Thursday, May 8, 2008

Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), whose feast-day we celebrate today, was a medieval English anchoress ("called to a solitary life, but one that was not cut off from the world, but one anchored in it") who became known for her spiritual writings. Inspired by visions following a severe illness, she wrote Revelations of Divine Love, considered now to be the first book by a woman written in the English language (also now published in a modern English translation). She is most widely known for the aphorism "...All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." (which you may not be able to make out in the stained glass window above)

One line from the book that stands out for me is "As verily as God is our Father, so verily God is our Mother." No hiding behind metaphor - she lays it out starkly. She also writes extensively of "Jesus our Mother." This broad understanding of God is still shocking for many people, who tend to associate similar ideas to Godless modernity and the evils of feminism, and cannot conceive its coming from the fourteenth century.

The church in Norwich, England where she served and wrote is still a shrine today. An American Order of Julian of Norwich, of Episcopal monks and nuns was started in Norwich, Connecticut in 1986 and now mostly resides in Wisconsin. Many of the prayers and hymns that they use in daily worship are now available online.

In recent years hymns about Julian and her theology have become quite fashionable (all are under copyright). Voices Found, the Episcopal worship resource discussed here before, includes three hymns about Julian or adapted from her ideas:

I am he for whom you long
Loud are the bells of Norwich
Mothering God, you gave me birth.

This last text by Jean Janzen, which has now appeared in a number of hymnals with a few different tunes attached to it, is of course widely attacked for its "modern" and "feminist" ideas (though Janzen only speaks of God as Metaphoric Mother, unlike the more direct Julian). A defense of the hymn was written after it appeared in a Methodist songbook -- with the suggestion that congregations reprint it when using the hymn in worship -- but whether it convinces anyone determined to oppose it is hard to say.

In spite of the controversy, I have no doubt that Julian would still be able to say "...All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

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