Friday, 26 August 2011

Julian of Norwich: Part 1

More by accident than by deliberate intention, I started reading a book about Julian of Norwich earlier this week. I then had to read corresponding passages of her Revelations of Divine Love to make sense of the book. From the point of view of her writings, Julian is perhaps best known for her treatment of God as mother, something that makes her a favourite for those who are proponents of a feminist theology and suspect for those of a more orthodox outlook. More of that in Part 3.

Adrienne von Speyr, in dictation to Hans Urs von Balthasar, gives an account of Julian of Norwich's prayer in her Book of All Saints. The vignettes in this book are accounts of the prayer of the saints (and others) based in Adrienne's mystical experience. Von Balthasar asks Adrienne about Julian:
(Is she correct on the whole?) Yes, she is. She is very childlike in her vision. She accepts things just as they are offered to her, and she carries them around with her. She does not separate herself from her experiences, but she does not at the same time accord them an undue importance. She is humble.
The Long Text of Julian's Revelations is considered to have been written much later than the Short Text, and adds to a simple account of her visions a very considerable theological reflection - as Adrienne says of her visions, "she carries them around with her". It is quite wrong to see Julian as a writer of a pious spiritual text. The Long Text in particular is a work of real theology that in places has a very modern feel (for example, in referring to Mary as mother of all the saved and mother of the Church, in a very startling description of Christ as one with Adam, and in seeing the open side of Christ as the source of grace).

An implicit thread running through the Long Text is a certain tension between what has been given to Julian in her visions and what is given in the teaching of the Church. One can almost see the Long Text as a systematic synthesis of her visions with the teaching of the Church. Indeed, this becomes explicit when Julian compares the teaching of the Church about the blame and anger that sinners deserve because of their sin and the lack of any such blame or anger on the part of God shown in her visions (cf chapter 45 of the Long Text). At several points, Julian affirms the need to be faithful to the teaching of the Church.

Though academics try to account for this affirmation of loyalty to the teaching of the Church by considering the historical context of Julian's times - it might not have been in the interests of her physical safety to be suspect of heresy - the integration of the insights received in the visions and  doctrine received from the Church seems to me quite intrinsic to the text and not accidental to it. Faithfulness to the teaching of the Church seems to me to be an important part of Julian of Norwich's charism and theological method.

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