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Julian of Norwich

Totus2us's Stations of the Cross podcast includes reflections by Julian of Norwich

Catechesis by Benedict XVI
General Audience, Wednesday 1 December 2010 - in Croatian, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"Dear brothers and sisters,
I still remember with great joy the apostolic journey made in the United Kingdom last September. England is a land that has given birth to so many illustrious figures who with their testimony and their teaching embellish
the history of the Church. One of these, venerated both by the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion, is the mystic Julian of Norwich, about whom I would like to speak to you this morning.

The information we have about her life - not much - is derived principally from the book in which this kind and devout woman collected/gathered the content of her visions, entitled Revelations of Divine Love. It is known that she lived from 1342 to around 1430, turbulent years both for the Church, torn by the schism following the Pope’s return from Avignon
to Rome, and for the life of the people who suffered/were suffering the consequences of a long war between the kingdom of England and that of France. God, however, even in times of tribulation, does not cease to inspire figures like Julian of Norwich, so as to call people/men back to peace, love and joy.

As she herself recounts to us, in May 1373, probably the 13th of that month, she was struck suddenly by a very serious illness that in three days seemed to be carrying her to death/the grave. After the priest, who hastened to her bedside, had shown her the Crucified One, Julian not only quickly regained her health, but she received these sixteen revelations that she subsequently wrote down and commented on in her book, Revelations of Divine Love. And it was the Lord himself who, fifteen years after these extraordinary events, revealed to her the meaning of these visions. “Would you learn your Lord's meaning in this thing? Learn it well; Love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Only Love. And for what reason did he show you? For love. Hold on to this, and you will learn more of the same. But you will never, without end, learn in it any other meaning. So it was that I learned that love is our Lord's meaning.” (Revelations of Divine Love).

Inspired by divine love, Julian brought about/made a radical choice. Like an ancient anchoress, she chose to live inside a cell, located near the church called after Saint Julian, within the city of Norwich, in her time an important urban centre, close to London. Perhaps she assumed the name of Julian precisely from that saint to whom was dedicated the church close to which she lived for so many years, up until her death. This decision to live as a “recluse”, as it was termed in her day, might surprise or even perplex us. But she was not the only one to fulfill such a choice: in those centuries a considerable number of women opted for this kind of life, adopting rules specially elaborated/compiled for them, such as the rule composed by St Aelred of Rievaulx. The anchoresses or “recluses”, within their own cells, dedicated/devoted themselves to prayer, meditation and study. In this way, they developed a highly refined human and religious sensibility, which rendered them venerated by the people. Men and women of every age and condition, in need of advice and comfort, devotedly sought them (out). Thus it was not an individualistic choice; precisely with this closeness to the Lord matured in her also the capacity to be a counselor for many, to help those who lived in difficulty in this life.

We also know that Julian too received frequent visitors, as is attested by the autobiography of another fervent Christian of her time, Margery Kempe, who went to Norwich in 1413 to receive advice on her spiritual life. This is why, in her lifetime, Julian was called “Dame Julian”, as is engraved on the funeral monument that contains her remains. She had become a mother to many.

Men and women who withdraw to live in God’s company acquire by making this decision a great sense of compassion for the suffering and weakness of others. As friends of God, they have at their disposal a wisdom that the world — from which they have distanced themselves — does not possess and they amiably share it with those who knock at their door. I therefore recall with admiration and gratitude the women and men's cloistered monasteries. Today more than ever they are oases of peace and hope, a precious treasure for the whole Church, especially since they recall the primacy of God and the importance, for the journey of faith, of constant and intense prayer.

It was precisely in the solitude infused with God that Julian of Norwich wrote her Revelations of Divine Love. Two versions have come down to us, one that is shorter, probably the older, and one that is longer. This book contains a message of optimism based on the certainty of being loved by God and of being protected by his Providence. In this book we read the following wonderful words: “And I saw full surely that ere God made us he loved us; which love was never lacking nor ever shall be. And in this love he has made 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” (Revelations of Divine Love).

The theme of divine love recurs frequently in the visions of Julian of Norwich who, with a certain daring, did not hesitate to compare them also to motherly love. This is one of the most characteristic messages of her mystical theology. The tenderness, concern and gentleness of God’s kindness to us are so great that they remind us, pilgrims on earth, of a mother’s love for her children. In fact the biblical prophets also sometimes used this language that calls to mind the tenderness, intensity and totality of God’s love, which is manifested in creation and in the whole history of salvation that is crowned by the Incarnation of the Son. God, however, always excels all human love, as the Prophet Isaiah says: “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will never forget you” (Is 49:15). Julian of Norwich understood the central message for spiritual life: God is love and it is only if one opens oneself to this love, totally and with total trust, and lets it become one's sole guide in life, that all things are transfigured, true peace and true joy found and one is able to radiate it.

I would like to emphasize another point. The Catechism of the Catholic Church cites the words of Julian of Norwich when it explains the viewpoint of the Catholic faith on an argument that never ceases to be a provocation to all believers. If God is supremely good and wise, why do evil and the suffering of innocents exist? And the saints themselves asked this very question. Illumined by faith, they give an answer that opens our hearts to trust and hope: in the mysterious designs of Providence, God can draw a greater good even from evil, as Julian of Norwich wrote: “Here I was taught by the grace of God that I should steadfastly hold me in the Faith ... and that ... I should take my stand on and earnestly believe in ... that ‘all manner of things shall be well.”’

Yes, dear brothers and sisters, God’s promises are ever greater than our expectations. If we present to God, to his immense love, the purest and deepest desires of our heart, we shall never be disappointed. “And all will be well, all manner of things shall be well”: this is the final message that Julian of Norwich transmits to us and that I am also proposing to you today. Many thanks."

Thus shall the spiritual thirst of Christ be quenched. This is his thirst: his love and longing for us that goes on enduring until we see the Day of Judgement. For of us who are to be saved and be Christ's joy and bliss some are alive now, while others- are 'yet unborn; and so it will go on until that Day. His thirst and loving longing is to have us all, integrated in him, to his great enjoyment. At least, so I see it...

Because he is God he is 'supreme blessedness, and never has been nor ever shall be other. His eternal blessedness can neither be increased nor diminished... Because he is human - this too is known by the creed, and by the revelations - it was shown that he, though God, suffered pain, passion, and death, for love of us and to bring us to blessedness... Since Christ is our Head, he must be both glorious and impassible. But since he is also the Body in which all his members are joined (Eph 1,23), he is not yet fully either of these. Therefore the same desire and thirst that he had upon the cross (Jn 19,28) - and this desire, longing, and thirst was with him from the very first, I fancy - he has still, and shall continue to have until the last soul to be saved has arrived at its blessedness.

For just as there is in God the quality of sympathy and pity, so too in him is there that of thirst and longing. And in virtue of this longing which is in Christ we in turn long for him too. No soul comes to heaven without it. This quality of longing and thirst springs from God's eternal goodness just as pity does...; and this thirst will per­sist in him as long as we are in need, drawing us up to his blessedness. (Julian of Norwich - Revelations of divine love, ch. 31)