Kingdom Women: Julian of Norwich by Shelly Wildman
This is part of an ongoing series on Kingdom Women—women God has used and is using in His great Kingdom endeavor. We will meet these women in God’s Word, in the early church, in the dark ages, in the past great missionary efforts and among today’s true followers of Jesus. This woman was the first woman to write in English.
Some days it feels like a woman’s work is simply getting her family through the day. Carpool, soccer practice, music lessons—oh, and grabbing a quick meal before homework—these are the duties that often consume our 21st century days.
Now imagine being a woman in England in the 1300s. “Getting through the day” suddenly takes on a whole new meaning. “Getting through the day” in medieval England meant not only grabbing dinner for your family, but killing it, cleaning it, and getting the fire started so that you could cook it. Laundry was done by hand, and not that often. Cleanliness was not your first priority—survival was.
And if you survived the Plague, you surely knew plenty of people who did not.
Woman’s work? Woman’s work existed only within the home. Girls rarely attended school, rarely got enough education so that they could read books, and never—never—wrote anything, especially not in English.
This is the world into which Julian of Norwich was born.
I became acquainted with Julian several years ago when I read one of her most well known quotes: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Something about that sweet quote brought me great comfort, especially as a mother to three daughters.
I’ll get back to that quote later, but once I became acquainted with Julian of Norwich, I wanted to learn more. What was it that compelled this woman to write words that would bring such comfort to my soul?Little is actually known about Julian of Norwich—was she an aristocrat? A peasant? A common person? Did she have any formal schooling? Was she a nun or a mother? We really can’t know for sure.
What we do know is the world in which she lived and wrote. Yes, she wrote.
Against all odds, and against the commands of the church at that time (English was banned from all religious writing; in fact, people were being burned at the stake for owning a Bible in English.), Julian took up a quill and parchment and wrote words that she believed came from God.
As a child, Julian was devout. She had prayed for three things as a young girl—she called them her “three wounds”: contrition, compassion, and longing for God. In other words, she wanted to be aware of her sin, aware of those around her, and aware of God’s presence in her life
Three pretty good prayers, in my opinion.
Julian carried these three desires with her throughout her early life, constantly praying that God would reveal himself to her.
Later, around the age of 30, Julian got very sick. As she lay in her bed, surrounded by her family and priest, very near death, Julian had a vision of Jesus on the cross, bleeding, suffering, dying. During this time (her vision lasted for several hours), God revealed himself to Julian in a remarkable way. When Julian woke from her vision and recovered from her illness, she spent the rest of her life writing down these “revelations” from God.
Her book, Revelations of Divine Love, was the first book written by a woman in English.
It’s a detailed account of all that God revealed to Julian during her hours-long vision. It is personal. It is mystical. It is beautiful.
Two themes stand out to me about what God revealed to Julian at that time.
First, God desires for us to revel in His deep love for each one of us.
Julian writes that as her vision begins, she sees Jesus hanging on the cross, bleeding profusely, looking at her with love. These are the first words he speaks to her: “Lo, how I love thee.” The intimacy with which Julian writes of God’s love for his people is beautiful. She writes that when we truly understand God’s love and trust in it, we actually please him. To think that it pleases God when I rest in His love for me is one of those lessons I have to sit with for a while and ponder. It’s just too amazing.
The second theme that has spoken to me has been this idea of “all shall be well.”
“But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that I needed, answered by this word and said: ‘Sinne is behovely, but alle shalle be wele, and alle shalle be wele, and all manner of thing shalle be wele.’”
When Julian writes the words “all shall be well,” she writes them in the context of wrestling with God over the concept of sin, evil, and suffering in this world. She wonders, as many of us have, how God could allow sin into this world at all. Think of how perfect the world would be if sin hadn’t entered the picture!
Yet, in her vision, God assures her that sin has a purpose. Jesus tells her that sin is “behovely,” a Middle English word for “useful,” “necessary,” or even “advantageous.”
Julian reflects on the words of 2 Cor. 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
As one scholar wrote, “Could the concept of sin as the gravest affront to God and the curse of humanity become so transformed in Christ that it might be deemed useful, necessary, even advantageous?” (Rolf 384).
Jesus gave her the assurance that, according to Rolf, “well-being in an ultimate sense was possible, no matter how many terrible things happened in her world” (384).
And this is a sweet balm to my soul, too.As a mother to three almost-grown daughters, I look at the world in which they are living, the world in which they are called to make their mark for Christ, and I wonder how on earth can this continue? I see mass murders of Christians in Kenya and wonder, how can any good come from this? I see the outpouring of evil around the globe and wonder how sin can be allowed to prevail.
Yet I often remember the sweet words of Jesus to Julian and am comforted by them too. Although horrors occur on a daily basis these days, and though sin runs rampant in every corner of the earth, Jesus will ultimately be glorified. I have to trust in this.
“Alle shall be wele, and alle shall be wele, and alle manner of things shall be wele.”
In other words, God’s got this.
In this I find great comfort.
What about you? What comfort do you find from this Kingdom Woman.
Shelly Wildman is married to her college sweetheart, Brian, and mom to three amazing adult daughters who inspire her every day. She is a Visiting Instructor at Wheaton College where she teaches writing and from where she received a B.A. in Literature. In addition, she holds an M.A. in English Education from the University of Illinois at Chicago. You can find Shelly on Facebook, Twitter, or at her blog****Works ConsultedFrykholm, Amy. Julian of Norwich. Brewster, MA: Paraclete. 2010. Print.Rolf, Veronica Mary. Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis. 2013. Print.