The Holy Father on S. Julian of Norwich

Today, the Holy Father continued his catechesis on the great women Saints of Holy Church.  Wonderfully, he spoke of one of my favourite saints, to whose friendship I attribute at least in part my own Christianity, Julian of Norwich.  This English mystic was the first woman to write in English, and probably the first English woman theologian.  She is a most wonderful figure and no Catholic should be put off reading her because Anglicans also reverence her.  It is good that both we and they are able to admire Julian’s mystical theology, centred as it is on the Incarnation and Passion of our Blessed Lord, which she understands stand at the centre of a history which exists to show us God’s love for man.

Unfortunately, I could not find online a translation of the Holy Father’s teaching.  Therefore you will have to put up with mine, which I am afraid, will demonstrate my very limited grasp of the Italian language!!

Beloved Brothers and Sisters,

I recall still with great joy the Apostolic Voyage I made to the United Kingdom last September.  England is a land that gave birth to many illustrious figures who through their testimony and through their teaching adorn the history of the Church.  One of these, venerated by the Catholic Church, as well as the Anglican Communion, is the mystic Julian of Norwich of whom I would like to speak to you this morning.

What we know of the disposition of this life – nothing much – is principally derived from the book in which the gentle lady collected the contents of her visions entitled The Revelations of Divine Love.  We know that she lived between about 1342 and 1430, years full of torment both for the Church, lacerated by the schism following upon the return of the Pope from Avignon to Rome, and the everyday lives of the people under the consequences of the long war between the Kingdoms of England and France.  But God, even in times of tribulation, does not cease to inspire figures like Julian of Norwich, for recalling men to peace, to love and to joy.

As she herself recounts, in May of 1373, probably the 13th of that month, she was suddenly struck with a grave malady that in three days resembled death.  After the priest, who had hurried to her bedside, showed her the Cross, Julian not only returned promptly to health, but received the sixteen revelations which she successively reported in writing and with her meditations in her book, The Revelations of Divine Love.  And it was the Lord who, fifteen years after these extraordinary events, unveiled the sense of these visions.  “Would you learn the Lord’s meaning in this thing?  Learn it well: Love was his meaning.  Who showed it you?  Love.  What did he show you?  Love.  Why did he show it?  For Love…  Thus I learned that Love was our Lord’s meaning.”

Inspired by the divine love, Julian made a radical choice.  As the ancient anchorites, she chose to live in a cell, located in the area of the church dedicated to St. Julian, in Norwich, at the time an important urban centre not far from London.  Perhaps she assumed the name Julian from the saint to whom the church was dedicated, where she lived for many years, until her death.  It may surprise and leave us perplexed, this decision to live as a “recluse”, as it was even in her time.  But she was not alone in making this choice: in those centuries a considerable number of women opted for this was of life, adopting the rules that were elaborated to be apposite for them, like that composed by St. Aelred of Rievaulx.  The anchorite or “recluse”, within their cell, devoted themselves to prayer, meditation and study.  In this way, maturing a fine sensibility both human and religious, rendering them venerable to the people.  Men and women of all ages and conditions, in need of counsel and comfort, sought them devotedly.  It was therefore not a individualistic choice; just with this closeness to the Lord matured in them the capacity to be counsellors to many, to assist those living in difficulties in this life.

We know that Julian received frequent visits, as is attested in the autobiography of another fervent Christian of the time, Margery Kempe, who went to Norwich in 1413 for to receive suggestions on the spiritual life.  Thus it was, when Julian was alive, she was called, as is written on the tomb which contains her remains: “Mother Julian”.  She became the mother for many.

The women and men who retire to live in the company of God, thanks to this choice, acquire a great sense of compassion for the pain and weakness of others.  Dear Friends, the friends of God, have a wisdom that the world, from which you depart, does not possess, with amiability, sharing with those who come to their doors.  I think, therefore, with admiration  and gratitude, of the cloistered monasteries of women and men who, now more than ever, are oases of peace and hope, precious treasures for the whole Church, especially in demonstrating the primacy of God and the importance of prayer both constant and intense for the way of faith.

It was out of this solitude inhabited by God that Julian of Norwich composed The Revelations of Divine Love, of which we have received two editions, one more brief, probably the oldest, and one longer.    This book contains a message of optimism founded on the certainty of being loved by God and of being protected by his Providence.  We read in this book the following stupendous words: “I saw full surely that before God made us he loved us; and that love was never lax, nor ever shall be.  And in this love he has done all his works; and in this love he has made all things profitable to us; and in this love our life is everlasting…  in which love we have our beginning.  And all this shall we see in God, without end.”

The theme of divine love returns especially in the visions of Julian of Norwich, with a certain audacity, when she does not hesitate to compare it to maternal love.  This is a message quite characteristic of this mystical theology.  The tenderness, the solicitude and the sweetness of the good of God towards us are so great that, to us pilgrims on earth, they evoke the love of a mother for her children.   In fact, even the Biblical prophets have at times used this language that recalls the tenderness, the intensity and the totality of the love of God, which is manifested in the creation, and in the who history of salvation and culminates in the incarnation of the Son.  God, though, has more than any human love, as the Prophet Isaiah says: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?  Even these may forget,
 yet I will not forget you.”  Julian of Norwich understood the central message of the spiritual life: God is love and only when we open ourselves totally and with total confidence in this love and let it become our only guide in life, will everything be transfigured, and will you find the true peace and the true joy and have the capacity to diffuse them.

I would like to emphasise another point.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church uses the words of Julian of Norwich when it presents the vision of the Catholic faith on that subject which continues to be a provocation to all believers.  If God is supremely good and wise,, how can there be evil and the suffering of the innocent?  Even the saints, the very saints, have posed this question.  Enlightened by faith, they give us a reply that opens our hearts to trust and hope: in the mysterious designs of Providence, even out of evil God is able to draw a good which is greater.  As Julian of Norwich wrote: “Thus I was taught, by the grace of God, that I should steadfastly hold myself firmly in the faith, and firmly believe that all things shall be well.”

Yes, dear brothers and sisters, the promises of God are always greater that our expectations.  If commitment to God, to his immense love, is the purest and most profound desire of our hearts, we will never be disappointed.  “All shall be well!  All manner of thing shall be well!”  This is the final message of Julian of Norwich, given to us, which I offer to you today.


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Filed under Anglicanism, Beauty, Benedict XVI, Catholic Church, Faith, Saints

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