My mother was a reader, and she was one of those people who are sure that books can change your life. One of her ‘life-changers’ was Jesus as Mother by Caroline Bynum, a brilliant medievalist who was one of the scholars who re-wrote the history of Christianity in the 1970s and 1980s. Bynum and her fellow writers showed how many marvellous women had contributed to the Christian tradition, and how very like our own some of their thoughts and questions turned out to be. (Of course, these women were also marvellously different from us – but that was part of the delight of making their acquaintance.)
The ‘star’ of Bynum’s study – according to my mother – was Dame Julian of Norwich, whose feast day falls on the 8th of May. Dame Julian was born in 1342, so her childhood was coloured by the Black Death in 1348-50. It is believed that she lost some or all of the family to the plague, but we know very little about her early life – indeed, even her birth name is not known. What is known is that she chose, as a young woman, to live as a hermit on the grounds of the shrine of the medieval bishop Julian of Le Mans, at Norwich.
Julian may have been one of the women who lived a life of contemplation as a walled anchorite – by having herself walled in to a small cell that she intended to stay in until she died. What we are sure of is that by the year she turned thirty Julian had begun a journey of dreams and visions. The revelations which she recorded take up again and again the idea that our human life is essentially an opportunity to give and experience love. Famously, she imagined Jesus as a loving mother to the Church, and God’s creation itself as an act of love.
My mother encountered Julian’s writings after an accident that required a long and terribly painful recovery, and I remember the delight with which she discovered this marvellous medieval person, whose ideas were so heroic, and who had lived through hardships that seemed so much more daunting than our own. The fact that Julian’s idea of Christianity was all about love – so very different to the tight-lipped and patriarchal tradition that was dominant in those days – was almost too good to be true.
Now, remembering them both, I find it remarkable that a woman living a life of retreat and contemplation could change the life of another woman half-way around the world hundreds of years after her death. But of course this is exactly what Julian did. So along with thousands of others around the world, I will be lighting a candle today for the anonymous woman remembered as Julian, remembering her courage and giving thanks for her heroic acts of the imagination.
In All Will Be Well: The Radical Optimism of Julian of Norwich Julian’s translator Mirabai Starr offers a brief reflection on why we still love Julian. There are many scholarly studies focusing on Julian; my own favourite is still Caroline Walker Bynum, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages, and there is a lovely study by my late colleague at Manchester, Grace M. Jantzen, Julian of Norwich, Mystic and Theologian. There are a number of modern editions of Julian’s own writings; an older edition that is now in the common domain can be found here. The Umilta site has a lovely introduction to the manuscripts that preserve her writings.