A Sermon for Easter IV, May 12, 2019 on Julian of Norwich for Mother’s Day

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Beth Lind Foote, Interim Rector, at the 8:00 Mass, May 12, 2019.

This last Wednesday we had a special 6:00 Mass to honor Julian of Norwich, whose Feast Day was May 8, and I preached about her theology of God’s motherly love.  As the week went on, I realized that we are celebrating Mother’s Day today, and that the people at 8:00 might enjoy hearing about Julian. Our first reading this morning was “A Song of True Motherhood,” by Julian, and I’d like to share some more about her this morning.

Imagine living in the Lady Chapel for the rest of your life.  That’s probably about as much living space Julian of Norwich had as an anchoress, or recluse, in her cell attached to the Church of St. Julian in Norwich, England in the 14th Century.  And maybe she had a cat to keep her company.  There are lots of icons that show her with a cat.  But we don’t know.

We don’t know a lot about Julian of Norwich, but she was the rare medieval female mystic whose voice has come down to us and she speaks powerfully to us here in the 21st century.  Julian’s work, Revelations of Divine Love is considered the first book published by a woman in English.

Julian was born in the English town of Norwich in 1342.  Norwich was a prosperous town in the extreme East of England, closer to the Low Countries and Scandinavia than London. With a population of 13,000, it was the second largest city next to London at the time. Norwich was known for the valuable wool trade and for fishing.  During Julian’s lifetime, the entire city was surrounded by a tall, thick medieval stone wall that protected the city.  Mary Rolf writes in her work, “Julian’s Gospel, “Growing up in a walled city must have had a lifelong influence on Julian’s understanding of what it meant to feel enclosed, safe protected.  The “holy city” would figure strongly in her Revelations as a metaphor for the inner sanctuary of the soul itself.”

In 1349, when Julian was a child, the Bubonic Plague swept through Norwich.  Scholars agree that at least half the population of Norwich perished, and it would never regain its position as the second-largest city in England.

It’s difficult to imagine the trauma of a child living through the Plague. No doubt she lost family and friends.  There must have also been the guilt of surviving when so many around you had died. It must have branded Julian with the connection between suffering and the need to pray.

Julian grew up in the midst of this trauma as an upper middle-class woman who was well-educated in her native English, but not considered high educated because she did not learn Latin, which was the language of the elite, and the male clergy.

At the age of 30, Julian became gravely ill.  On 8 May 1373 she was receiving the last rites in anticipation of her death. The priest held a crucifix above the foot of her bed, and she began to lose her sight and felt physically numb, but gazing on the crucifix she saw the figure of Jesus on the Cross begin to bleed. Over the next several hours, she had a series of fifteen visions of Jesus’ suffering, and a sixteenth the following night.

Her visions brought on a sense of great peace and joy.  “From that time I desired oftentimes to learn what was our Lord’s meaning,” and I was answered in ghostly understanding:  “Wouldst thou learn the Lord’s meaning in this thing?  Learn it well.  Love was his meaning? Love was our Lord’s meaning.”

Julian completely recovered from her illness on 13 May. She wrote about her visions, what she called her “shewings,” shortly after she experienced them.Her original manuscript no longer exists, but a copy survived, now referred to as her Short Text.

Twenty to thirty years later, perhaps in the early 1390s, she began to write about the meaning of her visions, now known as The Long Text.  After her visions, Julian became a recluse, or anchoress, living in a cell attached to the Church of St. Julian.  Becoming an anchoress, a recluse, was a solemn thing. You took a vow in the presence of the Bishop in a ceremony that was like a funeral, because you were renouncing life outside the cell. In many cases anchorites/anchoresses were bricked into their cells.  But records show that sometimes there was more freedom, and sometimes there was a small community of recluses who retreated together.  One hopes that you got along with your fellow recluses.

There was usually a window between the church and the anchoress’s cell where she could visit with people who came for prayer and advice.  Medieval people supported their local anchoress or anchorite and in turn they prayed for and counseled the local people.  Julian became well-known in her own time as a mystic, spiritual counselor, and a person of great wisdom.  Margery Kempe, one of the other few well-known medieval English mystics, wrote about visiting Julian.

As we heard in our first reading, Julian’s mystical theology made a daring comparison of divine love to motherly love.  According to Julian, God is both our mother and our father. In her fourteenth revelation, Julian writes of the in domestic terms, comparing Jesus to a mother who is wise, loving and merciful. Julian compares the bond between mother and child as the only earthly relationship that comes close to the relationship a person can have with Jesus.Julian also wrote about Jesus metaphorically in connection with conception, nursing, labor, and upbringing, and she saw him as our brother as well.

Julian lived in a time of great turmoil and suffering, but her theology was optimistic.  She spoke of sin being “behovely,” or lovely, something for us to embrace because it can bring us closer to Christ. 

In our time, when we are worried about so many things going wrong in the world, I find Julian’s trust in a loving God, who loves us like a good Mother, to be comforting and affirming of our faith in Christ.  Julian is best known for the message she received from Christ, “All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”  May it be so.  Amen.

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