Julian of Norwich: A Vital Religious Educator in Action

Having to re-read Julian of Norwich’s Revelation of Divine Love recently I was struck by a new discovery. I found not only a 14th century mystic re-negotiating gender and power, but also a vital religious educator in action. Julian’s writing demonstrates an educational intent to deepen Christian faith in response to people’s particular needs and expose them to a different understanding of God than they were used to.[1] Although she is careful in her rhetoric, Julian does not shy away from vital conflicts between the revelation she received in her vision and official Church teachings – especially concerning sin and salvation. Her Revelation of Divine Love in Sixteen Showings represents a profound theological reflection undertaken for a practical purpose. Julian engages both the Story and Vision of Christianity[2] as interpreted by the Church, and the Story and Vision revealed to her in a critical dialogue to improve people’s lives.

This “shared-praxis”[3] of Julian’s theology becomes clear when one understands the context it responded to. The historical and ecclesial conditions of the late 14th century left very little hope in a benevolent God or credible temporal authority. The Church had devoted itself to entrenching its own power and had lost the trust of many believers. The everyday experiences of the population and the prevailing theology contributed to what can only be characterized as fearful practices of self-loathing amidst a crisis of authority.[4] People shared a very real suspicion of the goodness of God and themselves. Julian’s theology and vocation as anchorite cannot be detached from this frightening context. However, contrary to common male versions of eremitic life, anchorites were not fleeing the corruption of human society. Enclosure for anchorites like Julian, “was not a way of shutting out the concern for others, but a way of focusing it.” [5]

Jantzen suggests the ministry of an anchoress can be compared to contemporary therapists or spiritual directors.[6] If so, the practical theological approach to religious learning we read in the Revelation of Divine Love is not only the result of a contemplative experience of God, but the result of the “sins and sorrows of the world poured into her ears” by visitors seeking her counsel.[7] This care for human souls offers a significant lens through which to view her writings an educational text. Julian departs from institutionally determined orthodoxy and re-asks core questions of Christian tradition in light of her experiences. She ascribes real theological significance to her questions and the questions of others around her.

Julian’s re-imagining of doctrines of the Trinity, theological anthropology and soteriology provide potent sources of intervention in the lives of people to heal human suffering.[8] She clearly works from an intuition that it is impossible to grow in love of someone who disapproves of you at a core level.[9] Julian’s theology remains profoundly Trinitarian throughout the text: God is maker, keeper & everlasting lover.[10] She draws an important practical theological implication from this perorchoreis. There can be no anger in God.[11] She engages the suffering Jesus not as an object to emulate but as a dialogue partner – the source of the Christian Story and Vision – to engage and learn the appropriate response to suffering and what sin means. Julian reports that human beings share an ontological union with this second person of the Trinity.[12] It is our blindness that causes us to suffer.[13] God does not judge sin, but our natural substance that God keeps whole.[14] Julian suggests any teaching or pedagogy that draws our attention away from this self-worth deepens our inability to see it.[15] As long as we focus on our sinful condition rather than on the loving God, we are not identifying ourselves with our true substance. While this practical theological response challenges traditional teachings on sin, Julian does not encourage separation from Church life and functions.[16]

Julian attempts to “breathe life into dogma” by privileging her own knowledge of God as primary doctrine and placing this encounter in dialogue with both Church teaching and human needs. [17] Julian’s visions precipitate a careful negotiation to understand the relationship between her personal experiences and the teachings of Christian tradition.[18] Julian holds to both sides of this tension. She does not jettison Church teachings. Nor does she dismiss her experiences and encounter. She concludes that everyday experience is where we discover the truth of God’s love. Human reason, paired with human experience, is meant to reflect upon and reinterpret Church teachings toward a greater understanding of God.[19]

 

[1] Grace Jantzen, Julian of Norwich: Mystic and Theologian, (New York: Paulist Press,1988) 29.

[2] Thomas Groome uses this phrasing in his Shared-Praxis approach in Christian Religious Education: Sharing Our Story and Vision, (San Francisco, C.A: Jossey Bass, 1980)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ellen T. Charry, By The Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine. (New York: Oxford University Press,1997), 152-154.

[5] Grace Jantzen, Julian of Norwich, 29, 46

[6] Ibid, 47.

[7] Ibid, 47.

[8] Grace Jantzen, Julian of Norwich, 89.

[9] Ellen Charry, By The Renewing of Your Minds, 191

[10] Julian of Norwich, The Revelation of Divine Love in Sixteen Showings, Chapter 4.

[11] Ibid, Chapter 51.

[12] Ibid, Chapter 51.

[13] Ibid, Chapter 56.

[14] Ibid, Chapter 45.

[15] Ellen Charry, By The Renewing of Your Minds, 208.

[16] Grace Jantzen, Julian of Norwich, 100.

[17] Ibid, 105. See also Ellen Charry, By The Renewing of Your Minds.

[18] Grace Jantzen, Julian of Norwich, 96.

[19] Ibid, 106.

 

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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