A 14th-century Englishwoman's mysterious visions still fascinate and inspire us today.
May 27, 2014
May 13, 1373. A 30-year-old Englishwoman lies prostrate in bed, dying of some mysterious illness. She can’t move her body “from the middle downwards.” What is wrong with her? The dreaded Black Death?
Some 25 million people will perish that century in Europe from bubonic plague, nearly half the population. Victims usually succumb in two days, spitting up blood, in excruciating pain, abandoned by loved ones who fear getting sick themselves.
A priest arrives to give her last rites and sets up a cross so she can gaze on it in her final hours. She can scarcely breathe now. She is more dead than alive, when all at once her pains leave her.
She enters another world–is it heaven?–where Jesus speaks to her in a series of visions, as do God and the Virgin Mary. They give her guidance. Sixteen “shewings,” as she will later call them, of God’s love.
She sees great drops of blood coming from Christ’s forehead beneath his crown of thorns, his “garland.” They are round as pellets and come fast, as she says, “like the drops of water that fall off the eaves after a great shower of rain.”
She notes the changing color of his face, first white and pale, then deathly blue, then a brownish blue. His dry, wounded skin is “rent in many pieces, as a cloth that were sagging.” Finally she sees his parched body “hanging up in the air, as men hang a cloth to dry.”
But after such horror, God speaks to her. “Behold and see! For by the same Might, Wisdom, and Goodness that I have done all this, by the same Might, Wisdom, and Goodness I shall make well all that is not well; and thou shalt see it.”
Those wonderfully reassuring words come to the woman several times in her visions, with variations, like a motif in a symphony. She asks Jesus, in her “folly,” as she puts it, if it wouldn’t have been better that God had never allowed sin to exist in the first place. If God is all powerful, why didn’t he stop sin? Couldn’t it have been abolished?
No, the Lord says, but she shouldn’t worry because “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Despite the desperate misery around her, despite the baffling sinfulness of the world, everything circles back to God’s overwhelming love. In the first vision he holds out something round like a ball, like a hazelnut, and he puts it in the palm of her hand.
What is it? It’s the world, the universe, God tells her. He made it, keeps it and loves it.
The woman bubbles over with joy throughout her mystical journey. In heaven she sees the devil, “the Fiend,” scorned by God, and it makes her laugh. “I laughed mightily and that made them to laugh that were about me, and their laughing was a pleasure to me.”
Pleasure–a word she will use again and again to describe her visions, for in God’s workings in this world and the next there is much pleasure.
She has a dramatic vision of the soul. She sees a body lying on the ground, “heavy and horrible, without shape or form, like a swollen quag of stinking mire.” But then, out of this corpse “sprang a full fair creature, a little Child, fully shaped and formed, nimble and lively, whiter than a lily, which swiftly glided to heaven.”
Her last vision is the most frightening. She is still lying in bed and a handsome young man, “the Fiend,” comes to her side. His hair is red as rust, with full locks hanging on his temples, and his skin reminds her of ceramic tiles, with black spots like freckles.
But then his hands wrap around her neck, and become like paws holding her throat.
With that, she awakes. She sees the people who have been caring for her during her illness, mopping her damp forehead, praying, keeping vigil. Can they smell the stench of the Fiend? she thinks. She asks them. No, they seem oblivious to both the horror and the wonder.
She is cured, saved. All is well, all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well.
The woman, known as Julian of Norwich, returned from the edge of death that day, and the visions she received consumed the rest of her life. She put them down in what is considered to be the first book in the English language written by a woman, Revelations of Divine Love.
Eighty-six chapters and about 63,500 words, a bold undertaking for someone who claimed to be “unlettered.” She became an anchorite, a religious hermit, living in a small room attached to a church. Through a window to the sanctuary, she could hear the services and Scriptures read.
Julian lived another 30 or even 40 years after her vision–it is not known for certain. Her book has survived her by hundreds of years and speaks across the ages with startling modernity.
She calls Jesus “Our heavenly Mother,” comparing his love to that of a mother who might allow a child to fall, perhaps to learn a lesson, but would never let her offspring endure endless peril.
I like to picture Julian making at the end the same journey she’d made when she was so ill. Her soul’s last flight, gliding up to heaven, where full understanding finally comes.
I see God reassuring her as he had on her first heavenly trip: “I may make all things well, I can make all things well, I will make all things well, and I shall make all things well; and thou shalt see thyself that all manner of thing shall be well.”
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