Julian of Norwich: An Essay
Social, Political, and Religious Environment
Julian of Norwich lived from about 1342 to 1416. Her actual name is unknown; she took her name from the church where she was an anchoress. She lived during a time of much death, violence, and political as well as religious upheaval. In their article on Julian’s life as an anchoress, Wojciechowski says:
“Julian lived during a difficult point in history. She was a child when the Black Death ravaged Europe, and there is evidence that the population of Norwich shrank from an estimated 25,000 people in 1333 to as few as 8,000 in the 1370s… It was likely the deadliest disease event in human history, and it took centuries for medieval society to recover economically and population-wise… In addition to the pestilence that defined her era, Julian lived during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France; it is no exaggeration to say that violence, disease, and death were defining features of her historical era.”
The plague whipped through Europe four times over the course of Julian’s life. It is suggested by some that Julian may have lost a husband and children to the plague, but there is little record of Julian’s life before entering the anchor hold.
The Hundred Year’s War, a struggle between England and France for territory and succession to the French throne, raged from 1337 to 1453. Many injured in war were unable to support themselves through physical labor and took up work in the city. Most townspeople worked in the textile mills of Norwich, where wages were low. Food shortages were frequent. It can be said definitively that the life of the lower classes was fraught with disease, death, and extreme lack.
The disparity in wealth, along with high taxes imposed to finance the war, were key factors that prompted the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381. The local bishop’s private army effectively quashed the rebellion, which demonstrates the tremendous control the Catholic Church held over the residents of the area.
There was also great upheaval in the Catholic Church. The Western Schism occurred in 1378 when Pope Gregory XI died, and Urban VI’s election as pope was declared invalid by France. From 1378 to 1409, there were two popes, one in Rome and the other in Avignon. The year 1409 saw the addition of a third pope in Pisa.
The Lollard Movement began to gain momentum in about 1380. The term “lollard” means to mutter or mumble and was intended as an insult. The movement was headed initially by John Wycliffe, an Oxford theologian most known for the first English translation of the Bible. The Lollards were focused on exposing the abuses and corruption within the Catholic Church. Of chief concern was the Church’s preoccupation with amassing wealth, along with a host of doctrinal issues and questionable practices. Initially, the Lollards enjoyed the support of the upper classes, but were later persecuted as heretics.
In 1382, the Church was given authority to try heretics, and many Lollards were burned at the stake. Some surmise Julian may have smelled smoke from bodies burned at the “Lollard Pit” a short distance from her anchor hold.
In 1373, at the age of 30, Julian had a near death experience. A priest came to give her the last rites and held a crucifix above her head. Over the next 24 hours, she experienced 16 visions.
Shortly thereafter, she wrote of her visions in a text titled “A Vision Shown to a Devout Woman”, commonly referred to as the “Short Text” (abbreviated ST). It is thought to be the first book written in English by a woman.
Julian Enters the Anchor Hold
Julian became an anchoress sometime after her visions when she was likely still in her 30s. An anchoress lived in a cell attached to a church. Julian’s cell was about 10’ by 12’, so a mere 120 square feet.  After several interviews with clergy, Julian was deemed an appropriate candidate for anchoress at Norwich. There was a ceremony akin to a funeral, since once she entered the anchor hold, she was considered dead to the physical realm. After the ceremony, she entered the cell, and the entrance was bricked up.
The cell had three openings; one into the sanctuary so she could attend mass, one onto the street, where she was visited by townspeople to whom she provided insights and guidance, and one into a servant’s quarters through which she received food and returned waste. Her diet consisted mainly of pottage, a soup of barley and vegetables which may occasionally have contained meat. She drank beer:
“Her cell would have included a simple bed, a desk, a chest, an altar, and various small items for study, washing, sewing and so on. She would have been dressed more or less like a nun… Her day would be structured by the divine office, which left many hours for her own study, meditation, and writing as well as time to meet with townspeople, to whom she was an important counselor and advisor.”
Often, an anchor hold was an alternative to the usual path of marriage, or for women wanting to devote themselves to God and yet chose not to take formal vows and enter a convent.
Fifteen years after her initial visions while enclosed in the anchor hold, Julian penned “A Revelation of Love,” commonly referred to as the “Long Text,” abbreviated LT.
Since Julian’s writings became widely available in the 19th century, thousands of readers have been captivated by her visions, and scholars have written thousands of pages expositing her theology. In this paper, I will focus on that aspect of Julian’s revelations I found most compelling, that which contributed most profoundly to my understanding and knowledge of God.
Much of the richness and depth of my experience with Julian’s writings comes from the fictional autobiography I. Julian, by Claire Gilbert. I also used the more recent Mirabai Starr translation of The Showings, which was highly readable. Much to my surprise, I found both to be page turners. I was very thankful for the unique opportunity to experience Julian’s revelations afforded me in these two works.
“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
This is the quote for which Julian is most famous. This is the key message woven throughout all that God revealed to her. What does it mean? And how can I be assured this revelation is true?
Julian’s theology closely lines up with Universal Salvation. The only detracting factor was her devotion to the teachings of the Catholic Church, whose theology lies in stark contrast to the message she received from God. She seemed to have come to a place in her contemplations where she could hold both the messages of love, acceptance, and oneness revealed by God in harmony with the teachings of the Catholic Church regarding the dire consequences of sin. Julian’s writing expressed a fair bit of cognitive dissonance at the outset, but she persistently asked God for understanding and consistently received the message God is love and had only love for all creation.
In my experience, I’ve become completely disenchanted with mainstream evangelical Christianity. I admire Julian for being able to come to terms with the huge discrepancy between the teaching of the Catholic Church and her revelations from God. I have not had the same ability. I have no desire to reconcile the truth of God as I have come to understand it with what I perceive as the twisted destructive messages of Evangelical Christianity in America today. I hope I won’t always feel this way. I hope at some point I’ll be able to extend the grace to others that God has extended me. Perhaps after the election my spirit will calm down some, and I’ll be able to follow Jesus’ admonition to love my neighbor, which is indeed what I desire and aspire to do. In the meantime, I try to be patient with myself. I recognize my anger is a reaction to past trauma, and not truly directed towards people whom I perceive as doing great harm to our country.
It was made clear to Julian that God does not acknowledge sin in the way society has been conditioned to believe by the Catholic Church. She reveals to Julian over and over that “sin is behovely.” “Behovely” means necessary, advantageous, or useful. Perplexed, Julian wonders, “Then what good is sin?” God is patient in this revelation, but over time, Julian comes to accept she will never fully understand this seeming contradiction. She writes, “All revelations are full of mysteries, and this one is no exception” (LT 51).
In Turner’s exposition of Julian’s use of the phrase “sin is behovely”, they say:
“That God could have created a sinless world is not for Julian in doubt. For God can bring about anything you can without contradiction describe. It is possible without contradiction to describe a state of affairs in which human agents, being confronted with the options of good and evil actions, always in fact freely choose the good actions. Consequently, it cannot be incoherent or a contradiction to envisage God’s bringing about just that world. And of course it is easy to see how “all manner of thing” would have been well in a sinless world. What the Lord chides Julian about for foolishness is her having failed to see that in whatever world God has created, “all manner of thing would be well”; consequently, in a world in which there is sin, in which sin is inevitable, all can be well too, and sin’s inevitability is part of the picture, or if you like, part of that plot, of all manner of thing being well…”
The first time I encountered the notion it is humans who associate a negative attribute, sin, to a particular act, was in Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations with God. It was the single piece of information that spurred my fiendish deconstruction of the Calvinist theology that was pounded into me from early childhood. It sparked my honest, diligent quest for a better, healthier relationship with the Divine.
Julian’s visions affirm God simply does not see sin as we see it if she indeed sees sin at all. Sin is an inevitable aspect of our lives, necessary (behovely) for our growth, but it is not something for which she ever condemns us.
Julian finally makes peace with the fact she will never understand how God reconciles our sin and makes “all things well”, and that there are some things she must simply accept on faith alone. She writes:
“And so how could it be that every kind of thing shall be well? In light of this teaching, it seems impossible! The only answer I could find in any of my showings was when our Beloved said, “What is impossible for you is not impossible for me. I will keep my word in all things, and I shall make all things well” (LT 32).”
Another important revelation was that God does not desire we despair over our sin. Remaining in self-condemnation is not helpful or useful, and it goes against God’s message of total and perfect love of all her creation. Julian writes:
“He wants us to be like him: wholly loving toward ourselves and toward all beings. He does not want us to withdraw our love from ourselves or from other beings any more than he would ever withdraw his love from us as a result of our missing the mark (LT40).”
Furthermore, God shows Julian we are rewarded for the suffering in this life in the afterlife:
“God sees the healed wounds of the souls as honors, rather than as penalties. In proportion to the pains and penances with which we are afflicted in this life, the courteous love of our almighty God rewards us in the afterlife. He does not want anyone to lose the slightest degree of benefit from his labors here on earth. He does not blame his lovers for their sins; he knows that these things have already caused us great sorrow and suffering (LT 39).”
Some four decades of therapy (egads) have led me to the same conclusion. The times I’ve chosen to ruminate and chastise myself for days, even weeks, over something I perceived as a mistake have only caused me unnecessary suffering. No one who loves me is hiding around a corner waiting to ambush and bash me over the head for a bad choice, least of all God. I’m the one who suffers from my “bad” choices, and furthermore, I’m the one who assigns them the attribute “bad”. I now work diligently to frame my perceived mistakes in terms of learning. I learn what I can, what I need to learn, and move on. I’m far from perfect at it. But I’ve come a long, long way. It’s helpful to have folks who have gone on before, like Julian, who affirm what I know to be the truth of God.
The fact that Julian experienced the same Divine love in the 14th century I experience today in the 21st confirms for me God’s love is endless and her message timeless. As I have sought after God, I have been continually blessed with the knowing she is in me, and I am in her. It has made all the difference in my life.
“I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38–39
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 Walsch, Neale D. 1997. Conversations with God: An Uncommon Dialogue. 1st ed. London, England: Hodder & Stoughton.
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