JULIAN OF NORWICH: A Contemplative Biography. By Amy Frykholm. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010. xix + 147 pages.
The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were marked by political, cultural, religious, and social turmoil. The crusades continued in one form or another, with Spain being the center of the battle between Christian and Muslim forces. The Byzantine Empire was crumbling and the plague took a heavy toll on Europe. This was the era of the Avignon Papacy and the Great Schism, eras when politics played a central role in the life of the Western Church. This was also the era of John Wyclif and Jan Hus, proto-reformers who challenged the ecclesiastical foundations of the Church and set the stage for Luther and his contemporaries in the sixteenth century.
It was into this world, one in which superstition and fear made themselves felt, and where dissent was viewed with suspicion and the voice of an educated woman voice was rarely welcomed that Julian of Norwich appeared on the scene. Although there were few places where a woman, especially an inquisitive one, could safely explore intellectual and spiritual ideas, the convent and the anchorage provided that kind of safe space. Julian of Norwich has become a well-known figure in the modern age among those who desire to engage the mystical side of the Christian faith. Although not as well known as Catherine of Sienna or Teresa of Avila, Julian was one of the earliest women spiritual and theological writers in England.
According to Amy Frykholm, a journalist and member of the staff of the Christian Century, Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love was the first book composed in English by a woman in an era when books written in English were still uncommon. It may help to realize that this was the era of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Indeed, according to Frykholm this book, also known as the Showings, “remains one of the greatest theological works in the English language” (p. ix).
Despite the importance of Julian’s book, we know little about her, including her true name, which could possibly be taken from the church where she served as an anchorite – St. Julian’s in Norwich. Although her life largely remains a mystery, except for the clues that emerge out of her own writings, Frykholm has done an excellent job of ferreting out from her own writings and from what we know about the historical context to offer us a rather compelling picture of Julian’s life. In part because Julian was a contemplative herself, Frykholm has chosen to write a contemplative biography.
What we do know about Julian is that she was born around 1342 in Norwich, which was then the second largest city in Britain. Second only to London, it was a major commercial and industrial region, known for its wool trade. But, this city also suffered a devastating blow from the plague during the fourteenth century that cut the population nearly in half. It is possible that she had been married, but there’s no record of this. Then in 1373, at the age of thirty, she began to receive visions, which she discerned were coming to her from God. But, concerned about the nature of these visions she sought guidance from an Augustinian friar who lived in a monastery nearby. This friar served as a spiritual guide and teacher, introducing her to the great theological writings of the church, including the works of Augustine and the Scriptures themselves. After a time she began, under the guidance of this teacher, to write down her visions. But, because it was dangerous for a woman to be known as a mystic and writer – outside the confines of ecclesiastically recognized entities, her spiritual director suggested that she become an anchorite.
Sometime around the age of fifty, she attached herself to the church of St. Julian in Norwich. Although we do not have direct information about the nature of her installation, we do know how such events transpired, and so Frykholm imaginatively describes what likely occurred in Julian’s case. There she lived until her death around 1416, spending her life in prayer and in writing down her visions. An anchorage was a solitary cell, in which a devout person would spend their lives, essentially cut off from the outside world. As Frykholm tells it, the typical anchorage was a single room, with possibly three windows, one of which would have opened up to the church, so that the anchorite could hear the mass. Another open would have opened up to the quarters of the servant, who cared for the needs of the anchorite, and finally there would have been a window opening up to a porch, where the anchorite received visitors, including visitors seeking her spiritual guidance. A box would be placed on the porch, where members of the community might leave alms for her support. Members of the community provided food for her, in exchange for her prayers. She would have been assigned a servant, who lived in quarters attached to the anchorage, and who tended to her physical needs. It appears that she was able to leave the anchorage to attend services, but beyond that her world was contained behind walls and dark curtains until the day of her death, after which her book of visions began to gain a readership.
One of the reasons why Julian may have become so popular in the modern age is that her vision of God is one of love and grace. The Jesus who appeared to her spoke in gentle tones and rarely if ever was the focus of the visions on topics such as hell, purgatory, or sin, which stood at the forefront of much of the religious teaching of the era. Frykholm writes of the theology that emerges from her visions:
She herself had received no visions of hell or of purgatory. “God is all love,” she offered. “He is all mercy and all grace. There is no wrath in God.” She often felt that she was speaking to the black curtain alone and that her words floated no farther than an inch from her mouth. They wanted her to tell them that she had seen this or that loved one saved from the jaws of hell by the flight of angels or that Mary had come to her and personally whispered the name of the one who would be saved. Julian did not see these kinds of visions, and she could only tell them honestly that she saw no wrath in God. She felt their disappointment, but she hoped that something of God’s love might echo for them, long into the future (pp. 97-98).
There was a significant dissonance between her visions and the belief systems of her contemporaries, which led some to fear that her visions would prove disruptive to a church that not only taught a theology of fear but used it to keep control of the people. Reflecting on the concerns of a critic, the fear was that opening oneself to love, might lead a person into the arms of the heretics (p. 111).
Whether one has read the works of Julian of Norwich, Frykholm provides an enjoyable and readable look at a significant figure in the life of the church. Since Julian left few traces of her own life, except her writings, Frykholm must fill in the gaps with accounts of life in the era in which Julian made her presence known. One can read this as an introduction to Julian’s life, and to the spiritual life of the middle ages. In either case, the book is a worthy gift to the modern Christian pursuing the contemplative life, or the person seeking to understand the mystical tradition that has been passed down from one generation to the next.