*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 8th of May 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
On today’s show, we will remember a remarkable woman about whom we know very little. I know that this sounds difficult, if not impossible. But, by looking at the life and legend of Julian of Norwich, we can ask and answer questions about the medieval world, the role of mysticism, and women. And in the meantime, we can say a word about the very nature of remembering here on the Almanac
On the 8th of May in 1373, Julian claims to have received visions while on her deathbed. A revived Julian would collect these visions as the “Revelations of Divine Love,” a book of incredible importance as a medieval theological resource. Except, it may not have been on the 8th of May. And we aren’t sure that her name was Julian. And you say, “I thought that’s what this dang Almanac was for, now you’re confusing us.”
Let me explain. The use of dates on this Almanac, just as they are on the church’s calendar, is simply a vehicle for spreading out people and events for remembrance. The “on this day” will relate to “this day” somehow, but the fact that it was on this day and not that day rarely, if ever, matters. The OTD structure of this show is a means for jumping around quickly throw time and space. One old manuscript refers to Julian having her revelation on the VIII of May and another on the XIII.
An Anchoress was a female Anchorite. These are ascetics that vow to live in a small cell connected to a church or monastery for intense contemplation and prayer. The vow was so extreme that a priest would recite a requiem mass for them as if they had died when a person entered their cell.
The anchoress Julian lived during that most devastating of centuries in Western Europe. The Black Death killed as much as a third of the population in major urban centers. In addition, a decrease in the workforce and sputtering feudal system led to wage freezes and popular revolts. The church was similarly trying to adjust to the Black Death, with priests dying at a higher rate than most. Add to that the Hundred Years War between France and England.
All of this would contribute to a climate of popular theology and devotion. When the world is going to hell, you care less about the bureaucracy or the “proper” channels. In turbulent times radical theological propositions can shift from “unthinkable” to “reasonable” in a jiffy.
Julian’s “Revelations of Divine Love” are essential for many reasons.
First, theology wasn’t written by women. I mean, it was in this case and a few others, but it wasn’t supposed to be. This is the first work written in English by a woman.
And perhaps you say, “but this is a work of devotion, not theology.” That is, it doesn’t read like systematic theology, nor is it a series of propositions. And in this sense, Julian is not new.
Depending on your particular context and perhaps your field of study, there will be many things that look or sound weird, but they are not “really weird” in the big historical picture. Julian’s devotional work can sound like a desert hermit meets the Song of Solomon. It is mysticism, which we’ve discussed on the show before, as much as we can talk about it. An essential element of mysticism is its “ineffability,” that is, we can’t speak of it. Or rather, we can’t adequately put into words what it “feels” like. Think of what St. Paul calls the “peace that passes all understanding.”
And while the revelations might be challenging to understand, they can and should be understood in the context of the black death and the upheaval in society. And the Jesus often on display to these people was a triumphant, imperial, and mighty Jesus instead of the lowly suffering servant. Thus, a reoriented theology, towards mercy, as opposed to judgment, would become an essential thread in historical theology leading from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Era.
It is in this work that she wrote her most oft-quoted line, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” This was the essence of her revelation of Divine love. It’s like she was telling us that in Christ, everything is going to be ok. Today we remember Julian of Norwich, a female English mystic and anchoress.
The reading for today comes from St Paul, a description of his own mystical experience and what he took from it. From 2 Corinthians the 12th chapter.
And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. 8 Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; 9 but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 8th of May 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man who considers weak church coffee to be the thorn in his flesh Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan “mystical visions and cosmic vibrations” van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. And remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.