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Julian of Norwich: Beyond Torture – Chris Fewings

The quotations from Julian below are edited

Last year I received on my birthday a hazelnut, a traditional crucifix, and a card showing Julian of Norwich, who became in the fourteenth century the first woman to write a book in English. She was a highly original and articulate theologian and visionary, forgotten for centuries but seeming to speak directly from her time to ours.

The crucifix with its tortured Christ seemed at first a very odd gift, especially in the context of Julian of Norwich, who saw not one whit of anger in God. Then I remembered how, as she lay at death’s door at the age of thirty, she had asked for a crucifix to be held before her eyes, and wanted with medieval gruesomeness to experience Christ’s pain.

‘After this I saw the body bleed freely because of the scourging. The fair skin was broken very deep into the tender flesh with sharp blows all about his body. So the hot blood ran out so freely that I could see neither skin nor wound, but as it were all blood.’

She recovered and the visions she had seen and her thoughts on them were written down, going far beyond blood and gore and exploring the motherly love of God, especially in the second book she wrote about twenty years later.

‘I saw that he is to us everything that is good and comforting for us: he is our clothing that wraps us, clasps us, and enfolds us because of his tender love, that he may never leave us; being to us everything that is good.’

* * * * *

‘He shewed me a little thing, the size of an hazelnut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it and thought: What can this be? And the answer came: it is all that is made. I marvelled how it might last: it was tiny it might just have disappeared. And the answer came to mind: it lasts because God loves it.’

Her view of the fall is encapsulated in her vision of a lord sending a servant on a mission:

‘I saw a master and a servant, the master sitting calmly and in peace, the servant standing before his master reverently, ready to do his will. The master looks upon his servant lovingly, and sends him off to do his bidding. The servant not only goes, but starts at once, and runs in great haste, eager to do his master’s will. But then he falls and is badly hurt, and groans and moans and wails and struggles, but he can neither rise nor help himself in any way.

‘I marvelled how this servant might meekly suffer there all this woe, and I looked carefully to learn if I could perceive in him any fault, or if the master should assign him any blame. And in truth there was none, for only his goodwill and his great desire was cause of his falling; he had no hate, and was as good inwardly as when he stood before his master, ready to do his will. His master looked on him with all tenderness and compassion — and I also saw him rejoicing to think of the restoration he would bring his servant by his plentiful grace.

‘Now this courteous master says “Look, look, my beloved servant, what harm and distress he has taken in my service in his eagerness. Is it not fitting that I recompense him for his shock, his hurt, his injury and all his woe? And not only this, but should I not give him a gift that will be better to him than his own wholeness should have been? How else can I thank him?”‘

* * * * *

‘A mother may let her child fall sometimes, and to be hurt in various ways, but she would never allow any real danger to come to the child. And even if our earthly mother let her child perish, our heavenly mother, Jesus, will never allow his children to perish.’

Julian’s writings have been important to me for nearly thirty years. I wrote this short poem last year because in receiving the crucifix I realised that I had skimmed over her close attention to the tortured Christ. She is the voice of the motherly love of God, but she does not shy away from pain and cruelty.


Before she was enfolded and enfolded us
in words that recognise that mothering
is more than something local (a universal
sling holding us to the torso of reality,
as we cry out to our core of being),
she saw the worst that men can do to men
and felt her life suspended. So if you
would like to hold a hazelnut in hand
and know the woods that can enclose you
can be enclosed in a single palm,
don’t shrink away from Amnesty International,
special rendition, fingernails ripped off.
There may be nothing you can do but run on errands
and fall until your ankle’s twisted round.
The mother-king will raise you to herself.

Julian’s feast day is celebrated on 8th May in the Church of England, and 13th May in the Church of Rome. More extracts from her work can be found on Wikiquote. I was introduced to her work by the booklet Enfolded in Love edited by Robert Llewelyn. The photograph (of Norwich Cathedral) is from Wikimedia Commons

2 comments on this post:

Chris Fewings said...
08 May 2013 22:35
Joyce said...

Thank you,Chris, for the extracts and the link. Thanks also for sharing your poem.

09 May 2013 13:06

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