Saint Julian of Norwich was an ordinary medieval women of some social status and means. She was born in England around 1342, and had a severe illness at thirty in which she received last rites and had a series of sixteen visions of Christ. She wrote about her visions, Revelations of Divine Love, shortly afterward, and near the end of the century wrote a longer treatise explaining them in greater detail.
For most of her life, after her near-death experience, she lived as an anchoress. An anchorite (male) or anchoress (female) is sort of a cross between a monastic and a hermit. As the name suggests, one is anchored to the spot, living in a small cell block attached to a church. As an anchoress, therefore, she lived simply, singly, on the charity of others. She had a window into the church building through which she could hear Mass and receive Communion, and a window to the outside through which she could speak with visitors and offer spiritual wisdom and advice. Near the end of her life she was visited by another medieval woman who came to be remembered as a Saint, Margery Kempe.
Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love is the first known book written by a woman, in English, and comprise what many consider the height of English mysticism. Mysticism was a movement in the late medieval church that was largely a reaction to scholasticism – where some got (arguably) needlessly brainy about the faith, others would gravitate to the ineffable mysteries of Christianity. This sort of dynamic can be seen repeated in many places throughout history, including our own day: a more intellectual, or ‘stuffy religion’ in the mid-20th century paved the way for a more emotive ‘Jesus movement’ in the late 20th century. To this day there are whole traditions of Christianity, especially in America, that de-emphasize doctrine and theology in favor of the mystery and the emotion of God’s love. Every movement and reaction has its strengths, weaknesses, fair contributions, and extremes, of course.
Among Julian’s writings, one of the most beloved refrains is this: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” In a context steeped in the seriousness of sin, and a grave abhorrence to its damning results, Julian (like many mystics) meditated beautifully upon the immense love that God has for us. She even described God’s love in motherly terms – a move rarely employed in Christian writings, as there are very few such references in the Bible. Her prayer refrain, “all shall be well,” was an affirmation that God will bring good from any situation, no matter how evil or sin-stained it may be.
Her commemoration is on May 8th, the day her visions began.