewise, the highly esteemed modern mystic, Thomas Merton (1915–1968), considered her one of the greatest English theologians; “without doubt one of the most wonderful of all Christian voices” (John-Julian 2009:3). That her voice has carried over the centuries and continues to speak to the hearts of many is evident by the growing number of persons who now seek to pattern their own lives after her way of being. In 1985, Father John-Julian, OJN, founded the Wisconsin-based Order of Julian of Norwich, with “the intention of providing contemplative monastic life and witness as a leaven of spiritual renewal in the Episcopal Church” (The Order of Julian of Norwich 2021). Another community “inspired by the Revelations of Divine Love,” is Friends of Julian of Norwich, which is active both in Norwich as well as around the world via its online outreach and work of growing in “the love of God alongside fellow pilgrims” (Friends of Julian of Norwich 2021). In addition to these communities , the Church of St. Julian and Shrine in Norwich has become a popular tourist destination. [Image at right] Although destroyed by bombing in World War II, the church was rebuilt in 1953 and includes a reconstruction of the area that was thought to have once been Julian’s cell (Church of St. Julian and Shrine, Norwich 2021).

While many are drawn to visit Julian’s cell each year, it has become clear that her influence has reached well beyond the confines of those walls. Her central message, that God is love and that there is hope, even when all evidence appears to the contrary, continues to provide strength to many. Perhaps nowhere is this conveyed more clearly than in T. S. Eliot’s famous poem, “Little Gidding,” which he wrote in 1942 while serving as a nighttime fire watcher during the bombings of London. With the world literally on fire, Eliot recalls to his own mind the voice of Julian: “Sin is Behovely” and yet, “all shall be  well and / All manner of thing shall be well” (stanza three, second verse of “Little Gidding,” Abrams 1993:2168–9). [Image at right] Julian’s use of the word, “behovely,” (behovabil) has been translated in various ways, sometimes as inevitable (footnote #3, Abrams 1993:2168); or as befitting (Spearing 1998:79). In Julian’s thinking, it seems to indicate a thing simply unavoidable and somehow necessary; thus, sin and the pain it causes is understood as inevitable, even necessary or befitting; yet it is ultimately transformed and utilized for the good in the overarching economy of God (John-Julian 2009:408–9). In “Little Gidding” Eliot draws on the same message of hope and confidence to which Julian had clung in the fourteenth century as she endured deaths of loved ones, multiple plagues, a church in disarray, violence and warfare (John-Julian 2009:381–86 and 49–52). Taking up Julian’s words into his own, he conveys, in the twentieth century, that same transformative power of God’s presence and love, even as the village of Little Gidding burned. Like Julian, he witnessed terrible, and heart wrenching tragedy. Yet, somehow he also knew that not only in the good times but somehow, even during the worst of times, “All shall be well.”

While beautiful, poetry such as Eliot’s, as well as various works and words of theologians, are not the only venues where Julian’s life and work flourishes today. A quick internet search reveals numerous informational and devotional sites and even an abundance of gift items available for purchase: mugs, tote bags, aprons, cards, t-shirts, all bearing a message of God’s love passed down by this fourteenth-century anchorite (Julian of Norwich Gifts 2021). After several hundred years in obscurity, it appears she is finally being recognized and appreciated for who she was: a theologian, a mystic, and most importantly, a true lover of God. Today, the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in the United States commemorate Dame Julian on May 8 (John-Julian 2009:35–6), while the Roman Catholic Church designates May 13 as her feast day. The difference in dates on which Julian is venerated results from a discrepancy in manuscripts regarding the actual day on which her visions began (John-Julian 2009:35–38).


The bedrock of Saint Julian’s revelations is that God is love (complete and total love) and that everything that exists has its very being in the love of God. This concept, that God is love and that nothing that exists, exists outside of God’s love, was shown to Julian early on in her visions in the form of a hazelnut, perhaps one of her most well-known images. As she relates, God showed to her a little round thing, “the size of a hazelnut , in the palm of my hand” (Revelations chapter 5, John-Julian 2009:77). [Image at right] Upon asking what this could possibly be, the answer came that, “It is all that is made” (Revelations chapter 5, John-Julian 2009:77). But upon questioning how such a small thing could possibly be “all that is made,” Julian was answered: “It continueth and always shall, because God loveth it; and in this way everything hath its being by the love of God” (Revelations chapter 5, John-Julian 2009:77). Thus, in this little hazelnut resting in the palm of her hand, Julian saw that everything, “all that is made,” has its foundation in God for “God made it,” “God loves it,” and “God keeps it” (Revelations chapter 5, John-Julian 2009:77). Nothing that exists, no matter how large or how small, exists outside of the love of God who created it, loves it and protects it. All of Julian’s subsequent visions and reflections on those visions, build on this foundational point, that God is love and that all things exist within God’s love. As the visions reveal God’s deep and endless love for humanity, they also lead her to plumb the depths of such topics as the nature of God and of humanity, the reality of sin and the hope of redemption, and finally of prayer and ultimate unity with God.

Throughout Julian’s various revelations, the figure that is most prominent is that of Christ in the midst of his passion. This is perhaps not surprising since as she lay in delirium, a priest performing last rites was also holding a crucifix before her eyes. Nonetheless, it can hardly be forgotten that to take part in the passion of her Lord and to share in his wounds was the exact request she had previously made of God. From her graphic descriptions of the Savior’s bleeding head and battered body it is clear that her request to know his passion more deeply was granted. Still, the revelations that she receives are not limited to the suffering endured by Jesus on the cross. Rather, the showings always reveal much more than that for which she asked. Through them, she would come to know not only the passion of her Savior but rather the fullness of the Godhead, the Trinity, in all of its various reflections. As she says, “Whenever Jesus appears, the blessed Trinity is understood” (Revelations chapter 4, John-Julian 2009:75),

for the Trinity is God, God is the Trinity; the Trinity is our Maker, the Trinity is our Keeper, the Trinity is our everlasting Lover, the Trinity is our endless Joy and Bliss, through our Lord Jesus Christ and in our Lord Jesus Christ (Revelations chapter 4, John-Julian 2009:73).

Thus, as Julian looks upon the figure of Christ, she understands not just a god-man dying on a cross but rather the fullness of God; a non-hierarchical union in which each Person of the Trinity is distinct as to function but equal within the godhead.

While this basic understanding regarding the Trinity does not differ from orthodox Church teaching, the language Julian uses to describe that distinct but unified whole is far less common. As she seeks to present that which was revealed to her, she uses gendered language in order to describe the three aspects of God: “the aspect of the Fatherhood, the aspect of the Motherhood, and the aspect of the Lordhood, in one God” (Revelations chapter 58, John-Julian 2009:279). While over the centuries Christians have become accustomed to the use of masculine language when speaking of the First Person of the Trinity (the Creator) as Father, and the Second Person (the Redeemer) as Son, there has been far less use of feminine language when referring to these two Persons of the Trinity. In her own discussion of the functions of each Person of the godhead, Julian follows the tradition by most frequently referring to the First Person as Father; however, she departs radically from that tradition in regard to the Second Person whom she describes as a “Mother” and whom she often refers to as “Mother Jesus” (for instance, Revelations chapters 60 and 61, John-Julian 2009:289, 293). For Julian, “all the sweet natural function of dear worthy motherhood is attached to the Second Person” (Revelations chapter 59, John-Julian 2009:285) for it was this Person of the godhead who “clothed Himself and enclosed Himself  most willingly in our poor flesh, in order that He Himself could do the service and duty of motherhood in everything” (Revelations chapter 60, John-Julian 2009:287). [Image at right] Indeed, in the incarnate Christ, Julian sees the One who “carries us within Himself in love, and labors until full term so that He could suffer the sharpest throes and the hardest birth pains that ever were or ever shall be” (Revelations chapter 60, John-Julian 2009:287). It is this one, “our true Mother Jesus, He—all love—[who finally in his dying] gives us birth to joy and to endless life” (Revelations chapter 60, John-Julian 2009:287). Yet, as Julian sees the love of “Mother Jesus” poured out in the blood of his passion she comes to understand that even after He could die no more, “He would not cease working” (Revelations chapter 60, John-Julian 2009:289). Instead, he remains and functions always as our true Mother who surpasses all others. As Julian gazes on the crucified Christ, she comes to understand the great depth of the nurture and love of God, for as it is revealed to her any “mother can give her child suck from her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with Himself; and He does it most graciously and most tenderly with the Blessed Sacrament, which is the precious food of true life” (Revelations chapter 60, John-Julian 2009:289). Furthermore, recognizing that a child needs tenderness and hope as surely as food, she sees that any “mother can lay the child tenderly on her breast, but our tender Mother Jesus can more intimately lead us into His blessed Breast by His sweet open Side, and show therein part of the Godhead and part of the joys of heaven, with spiritual certainty of eternal bliss” (Revelations chapter 60, John-Julian 2009:289).

Thus, for Julian it is clear that it is Mother Jesus, the incarnate Second Person of the Trinity, through and by whom human beings are reborn, nurtured, and united once again to their God. It is critical to remember, however, the point she makes clear throughout her work that, “whenever Jesus appears [in her visions], the blessed Trinity is understood” (Revelations chapter 4, John-Julian 2009:75). As she writes:

I understood three ways of looking at motherhood in God: the first is the creating of our human nature; the second is His taking of our human nature (and there commences the motherhood of grace); the third is motherhood in action (and in that is a great spreading outward . . .) and all is one love (Revelations chapter 59, John-Julian 2009:285).

Although the function of motherhood is attached to the Second Person of the Trinity, motherhood itself permeates the essence of God and is essential to Julian’s understanding not only of Christ, but of the fullness of God, that is, the Trinity.

For Julian, it is not only motherhood that is of the essence of the godhead but also human nature itself. Significantly, it is not simply that the Second Person assumed human flesh at the time of Jesus’ birth on earth. Rather, it is that Christ (the Second Person) was “already ‘spiritually human’ in heaven,” (footnote #3, John-Julian 2009:274) where “human nature was first assigned to Him” (Revelations chapter 57, John-Julian 2009:275). Human nature, in other words, was already and always within the essence of the godhead. As Father John Julian describes it, for Julian, “The Son was human before all others. He was the ‘pioneer’ of humanity, and our humanity is an imitation of His” (footnote #3, John-Julian 2009:274).

This point, that humanity itself is of the essence of God, radically affects Julian’s understanding of the relationship between God and human beings. For her, it is not enough that God knits God’s own self to our spiritual essence. As it is revealed to Julian, God also knits God’s self to our very flesh, thereby in Christ uniting our spiritual and fleshly natures within ourselves, while at the same time uniting us to the godhead; “for the Trinity is encompassed in Christ” in whom our “higher part” [spirit] is based and rooted and in whom our “lower part” [flesh] has been taken up (Revelations chapter 57, John-Julian 2009:275). In this way, Christ “by full accord of all the Trinity . . . knit us and one-ed us to Himself” (Revelations chapter 58, John-Julian 2009:277). Thus, Julian comes to understand that “[God] makes no distinction in love between the blessed soul of Christ and the least souls that shall be saved” for “God dwells in our soul” and “our soul dwells in God” (Revelations chapter 54, John-Julian 2009:263). Indeed, Julian notes that she

saw no distinction between God and our essence. . . . God is God, and our essence is a creation of God. . . . We are enclosed in the Father, we are enclosed in the Son, and we are enclosed in the Holy Spirit; and the Father is enclosed in us, and the Son is enclosed in us, and the Holy Spirit is enclosed in us: all Power, all Wisdom, all Goodness, one God, one Lord (Revelations chapter 54, John-Julian 2009:263).

 Julian wrestles greatly with this lack of distinction, this notion of one-ness between God and humanity. While the hazelnut in her palm had revealed that “everything hath its being by the love of God” (Revelations chapter 5, John-Julian 2009:77), and while her visions had repeatedly shown her that the essence of God is love, the same could not easily be said for humanity. How could it be possible that everything exists in love when there is clearly so much sadness and wickedness in the world? And how could there be no distinction between the essence of God and the essence of humanity when human beings are so obviously sinful? Thus, the reality of human sin and God’s response to sin troubled her deeply. Specifically, she was greatly puzzled by the fact that her visions never revealed any anger or wrathful punishment being meted out on humanity by God. Would not, and should not, a god of love be filled with righteous indignation in the face of sin? And would not, should not, such a god seek to punish sinners?

In response to such questions, Julian relates that she was given an illustration, a vision involving a parable of a Lord and his servant. The story is one on which she must have reflected a great deal in the years following her illness, for the retelling of it, along with her subsequent interpretation, make up the lengthiest chapter in the Long Version of her revelations.

In her account of this vision, Julian relates that she saw two figures, a lord who “looks upon his servant most lovingly and sweetly” and a servant who stands “reverently, ready to do his Lord’s will” (Revelations chapter 51, John-Julian 2009:227). As the parable unfolds, the servant, at the humble bidding of his lord, eagerly rushes off to fulfill the master’s request. However, in his great haste to comply and thus show his master how much he loves him, the servant suddenly missteps, falling into a deep pit and badly injuring himself. Julian notes that as she looked upon the servant wallowing in his great misfortune, she saw him enduring many pains and much woe, the greatest of which was that he could not turn his head in order to look upon the face of his loving lord who constantly watched him “most tenderly . . . most humbly and gently with great compassion and pity” (Revelations chapter 51, John-Julian 2009:229). Gazing upon this startling scene, Julian claims that she watched “deliberately” in order to determine whether there was any failure on the part of the servant; yet all she could see was that he was “good inwardly” and that it was “only his good will and his great desire [to please his master, that] were the cause of his falling” (Revelations chapter 51, John-Julian 2009:229). Furthermore, she watched to see whether “the lord would allot him any blame, and truly there was none seen” (Revelations chapter 51, John-Julian 2009:229). Instead, this compassionate, gracious lord continued to look upon his servant with love declaring

Behold, behold, my beloved servant. What harm and distress he has received in my service for my love, yea, and because of his good will! Is it not reasonable that I reward him for his fright and his dread, his injury and his wounds, and all his woe? And not only this but does it not fall to me to give him a gift that is to him better and more honorable than his own health would have been?” (Revelations chapter 51, John-Julian 2009:231).

Julian must have been truly puzzled by this parable for she writes that she remained in ignorance regarding its full meaning until nearly twenty years later when she “received inner teaching,” an epiphany, so to speak, instructing her to reflect on it further, taking heed to its many details even those that might seem uninteresting (Revelations chapter 51, John-Julian 2009:233). In following this directive, Julian saw much that had previously escaped her notice and an allegorical interpretation of the parable began to take shape. In the Lord, she saw one who was brilliantly and beautifully clothed such that he seemed to have “enclosed within Himself all heavens and all joy and bliss” (Revelations chapter 51, John-Julian 2009:237). And yet, this glorious looking lord sat not on a noble throne but, rather, on a bare earthen floor in the midst of the desert. Reflecting on the strangeness of the scene, the realization came to Julian that this lord was God the Father and that “His sitting on the bare earth and desert” was to symbolize that “He made Man’s soul to be His own Throne and His dwelling place;” a place that although dusty and barren, He nonetheless chose, out of His great love, to sit and await the time when humanity would be returned to its noble state through the rescue of His own dear Son (Revelations chapter 51, John-Julian 2009:237).

As she observed the lord in detail, so Julian began to notice more about the servant as well. The servant, she noted, appeared outwardly as a peasant worker, clothed in a torn and tattered smock, stained with the sweat of his own body and dirt from the earth. Yet in this humble workman, she also detected a deep wisdom and a “foundation of love that he had for the Lord that was equal to the love that the lord had for him;” and the understanding came to her that this workman symbolized both the first human being, Adam (and thus all of humanity), and the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, who would come to rescue humankind from the ditch of despair (Revelations chapter 51, John-Julian 2009:239). In all of this detail, the deep meaning of the parable is gradually revealed to Julian: the servant’s falling into the ditch symbolizes that “When Adam fell, God’s Son fell—because of the true union that was made in heaven [between the Second Person of the Trinity and humanity]” (Revelations chapter 51, John-Julian 2009:243). Thus, as the man (and all humanity) lies wallowing, beaten, and bruised, in the deep ditch of sin, death, and despair, so also Christ lies with him, never leaving him alone, always sharing in his suffering, his battering, his shame, and his disgrace. But the Son would not leave Adam forever in the pit. As this deep meaning unfolds, Julian comprehends that the servant, the Son of God, “would do the greatest work and hardest toil that is—he would be a gardener; digging and ditching, and straining and sweating, and turning over the earth . . . he would continue his labor . . . and he would never return” until he had retrieved that great treasure for which his lord had initially sent him out—the treasure of eternal bliss and unity with which his dear Father would repay and reward his much loved servant for his good will and devoted service (Revelations chapter 51, John-Julian 2009:241).

Embedded in this parable are key points regarding Julians’ theology of sin and redemption. It is significant that the lord’s gaze never strays from the servant and that the gaze is always filled with compassion, pity, and love and never with anger, wrath, or blame. For her, sin in and of itself, “has no manner of essence, nor any portion of being” (Revelations chapter 27, John-Julian 2009:149). It occurs as an unfortunate “falling away from love,” that is, a falling away from God that happens because of the lower (fleshly) nature of humanity (Revelations chapter 37, John-Julian 2009:179). And yet, because of the higher part of human nature (spirit) through which they are bound to Christ, humans also possess a “divine will that never consented to sin nor ever shall” (Revelations chapter 37, John-Julian 2009:179). Thus, in the servant (humanity), God sees only that which is reflected through Christ: good will, devotion, and love, not bad will, evil desire, or intent.

Nevertheless, God’s loving response to sin did not, for Julian, easily answer the question of why sin was allowed to exist in the first place. “I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the beginning of sin was not prevented, for then, it seemed to me, all would have been well” (Revelations chapter 27, John-Julian 2009:147). Initially, Julian’s repeated pondering of this question is answered by Jesus only with the response that, “Sin is inevitable, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” (Revelations chapter 27, John-Julian 2009:147). Eventually she saw “a marvelous, high secret hidden in God,” a secret that would be made more fully known in heaven (chapter 27, John-Julian 2009:149). This secret, which God began to reveal to Julian, uncovered for her even more clearly how truly everything is created in and exists in God’s love. As she began to understand it, nothing in God’s creation would be wasted. Instead, God in great love, would eventually transform all things, even the worst of human sin, into honor and glory. Not only would God transform sin to honor, but because of his great compassion and love (as shown in the parable of the lord and the servant), God would reach far beyond mere redemption. Not only will sinners be redeemed, they will also be rewarded for the pain and sorrow suffered as a result of sin. Just as the lord in the parable chose not only to restore his devoted servant but also to reward him greatly with eternal bliss and joy forever, so God will not only redeem the sinner but also reward him “in heaven [with] manifold joys exceeding what he would have had if he had not fallen” (Revelations chapter 38, John-Julian 2009:183). Therefore, in Julian’s understanding, “sin is the harshest scourge” and yet, through the love of God, all pain and shame that is caused by sin will finally be “transformed to honor and more joy” since “our falling does not prevent Him from loving us” (Revelations chapter 39, John-Julian 2009:183 and 185).

Thus, ultimately, Julian’s foundational understanding of God as ALL love leads her to a different understanding of sin, and of the relationship between God and humanity, than that which was common in her day and throughout much of Christian history. For Julian, sin is not so much evil intent as it is human error. Thus, God’s response to sin is not wrath and punishment but, rather, compassion and love. In this view, God can never be angry or wrathful because anger and wrath do not logically flow from love. Rather, God’s love causes even sin to become a means of growth and movement toward God. In, with, and under God’s great love even the worst of sin is transformed into love and compassion in the process of making all things well.

For Julian, then, the whole life of the Christian is a process of moving toward God, a process through which the soul finally attains one-ness with God in eternity. Until the time of that eternal bliss, God continues his transformative work, providing the gift of prayer as an ongoing means of connection between humans and God, for “Prayer ones the soul to God” (original language). This is necessary, “for though the soul is ever like God in nature and essence (restored by grace), it is often unlike God in its external state by sin on man’s part” (Revelations chapter 43, John-Julian 2009:201). Thus, prayer is a gift which Julian comes to understand exists, as does everything else in creation, only through God’s love, for as the Lord reveals to her, “I am the ground of thy praying” (Revelations chapter 41, John-Julian 2009:191). And in that revelation, Julian recognizes that contrary to what is often believed, prayer is neither initiated nor answered by human action but rather only through “God’s own characteristic goodness” for, as the showing continued, the Lord explained: “First, it is my will that thou have something, and next I make thee to want it, and afterward I cause thee to pray for it” (Revelations chapter 41, John-Julian 2009:191).

Julian notes that two major obstacles nonetheless often arise in human prayer. The first is that, because of our own perceived unworthiness, we are not always certain that God hears us; and the second is that we may “feel absolutely nothing,” remaining as “barren and dry after our prayers as we were before” (Revelations chapter 41, John-Julian 2009:191). As to the first, the parable of the Lord and the Servant once again establishes the great value that God sees in fallen humanity. It is a worth so high that his loving gaze is never averted, neither will he leave the servant ignored and alone in the vile pit. As to the second obstacle, the showing reveals to Julian that the Lord rejoices and delights in our prayer even if we feel absolutely nothing. God, not one’s own feelings (however solid or fickle they may be), is always the ground of prayer. Furthermore, it is revealed to her that God “watches for [prayer] and He wishes to enjoy it, because with His grace it makes us [as] like Himself in character as we are in nature” (Revelations chapter 41, John-Julian 2009:193). Prayer  then, is not a means whereby humans curry favor with God and can then expect to be either answered or ignored. Rather, prayer is transformative, a powerful grace given by God through which we are made more like God. [Image at right] While sin sometimes moves us away from God, prayer is a process through which we are restored to God; and not only we ourselves but eventually others as well, and even all of creation. In prayer, God makes us “partners in His good will and deed, and therefore He moves us to pray for that which it pleases Him to do,” according to Julian. “I saw and sensed that His marvelous and fulsome goodness completes all our abilities” (Revelations chapter 43, John-Julian 2009:201, 203).

 As in Julian’s understanding of sin and redemption, her revelations regarding prayer rest on the firm and often repeated assurance that God is all love, and that everything that exists exists within God’s love. For her, God is love that has always been and ever shall be. In humanity’s relationship with the blessed Trinity, there was no beginning and there will be no end.

Before we were made, God loved us. When we were created, we loved God. And so our souls are made by God, and at the same moment, knit to God. . . . We are held and protected in this endless love of God from the very beginning. And we shall continue to be joined with God in this knot of love for all eternity (chapter 53, Milton 2002:79).


Although Julian refers to herself as a “simple creature” who recorded her visions for the benefit of other ordinary people, her Revelations cannot be said to be simple (Revelations chapter 2, John-Julian 2009:67). While her message that God is love could not be missed by even the most superficial reading, her graphic manner of writing is sometimes startling to the modern ear, and her unwavering stance that God will indeed make all things well has raised questions regarding her own loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church. More specifically, it concerns whether she was an advocate for universal salvation, the belief that ultimately there will be no eternal damnation. Instead, every person, even all of creation, will one day be fully reconciled to God.

The first issue touches upon the graphic nature of Julian’s work. The introduction to Elizabeth Spearing ’s translation notes that the fourteenth century was a time when devotional practices were becoming “more Christocentric and more affective than that of earlier Christianity” (Spearing 1998:xiv, italics in original). [Image at right] Among many devout persons there was a growing desire to share in the life and experiences of Jesus, particularly in his Passion, yet for those “desired feelings to be continually renewed, Christ’s torments had to be evoked in ever-intensifying detail, to an extent that modern readers of Julian and other devotional writers may find repellent and even nauseating” (Spearing 1998:xiv). Given this context, it is not surprising that the first gift that Julian requested from God was to share in the memory of His passion. It is equally unsurprising that when she recounts the visions given to her in response to this request, she does so in meticulous detail, graphically recalling the sight of Christ’s crucified head weighted down with its crown of thorns:

The great drops of blood fell down from under the garland like pellets, seeming as if they had come out of the veins; and as they emerged they were brown-red (for the blood was very thick) and in the spreading out they were bright red; and when the blood came to the brows, there the drops vanished; and nevertheless the bleeding continued. . . (Revelations chapter 7, John-Julian 2009:85 and 87).

As the vision moves from the head to the whole of Christ’s suffering body she continues:

I saw the body plenteously bleeding (as could be expected from the scourging) in this way: the fair skin was split very deeply into the tender flesh by the harsh beating all over the dear body; so plenteously did the hot blood run out that one could see neither skin nor wound, but, as it were, all blood. . . . And this blood looked so plenteous that it seemed to me, if it had been as plenteous in nature and in matter during that time, it would have made the bed all bloody and have overflowed around the outside (Revelations chapter 12, John-Julian 2009:105).

Why this seeming obsession with blood?” we might ask. Couldn’t we just skip over those passages and still catch the drift of Julian’s experience? Perhaps. But maybe not. In an article in which he explores and compares brutality against the male body in theological discourse and cinematic texts, Kent Brintnall, a scholar of religion and gender, asserts that “representations of violence have an ethical import because they can focus our attention and generate our sympathy in particular ways.” The bloody, gory, wounded human figure can serve “as a mechanism for generating ethical critique, moral judgment and possible social transformation” (Brintnall 2004:74, 71). In regard to Julian’s text, Brintnall notes that she explicitly links compassion and brutality, and suggests an underlying assumption on her part that “meditating on the suffering of Jesus would increase compassion . . . and that “the means to this end is contemplation of the spectacle of a wounded body” (Brintnall 2004:70). Indeed, the text does seem to support this line of thinking. As Julian lingers between life and death, she recalls her earlier desire for that second wound, compassion, and she remembers that she had prayed “that his pains were my pains with compassion” (Revelations chapter 3, John-Julian 2009:73).

Given the possibility that graphic images of Christ’s crucifixion might generate a drive toward greater compassion, modern readers might wish to use caution regarding the temptation to skip over the gory details painted so vividly by Julian. Certainly, Brintnall’s work raises important questions for future study:

If violent spectacle is capable of making an ethical demand and directing our moral attention, then what is lost when we avert our gaze from images of brutality? What is the cost when Jesus becomes a great moral teacher instead of a victim of public torture? (Brintnall 2004:72).

 Apart from her explicit, yet gripping writing style, Julian’s theology of God as all Love has created another controversy, resulting in disagreement regarding her alignment (or lack thereof) with religious authorities, particularly on the question of salvation. Will some people be eternally saved while others be eternally damned, as the Roman Church taught? Or will, ultimately, all be saved. The issue presents a conflict for Julian who writes:

one point of our faith is that many creatures shall be damned (as were the angels who fell out of heaven because of pride—who are now demons), and many on earth who die outside of the faith of Holy Church (that is to say, those who are heathen men and also men who have received Christianity but live unchristian lives and so die without love) all these shall be damned to hell without end as Holy Church teaches me to believe (Revelations chapter 32, John-Julian 2009:163).

But then she continues:

Given all this, it seemed to me that it was impossible that all manner of thing would be well as our Lord showed at this time; and in regard to this, I had no other answer in any showing of our Lord God except this: “What is impossible for thee is not impossible for me. I shall preserve my word in all things, and I shall make everything well.” Thus I was taught by the grace of God that I should steadfastly keep myself in the Faith as I had interpreted it before, and also that I should firmly believe that everything shall be well as our Lord showed. . . (Revelations chapter 32, John-Julian 2009:163).

Clearly, Julian was not willing to speak directly against church teaching on this matter, but she freely admits that she does not understand how all could be made well if some are destined for eternal damnation. From what she had seen in her vision of the lord and the servant it was clear that God would never leave his beloved child in the ditch to struggle alone. Ultimately, she declares that “it is necessary for us to leave off involving ourselves” with how God would solve this problem for “the more we busy ourselves to know His secrets in this or any other thing, the farther we shall be from the knowledge of them” (Revelations chapter 33, John-Julian 2009:167).

Julian’s ability to live with the tension on this matter may well have forestalled accusations of heresy in her day, but it has not prevented disagreements in the modern period as to whether or not she leaned for or against universal salvation. Father John-Julian notes that Julian uses the phrase “all mankind that shall be saved” thirty-four times in her book and argues that this is a “clear indication that she is NOT a universalist, but believes there are people who will not be in heaven” (footnote #2, John-Julian 2009:92). On the other hand, after examining works of other theologians, both ancient and modern, on this topic of universal salvation, Richard Harries suggests that Julian could not affirm universalism because she accepted the teaching of the Church, but nonetheless “everything in her writing points in that direction” (Harries 2020:7). He then lists eight key convictions apparent in her work that “point in an inexorable way to the salvation of all,” and goes on to say, “You cannot help feeling that when she stresses that the existence of hell is taught by the Church, it is as a safeguard against the possible accusation that [her] theology is implicitly universal, which it is” (Harries 2020:8). In the end, the most that can be said is that Julian chose to live in the unknown on this issue, trusting only in the certainty that God had planted within her the knowledge that somehow, someway, someday all would be made well. Perhaps she “trembled on the edge of universalism” but she did not choose to go over the edge in either direction. She determined to leave that decision to God (Harries 2020:7).


There is much that makes the work of Julian of Norwich highly significant to the study of women in religions. First and foremost is simply the fact that she stands as an undeniable example of a woman not only able to claim revelations from God but also one capable of influencing others during a time when women were not considered credible bearers of theology. Furthermore, through the reemergence of her work in the twentieth century, she continues to stand as a powerful and sorely needed example of encouragement for women. As theologian Wendy Farley has noted, several “churches and seminaries continue to accept it as natural that the feminine body of Christ, figuratively and literally, has had its tongue cut out” (Farley 2015:7). And while it is true that women have made great strides within many Christian circles, there continue to be denominations that “do not ordain women” and have not accepted women as legitimate “interpreters of Christian thought” (Farley 2015:6). Julian serves as a beacon of hope that this systematic silencing of women in the Church will one day come to an end.

It is highly significant to the study of women in Christianity that Julian’s theology applies feminine imagery, particularly the symbol of the mother to God, and not only to the Second Person of the Godhead but rather to the whole of the Trinity. For Julian, the Mother aspect is of the essence of God and it is always active. In her work examining Julian’s use of the mother symbol, theologian Patricia Donohue-White describes the three “inter-related stages of divine mother-work” in Julian’s writings:

First, there is the Trinitarian work of creating—what I call Trinitarian “womb-work”—that culminates in incarnation. Secondly, there is the work of redeeming  that begins with incarnation and climaxes in the hard labor of Jesus’ birthing/dying on the cross.  [Image at right] The third and final stage consists in the work of sanctifying that comprises the long process of nurturing, raising and educating a child and is completed eschatologically with the mother leading the child back to the place of origin, that is, back to the Trinitarian womb (Donohue-White 2005:27).

For Julian then, motherhood is present first and foremost in God. It is “archetypically divine” and thus, although she also frequently uses Father imagery for God, her use of these gendered images is balanced. “As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother” (Revelations chapter 59, John-Julian 2009:283). This is critical, for in recognizing both Mother and Father aspects of the godhead, Julian emphasizes that God cannot properly be understood as specifically male; not even, and perhaps not even especially, in the incarnate Christ who is our “Mother.”

Even so, because Julian’s use of feminine imagery does not include women in roles other than that of mother, the question has sometimes been raised as to whether she was merely conforming to the conventions of her day, wherein the role of mother was acceptable but other roles for women were not. Can her work be understood as truly subversive? Or, does she merely seem to resist negative stereotypes even as she conforms to the stereotypes of her own day? The late Catherine Innes-Parker, a highly revered scholar and professor of medieval literature, wrestled with this question by examining Julian’s development as an author as she progresses from her Short Text to her final version, the Long Text. She concluded that Julian re-envisions her own self, as well as the conventional view of God, by adopting “strategies of subversion through conformity.” That is to say, “she creates metaphorical possibilities for reinterpreting the gendered stereotypes of her day, without rejecting them entirely” (Innes-Parker 1997:17 and 11).

The manner in which Julian negotiates this delicate terrain between subversion and conformity can be seen particularly in her descriptions of Jesus as mother, which

involves not so much the active reconstruction of the images of female humanity, but the reconstruction of a male icon, the ultimate male model in whose image all humankind is created, into a female figure, the mother of us all in whom we find, male and female alike, the “ground of our being” (Innes-Parker 1997:18).

Thus, although Julian utilizes themes and images commonplace in her day, “her re-working of those themes and images shows that her hidden agenda may have been more subversive than her outward conformity suggests” (Innes-Parker 1997:22). Indeed,

[b]y applying the images of motherhood to the incarnate Christ, Julian makes the feminine normative for the Word made Flesh, and thus for all flesh. By fundamentally redefining, in terms, who God is, Julian thus also redefines what it means to be created in the image of God. The human ideal, therefore, becomes feminine (Innes-Parker 1997:22).

Yet, not only feminine. Through Julian’s visions one senses that the potential exists for the human ideal to span the entire range of human possibility for “Julian transforms a ‘woman’s theology’ into a universal human theology.” It is a theology not defined by difference, sexual or otherwise; but rather, a theology defined by love, both in this world and the next (Innes-Parker 1997:22). As such, these revelations given to a self-proclaimed “simple creature that had learned no letter” are a critically important resource not only for women but for the whole Christian Church. Indeed, they are vital for all people who seek a relationship with a god whose love is deep and abiding; a god whose steadfast love is capable of carrying them not only through the good times but also through the chaos and turbulence of loss, tragedy, terror, and injustice (Revelations chapter 2, John-Julian 2009:67).

Saint Julian trusted in such a God and indeed clung to that God of love through personal illness, floods, plagues, warfare, and papal schisms, trusting that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come could separate her from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38–39). Through it all she remained convinced that, ultimately, God would somehow make all things well. It was neither a trite saying nor a naive wish. For her, it was a sure and certain hope that had been revealed to her by God, and which she sought to pass on to others. Whatever one’s circumstances, personal or communal, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” (Revelations chapter 27, John-Julian 2009:147).


Image #1: Statue of Julian of Norwich on Norwich Cathedral, England, by David Holgate, 2014. Wikimedia.
Image #2: Icon produced by artist Geoffrey P. Moran on display in the Nave of St. Aidan’s Church, Machias in Machias, Maine. https://staidansmachias.org/about/our-icons/icons/
Image #3: Title page of Senenus de Cressy’s 1670 edition of the Long Text of Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love, written by unknown hand c. 1675 and copied from a manuscript.
Image #4: Bauchon Chapel Window, 1964. Designed by Maria Forsyth. Made by Dennis King of G King & Son.  Given in memory of Harriet Mabel Campbell (1874-1953). http://www.norwich-heritage.co.uk/cathedrals/Anglican_Cathedral/bauchon_window_general.html
Image #5: St. Julian’s Church, with Julian’s cell in lower right, https://www.britainexpress.com/counties/norfolk/norwich/st-julian.htm
Image #6: Contemporary depiction of Saint Julian of Norwich with cat holding her book showing the statement, “All shall be well.”
Image #7: Brother Robert Lentz, OFM, “Dame Julian’s Hazelnut. For sale at Trinity Stories. https://www.trinitystores.com/artwork/dame-julians-hazelnut. Accessed June 18, 2021.
Image #8: Icon of Julian of Norwich painted by Christinel Paslaru. Commissioned by Father Christopher Wood, rector of St Julian’s Anglican Church. https://anglicanfocus.org.au/2020/05/01/julian-of-norwich-all-shall-be-well/.
Image #9: Emily Bowyer. 2012. A photograph from inside the reconstructed cell at St. Julian’s Church, Norwich, England, showing the altar in the new chapel. https://www.researchgate.net/figure/A-photograph-from-inside-the-reconstructed-cell-St-Julians-Church-Norwich-showing-the_fig1_303523791.
Image #10: Stained glass window in the Norwich Cathedral depicting Julian of Norwich in prayer.
Image #11: Farid de la Ossa Arrieta, God, the Mother, 2002. https://www.paulvasile.com/blog/2015/10/28/mothering-christ.


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Publication Date:
28 June 2021