Academic journal article Magistra

Intimate with God: Julian of Norwich

Academic journal article Magistra

Intimate with God: Julian of Norwich

Article excerpt

hatever else it may be, John Donne's seventeenth century poem, The Ecstasy, is an exploration of the connection between body and soul in transcendent human love whose basis is physical desire. Near the midpoint of the poem, the lovers, lying side by side with thensouls negotiating above their bodies - will they or will they not consummate their love? - conclude that "it was not sex" (1. 31).1 Near the poem's end, however, they resolve that the vessel of the soul, the human body, is the necessary mortal mode for expressing love on earth: "Love's mysteries in souls do grow,/But yet the body is his book" (11. 71-2).

The wit of the title "The Ecstasy" plays on sensual rapture versus religious (or mystical) rapture. This poem seems to be a good point from which to move back in time to the fourteenth century English mystic, Julian of Norwich (ca. 1343-after 1416), an enclosed anchorite who spent decades meditating upon and writing about her relationship to Jesus Christ. Mystical language often draws on the metaphorical language of love. Richard Rolle, for instance, uses the word "ecstasy" of the mystic who is carried away by the sweetness of heavenly love at the end of his treatise, The Form of Living.

Julian produced the first known book by an English woman, A Revelation of Love. This devout woman had a series of sixteen visions on May 13, 1373 when she was thirty and so sick that she was believed to be dying and received the last rites. The visions begin when a priest holds a crucifix before Julian's face and she suddenly sees blood trickle down Christ's face from under the crown of thorns {Revelation, 4, 1-3, 135).2 A Revelation, which consists of her meditations upon these visions, exists in two versions, a short version (A Vision) dating from the 1380s, and a longer version (A Revelation) from the 1390s that was not copied in full until 1413. While Julian meditated upon what she saw and added, in the second longer version, commentary about what her visions revealed, she lived a life of prayer and solitary contemplation in an anchorhold, a small building attached to the church of St. Julian in Norwich. Julian is capable of rising to rhapsodic intensity, as in The Secunde Revelation, wherein she yearns for Jesus in the plain, powerful language of human desire, "I saw him and sought him, and I had him and wanted him" (10, 14-15, 159).

Julian says this after beholding the suffering, bleeding face of Christ and observing in detail how the two sides of Christ's face discolor alternatingly:

And one time I saw how hälfe the face, beginning at the ere, overyede with drye bloud till it beclosed into the mid face. And after that the other hälfe beclosed on the same wise, and therewhiles it vanished in this party, even as it cam. (10. 4-7, 157-9)

[And once I saw how half his face, beginning at the ear, was covered in dry blood until it reached the middle of his face, and after that the other half was covered in the same way, and meanwhile the first part was as before.]3

In sound theological fashion, Denys Turner observes of Julian's utterance, "I saw him and sought him, and I had him and wanted him," in the context of the Passion of Christ:

Two features come most readily to mind as guiding motifs of Julian's spirituality. The first is trust in a given reality known and possessed, trust in the divine love that being already fully given, is there for the taking: "I saw him and and I had him." The other is desire for a consummation of that love not yet fully achieved: "I sought him and I wanted him." What is had and what is sought are one and the same - him."4

What goes without comment in this elegant observation on the spiritual sense of Julian's "I saw him and sought him, and I had him and wanted him" is how intense is its sexual allusiveness.5 Julian's utterance contains, in fact, an echo of the Song of Songs 5:6, "I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer," the disappointed words of the woman who, having delayed too long in rising from her bed to answer her beloved's knocking, discovers that he is no longer waiting at the door. …

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