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Who was Julian of Norwich - and why is there so much interest in her today?

PUBLISHED: 14:58 13 August 2017 | UPDATED: 14:58 13 August 2017

St Julian's Church. Father Christopher Wood. Picture : ANTONY KELLY

St Julian's Church. Father Christopher Wood. Picture : ANTONY KELLY

archant 2017

No one knows her real name and she lived centuries ago. But who was Julian of Norwich - and why is there so much interest in her today? James Marston reports.

David Holgate's statue of Mother Julian at Norwich Cathedral.
Photo: Bill Smith
Copy: Emma OuttenDavid Holgate's statue of Mother Julian at Norwich Cathedral. Photo: Bill Smith Copy: Emma Outten

You might not think a medieval mystic might have much to say in 21st-century Britain.

But Julian of Norwich – centuries after her life – continues to inspire, intrigue and fuel the imagination.

The church where she was based – St Julian’s in Rouen Road, Norwich – attracts pilgrims from all over the world.

Julian of Norwich’s revelations brought her some fame in her own lifetime and her writings survived as inserts into other religious texts.

St Julian's Church. Picture : ANTONY KELLYSt Julian's Church. Picture : ANTONY KELLY

Father Christopher Wood, rector of St Julian’s, said: “At the end of the 19th century two manuscripts were rediscovered in London and in Paris of Julian’s revelations. Scholars detect in the Middle English in which she writes a regional accent from north of the Humber, we think she would have been educated and therefore likely to have been from a privileged background.”

Julian of Norwich wrote the first published book attributed to a woman in English. But who was she? And what did she actually say?

Father Christopher said he believed the mystery of her identity was almost certainly intentional.

He said: “Julian of Norwich was born at the beginning of the 1340s. Whatever her [real] name was we do not know, there is no record. I think this is intentional as she is always pointing away from herself.

St Julian's Church. Picture : ANTONY KELLYSt Julian's Church. Picture : ANTONY KELLY

“Part of her vocation was to take the name of the church where she got permission to live as an anchoress. She chose to be called Julian of Norwich.”

Father Christopher said Julian of Norwich was not a nun as she is often portrayed.

He said “An anchorite is someone who is called to a life of prayerful witness in a busy place where there are people. They are anchored in prayer in a busy world.”

There would have been up to around 40 anchorites and anchoresses in Norwich – then England’s second city – at any one time in the 14th century.

Father Christopher said: “The life of an anchorite was a known vocation; people would have been familiar with that life.”

Julian lived in a century of turmoil, political instability and anxiety.

Father Christopher said: 
“There was conflict and political uncertainly and the plague returned roughly once every ten years throughout her life.

“She was probably a widow and she had lost a child by the time she was 20. We know that she was on her deathbed aged 31 and a half because she tells us she was. She was in her mother’s house and the priest came to give her the last rites. The priest presses a crucifix to her cheek and says, as we still say today ‘look upon He who died for you’ in the context that she was about to die.

“Of course she doesn’t die. But this experience strikes her as hugely powerful and everything comes from that moment.”

Julian then went into some sort of state between life and death and experiences a series of revelations – visions as we might call them today.

Father Christopher added: “These revelations, or visions, all have the same message at their root, one of comfort and reassurance. Julian writes them down in more than 80 short chapters.

“The church at the time has the idea that God is a judgemental or angry God, churches are full of images of judgment and hell. But these visions fly in the face of the religious culture of the time. Julian’s message was very different. She says her visions tell her that God has forgiven you even before you ask for forgiveness and that he is waiting for you to turn to Him. It is a revolutionary idea.”

Father Christopher said the church, which includes Julian’s cell, attracts people from across the globe.

He said: “The majority come here because they have found something in her writings that speaks specifically to them.

“She was an ordinary woman who lived an ordinary life with all its sorrows and tragedies and her voice is one that has survived, is relevant and has thrived.

“Her gift to the world is the message that things go wrong, stuff happens, that we might make mistakes and bad decisions, but that there is a bigger picture, there is hope even if it is beyond the horizon. If there is a place for God in our lives all shall be well even if it is beyond our sight. 
She communicates the perspective of faith.”

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