Thursday, December 3, 2009
Julian of Norwich
On Tuesday I drove Elizabeth (our eldest and a high school senior) to Point Loma Nazarene University, about a 50-mile drive from our mountain home. We took an official tour last Tuesday with about twenty other prospective students and their parents, but, as it was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and Wednesday was a holiday, we couldn't find a class to sit in on. We had a lovely visit with Carol Blessing, the current chair of the Department of Literature, Journalism, and Modern Languages, the largest department on campus. Carol started at PLNU the year after I did, but while I was an adjunct instructor only, Carol had earned her Ph.D. and was tenure-track material. We share a passion for the same area of study: Medieval Literature. Because of the tour, we had missed both of her classes, and she invited us to return the next week to sit in on one -- which we did earlier this week. Via Facebook, Carol let us know that she was covering the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich in her Medieval Lit seminar, so I brought my own copy (see above).
Elizabeth seemed to enjoy the informality of the class -- nine students plus Carol, who passed around Walker's shortbread to share at the start of class and who kindly introduced us to the all-female students. On Tuesday they were turning in essays, and each student took a few moments to share what she had discussed in her paper. Carol then passed around discussion questions, and the class broke into groups of 2 and 3 to tackle the questions. Then Carol asked each group how they answered the questions, and other class members joined in with their thoughts. I, of course, was quite intrigued.
I have not read all of Julian's work -- neither the shorter, earlier version she wrote immediately after her visions nor the longer, later version she wrote after meditating and pondering upon her vision for twenty years after the occurrence. I've read excerpts, mainly from Richard Foster's wonderful Devotional Classics, my favorite Lenten reading. In preparation for Carol's class, on Monday evening, I read the preface to the Norton Critical Edition of The Showings of Julian of Norwich (sometimes called The Revelations of Julian of Norwich), and I discovered some intriguing facts about this little-known woman who wrote one of the most incredible Christian books of the Middle Ages.
First of all, we probably do not know her name. "Julian" was the name of the church in which she was an anchoress -- she remained in a cell with a window overlooking the altar of the church and one window on the opposite wall through which she would counsel anyone who desired to talk with her. Norwich is a town in northeastern England which produced not only Julian but her friend Margery Kemp, also a medieval mystic who wrote of her extraordinary experiences of God.
Julian was thirty years old when God answered her prayers for: 1) a vision of Christ's passion; 2) an illness almost to the death; 3) and God's gift of "three wounds" of compassion, contrition, and longing for God. She was so near death that she was given Last Rites, and while ill she received a vision of Christ's suffering, blood spilling down His face from the crown of thorns. From these sufferings she developed the "three wounds" she desired. Both written versions of Julian's "revelations," the shorter and the longer, were written as an encouragement to other believers. Julian's writings are the oldest surviving works by an English woman writer. She wrote in the vernacular -- in English (Middle English) -- rather than Latin. In fact, Julian calls herself "unlettyrde" ("unlettered") because she cannot read or write Latin, the language of the Church.
Julian gives us specific detail about the date and time of her revelations. From Chapter 2: "This revelation was made to a symple creature unlettyred in ... the yer of our Lord a thousaunde and thre hundered and lxxiii , the xiii [13th] daie of May...." She was ill for three days and three nights before the Last Rites were performed, and very near death. Her pain disappeared, and "sodenly [suddenly] I saw the reed bloud [red blood] rynnyng [running] downe from under the garlande [crown of thorns], hote and freyshely, plentuously and lively, right as it was in the tyme that the garland of thornes was pressed on his blessed head."
Her response to this vision was joy in the revelation of the Trinity: "For the Trinitie is God, God is the Trinitie. The Trinitie is our maker. The Trinitie is our keper [keeper]. The Trinitie is our everlausting lover. The Trinitie is our endlesse joy...."
So I want to delve more fully into the revelations God made to His handmaiden Julian, and I also possess the Norton Critical Edition of Margery Kemp as well. So these two I shall be reading and studying over the weeks to come. My desire has been to pursue a study of medieval mystics as a possible area of study should I return to graduate school to earn my Ph.D. as I only have my Master of Arts in English. I hope to go back in five years or so, when we've graduated two or three of our homeschooling students and if low-residency programs for doctoral work are developed. A couple of programs in the UK look quite promising but are probably far out of our price range. We shall see.
And until then, I will continue studying on my own, and especially the medieval mystics who fascinate me so very much.