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Julian of Norwich on Prayer and the Passion of Christ

This essay shall explore Julian‟s teaching on prayer in relation to the Paschal mystery- or more directly the salvific suffering of Christ for humanity. It shall proceed with significant consideration on methodological issues in relation to the
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  Rev Nicholas Tuohy Julian of Norwich on prayer and the rhythm of the paschal mystery. 1 Introduction  I wished I had been with Mary Magdalene and the others who were Christ’s lovers, that I might have actually seen the passion of our Lord, which he suffered for me; and that I might have suffered with him as did the others who loved him…I desired a bodily sight wherein I might have more knowledge of our Lord and Saviour’s physical pain, and of the compassion of our Lady,…for I wishe d, as a result of this shewing, to have a truer understanding of the passion of Christ. 1   Julian of Norwich. The term “the Passion  of Christ ” has taken on a whole new significance since the recent release of the Mel Gibson directed film The Passion of the Christ  . As we shall see later, Julian of Norwich did receive a vivid and graphic revelation of Christ‟s physical sufferings through the form of visions. Those who have seen Gibson‟s  portrayal of the last twelve hours of Christ‟s life would know that it accentuates the physical suffering of Christ with large amounts of spilt blood as well as gory bodily disfigurement. Julian‟s visions are similarly gory in their detail, although, unlike the film, much more theological reflection takes place vis-à-vis the divine love that is at the core of that event. B oth Julian‟s visions and Gibson‟s  film do intrude upon us in ways that are unsettling and demand from us consideration of the implications of the death of Jesus. Discussion on how viewing the passion of Christ on the  big screen may affect people needs to be left for another time; discussion on how Julian reflects on her own „private screening‟ of the passion of Christ is our focus. 2   This essay shall explore Julian‟s teaching on prayer in relation to the Paschal  mystery- or more directly the salvific suffering of Christ for humanity. It shall proceed with significant consideration on methodological issues in relation to the interpreting of a spiritual text. Secondly, to place Julian in her social and historical context will add a foundation and context from which to more adequately appreciate her revelations. Thirdly, and importantly for this study, we shall consider Julian‟s visions of the suffering Christ  and her teaching or 1  Translation by Frances Beer, Women and Mystical Experience in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1992) 133. Further quotations from Julian in the essay are taken from, E. Colledge & J. Walsh,  Julian of  Norwich Showings (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), unless otherwise noted, and are to be identified by ST or LT (short or long text), revelation (except in short text), chapter, and page number. 2  See Beer, Women,  141,   who notes the detail of Julian‟s images are “…not static „stills‟…but film -like, moving  pictures. Thus the verbs she uses are all verbs of continuing action; she speaks of defiling   and buffeting, the changing   of colour; the  flowing of the blood, the drying    of the flesh.” See also Denise Nowakowski Baker,  Julian of Norwich Showings: from vision to book   (Princeton NJ: Princeton UP, 1994), ch. 2, who notes the correlation between iconography and artistic representations of the crucifixion that are contemporaneous with Julian‟s day. Baker also makes valid allusions to forms of meditation and contemplation that may have influenced Julian‟s writing and experiences.    Rev Nicholas Tuohy Julian of Norwich on prayer and the rhythm of the paschal mystery. 2 experience of prayer. Finally, I would like to devote room for reflecting on some of the impli cations of Julian‟s revelations. Methodology One of the methodological problems we encounter is that we only know “Julian” from two texts which she bequeathed to us. For a woman who lived till around 75 years of age, we have a scarcity of primary resources. We are struck with a dilemma when we study spiritual texts, such as Julian‟s. 3  How then do we faithfully interpret the words that were written some 600 years ago by an author we know in a scantily detailed manner? This is a hermeneutical  problem-but not insurmountable. One approach would be to apply the methodology of literary criticism and ask questions of the text‟s form, redactional history, etymology, genre, and philology. While this course of action cannot be discarded, in itself it is fundamentally deficient as a hermeneutical methodology in engaging a spiritual text. For one thing, meaning is polymorphous; it exists on numerous levels and can be viewed differently from different vantage points, simultaneously. Alternately, by employing a more reader-response approach we may interpret a spiritual text with the maxim: “It means what  I    think or feel it means”. This approach would assert that the text has meaning only insofar as  I experience it to have meaning.  This is  becoming one accepted way of arriving at meaning, with pluralism showing that context and tradition, for some, mean less than do personal taste and experience. Related to this, Philip Sheldrake highlights the tendency for spiritu ality to become a „private affair‟. 4  Thus, a post-modern hermeneutical approach, in its most radical form, may claim that there is no „universal‟ or „right or wrong‟ way to interpret a text. Therefore, the general consensus of what a text means, arrived at by an awareness of traditional interpretation and the application of literary critical techniques, is no more „truer,‟ or has no greater authority, than the meaning arrived at by any per  son‟s reading of the same text. 5   3  See Philip Sheldrake, Spirituality and Theology: Christian Living and the Doctrine of God   (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1998), 99, who states spiritual texts “are not concerned primarily with ideas about doctrine  but about the practice of the Christian life.” 4  Philip Sheldrake, Spirituality and History (London: SPCK, 1995[rev. ed.]), 3. 5   In one sense it could be argued that writing such as Julian‟s are better suited to be interpreted within a reader  - response philosophical environment. On this see Carroll Hilles, “The Sa cred Image and the Healing Touch: The Veronica in Julian of Norwich's Revelation of Love”, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies Vol. 28  Rev Nicholas Tuohy Julian of Norwich on prayer and the rhythm of the paschal mystery. 3 Hence, we are left within two poles. On the one hand, we cannot agree to a mechanistic approach to the text as something to be „explained‟ according to our  philosophical assumptions and points of reference. On the other hand, it is not entirely helpful to simply allow meaning to be continge nt on how the text „affects me‟, and to view its meaning only as existing where  I   experience it to be so. Sheldrake advocates a helpful approach by suggesting an application of a hermeneutic of both consent, and suspicion, vis-à-vis interpreting a spiritual text. 6   The former highlights “that our interpretations of a text are, to a degree, constrained by the authority retained by the author” 7 , while the latter implies “that the questions provoked by our contemporary situation may well be critical of the text and its theological and social assumptions.” 8  In summary, I propose that we read Julian both affectively 9  and critically. 10  This means that we suspend the tendency to draw conclusions and make judgements that may well be Durham Fall (1998) 553-580, available from, qil:pq_clntid=18921, Internet, accessed 06/04/04, who notes, “The book has been begun by Julian and must be continued in th e reader; its performance attends on processes of both individual and social transformation…By recreating Julian's experience in the reader, the Revelation avoids fixing mysticism as a solitary act of transcendence, or a relic of some bygone spiritual authenticity. Julian conceives of revelation in a continuous  present, operating through transformative relationships with the sacred.”   6  Sheldrake, Spirituality and History,  180-84. 7  ibid., 182. Sheldrake, Spirituality and History, 179-80, aptly sums up the tension between authorial faithfulness and creative interpretation: “It is possible to be faithful to the composer in a limited sense simply by  being technically faultless and by a literal observance of the composer‟s instructions. Yet a „good‟ performanc e seeks to be more than technically correct. It is also creative. Faithfulness certainly involves technique, but linked to imagination, because the composer did not merely describe how to produce certain sounds but sought to create an experience in the lis tener. However, a „good‟ performance is  true to the score in that the players cannot do simply anything with Mozart and still call it „his‟ symphony.” 8  ibid., 183. 9   See Hilles, “The Sacred Image” who notes the importance of a personal entering in to Julian‟s writings by stating, “Just as Julian's process of interpretation is intrinsic to the revelation, so too is the interpretation of the reader a necessary part of the revelation as it has been made to all people. She therefore allows the reader to experience first-hand the showings' linguistic complexities. The Revelation's surprising metaphors, elusive antinomies, partially revealed secrets, and unresolved dilemmas require the active participation of the reader in the creation of meaning.”   10  Sheldrake, Spirituality and History, 173, states, “What is needed is a receptive and at the same time critical dialogue with a spiritual text in order to allow the wisdom contained in it to challenge us and yet to accord our own horizons their proper place.” I have deliberately chosen to replace „receptive‟ with „affective‟ to encourage a stronger place for emotional engagement and experience in theological inquiry. See also Sheldrake, Spirituality and Theology , 32, who offers a needed argument for the healing of the historical rift between theology and spirituality. Sheldrake sums up nicely the healthy symbiosis required, stating, “Spirituality without theology runs the danger of becoming private or interior. Theology, however, needs the corrective of spirituality t o remind us that true knowledge of God concerns the heart as much as the intellect.” See also Domenico Pezzini, “The Vocabulary of Joy in Julian of Norwich,” Studies in Spirituality  4 (1994), 94- 115. Pezzini talks of „affective theology‟ claiming that, “[T he] emotions, as well as reason, can be, and actually  Rev Nicholas Tuohy Julian of Norwich on prayer and the rhythm of the paschal mystery. 4 hindering us in hearing and seeing the message Julian offers us. By contrast, we must certainly be critical by understanding that even mystics write with bias and blind-spots. In the words of Sheldrake, “…even in spirituality, there never is a golden age.” 11  Statements such as, “Julian believed”, or “Julian did not think”, “Julian‟s theology of sin”. etc., must be handled with utmost caution. 12   Be that though it may, „Julian‟ writes in such a way as to evoke a sense of affinity and familiarity with her. Her honesty, humility, and dialogical manner can give the reader a sense of knowing her like a friend. That, at least, has been my experience. Julian’s World   Thomas Merton once wrote, “There can be no doubt that Lady Julian is the greatest of the English mystics. Not only that, but she is one of the greatest English theologians…” 13  Julian of Norwich stands tall among her contemporaries, Richard Roll (ca. 1300-49), the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing   (ca. 1370), Walter Hilton (d. 1396) and finally, Margery Kempe (ca. 1373- after 1436). 14  Julian has also been compared with the great English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, who was writing around the same time as Julian; the latter, incidentally, is the first known English woman to have written a book. Her writings, a revelation based upon a serie s of sixteen “showings,” were later edited into a longer text in which Julian shows considerable theological reflection on the deeper meanings of the initial revelation. 15   are a „locus theologicus‟, a place where God reveals himself and makes his presence felt.” (96) He then  proceeds to analyses the use of affective language in Julian‟s vocabulary and “shows how skilfully  she reconciles theology and affectivity…” (114)   11  Sheldrake, Spirituality and History , 183. 12   Moreover, romantic notions about „Julian‟ as though she was a person we can know and  love authentically. See Beer, Women and Mystical Experience, 130, who assert s concerning „Julian‟, “…because she was so thoroughly committed to her solitude, we know very little of real interest about her, though it is possible to get a faint outline of her life by stringing together a few facts and a few conjectures.” 13  Thomas Merton quoted in Nowakowski Baker,  Julian of Norwich , 165. Kerrie Hide, “The Parable of the Lord and the Servant: A Soteriology for our Times,”  Pacifica 10 (1997), 62, comments upon the value of Julian‟s duel mantle of mystic and theologian stating, “Becau se she roots her theological reflection in a mystical core, she enables us to experience knowledge that, while it did not come directly from the academy, was of significance to the church.”   14  M. L. del Mastro, The Revelation of Divine Love in Sixteen Showings  (Missouri: Triumph Books, 1994), 11-14. 15  There is general consensus that the short text was written after a mystical experience during prayer on in May, 1373. The Longer text was completed some twenty years later. See Nowakowski Baker,  Julian of Norwich Showings , ch. 6.  Rev Nicholas Tuohy Julian of Norwich on prayer and the rhythm of the paschal mystery. 5 It is possible that Julian was an anchorite or nun when she had her vision in 1373. 16   Furthermore, Baker has observed that Julian‟s “request for three “wounds” [is] similar to the three traditional stages of spiritual development outlined by Bernard and Bonaventure  —  compassion, contrition, and contemplation…” 17  This being accurate would suggest Julian was educated to at least a moderate degree. 18  The peculiar matrix from which Julian writes is one steeped in suffering and an uncertainty which pervaded Europe in the fourteenth century. With the Black Death striking in 1348-49 and intermittently thereafter claiming, at least, a third of the population of Europe, there was a pervasive fear that settled upon society. The fear was heightened by a fascination with sin and excessive fear about damnation. 19  The obsession with penance that is characteristic of medieval religious life is reflective of the fear of post-somatic suffering and of a wrathful God. 20   Also, The Hundred Years‟ War ( 1337 to 1453) between France and England claimed many lives adding political instability to England and France. Furthermore, the Great Schism in the Western Church, with rival popes in Avignon and Rome from 1378 -1417 (with a third  being added in 1409), began to unravel the otherwise normative and central function the Church held through all levels of society. Until the Council of Constance (1414-1418) ended the Great Schism, people were posed with the threat of belonging to the wrong or unsanctioned pope. With both popes excommunicating one another and their adherents,  people were uncertain as to the state of their souls. Which one had the power to forgive sins, absolve suffering in purgatory, and grant safe passage to heaven? With the backdrop of the high mortality rate of the Black Death, these were pressing and pertinent questions for people of Julian‟s day. 21  It is within this framework that Julian receives her revelations in which, among other things, she receives this message: “I will make all things well, I shall make all things well, I may 16  Nowakowski Baker,  Julian of Norwich Showings , 33-4. 17  ibid., 33. 18  See Austin Cooper,  Julian of Norwich: Reflections on Selected texts  (Homebush: St Paul, 1986), who is much more generous in his assessment of Julian‟s learning, stating that she is a “very intelligent woman who was well acquainted with scripture and thoroughly instructed in doctrine…” (7) See also, E. Colledge & J. Walsh, 19 -21, who also agree that Julian showed evidence of one who was learned. Ellen M. Ross, The Grief of God: Images of the Suffering Jesus in Late Medieval England    (New York: Oxford UP, 1997), 32, also sees in Julian‟s book evidence of one who was learned: “Her literary style and the theological sophistication of her writing suggest that she had extensive knowledge of scripture and classic theological and spiritual texts…”   19   Joan M. Nuth, “Two Medieval Soteriologies: Anslem of Canterbury and Julian of Norwich,” Theological Studies  53 (1992), 20  Nowakowski Baker,  Julian of Norwich Showings , 83. 21  For further detail of this era see Grace Jantzen,  Julian of Norwich  (London: SPCK, 1987), 3-14.
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