Recently, I attended a Eucharist. It being the feast day of Julian of Norwich (8th May), some attention was given within the service to this spiritual writer (1342-c1416).
Those who know me, or who are regular readers of my web site will realise that I was slightly out of my comfort zone at this event. Clearly, we were firmly within the High Church, or Anglo-Catholic tradition of the Church of England. A crucifix was prominent, as was a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary and various other accoutrements of that tradition.
I want to say that I find such occasions humbling and thought-provoking. I have no doubt that we evangelicals think and say and do many things which other believers would find strange, and which we ourselves would struggle to justify from Scripture (or even from common sense). Moreover the service had an informal intimacy to it, as well as a prayerful reflectiveness, that was really quite moving. It reminded me once again that the differences between evangelical and catholic expressions of the Christian faith, real as those differences may be, are nothing like as profound as those between evangelicals and thorough-going liberals.
My impression of High Church people (and this, of course, is a gross generalisation), is that they are often intelligent and well-read, and have a real relationship with the Lord that is sustained by a regular and meaningful prayer life. They tend to favour imagination over rationality, heart over head, visual over verbal, with the effect that their grasp on the essential structure of the Christian faith, while essentially orthodox, is possibly (sometimes impossibly) soft-edged.
Which brings me to Julian of Norwich. Julian appeals to those of a certain spiritual bent for a number of reasons. She was a woman, and so offers an ‘alternative’ spirituality from the male-dominated norm. She was one of the first English women of letters, and this makes her something of a pioneer. She lived a long time ago, this appeals to the kind of nostalgia that characterised the thinking of Newman and other members of the Oxford Movement in the 19th century. Very little is know for certain about her life, and this gives ample scope to the pious imagination. She had been critically ill, and this lends her writings increased validity in the eyes of some. She lived for many years as a recluse, marking her out as some kind of special ‘saint’. She received a number of ‘visions’ or ‘revelations’, and is thus able to claim special authority for her utterances. Her writing is itself couched in rather imprecise, poetic language, appealing to the imagination, rather than to the reason, of the reader. She wrote much about the love of God, and that again will prove attractive to many who are looking for comfort and solace.
Julian beckon us back to an appreciation of God’s unspeakable love and grace, even if we cannot regard her as a reliable guide in other matters. In fact, some of her ‘revelations’ clearly contradict Scripture (which stresses, as she does not, God’s severity as well as his goodness).
Here are some samples of her writing:-
He said not ‘Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased’; but he said, ‘Thou shalt not be overcome.’
The greatest honor we can give Almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of his love.
Our Saviour is our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.
Suddenly is the soul oned to God when it is truly peaced in itself: for in Him is found no wrath. And thus I saw when we are all in peace and in love, we find no contrariness, nor no manner of letting through that contrariness which is now in us.
At the same time that I saw the head [Christ’s] bleeding, our good Lord showed a spiritual sight of his familiar love. I saw that he is to us everything which is good and comforting for our help. He is our clothing, who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces us and shelters us, surrounds us for his love, which is so tender that he many never desert us. And so in this sight I saw that he is everything which is good, as I understand. And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: What can this be? I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God.
All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.