It was on this day in 1373 that the mystic Julian of Norwich (books by this author) received the last of her divine visions. Julian is not technically a saint, and no one even knows her given name. She was called “Julian” because she was an anchoress in a cell adjoining the Church of St. Julian in Norwich, England. An anchoress renounces society for solitary religious practice (similar to a hermit) instead of living in a community as a nun.
Julian was born in England, probably in 1342, just before the worst outbreak of the Black Death in Europe. During that time, the Late Middle Ages, England was fighting the Hundred Years’ War with France, the Black Death killed at least a third of England’s population, there had been widespread famine and crop failures, and peasants were in revolt. In addition to all that, the Catholic Church was falling apart. The Church was leading up to a major schism — the pope had defected to Avignon in France since the early 14th century, which didn’t sit well with Rome. In 1351, Pope Clement VI himself railed against his own highest-ranking clergy: “What can you preach to the people? If on humility, you yourselves are the proudest of the world, puffed up, pompous and sumptuous in luxuries. If on poverty, you are so covetous that all the benefices in the world are not enough for you. If on chastity — but we will be silent on this, for God knoweth what each man does and how many of you satisfy your lusts.”
This was the context in which Julian of Norwich, whoever she might have been, decided to withdraw from society for a life of religious solitude. She spent her days in contemplative prayer, and when she was 30 years old she became seriously ill. She was so near death that the priest was called to administer the last rites, when suddenly she began experiencing visions. She had 16 visions of God, and was healed. She wrote: “All this blessed teaching of our Lord was shown to me in three parts, that is by bodily vision and by words formed in my understanding and by spiritual vision.” Shortly after her visions occurred, she wrote them down into a work she called Short Text,which was 25 chapters long. And although she described herself as a “simple creature unlettered,” she kept thinking about the visions and revising her account of them, and 20 years later she completed all 86 chapters of her Long Text. Eventually, these became Revelations of Divine Love, one of the first books written by a woman in English.
Julian of Norwich wrote: “So I understood our sensuality is founded in nature, in mercy and in grace, and this foundation enables us to receive gifts which lead us to endless life. For I saw very surely that our substance is in God, and I also saw that God is in our sensuality, for in the same instant and place in which our soul is made sensual, in that same instant and place exists the city of God, ordained from him without beginning. He comes into this city and will never depart from it, for God is never out of the soul, in which he will dwell blessedly without end.”