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rereading spiritual classics

A Conversation with Julian of Norwich on


Religious Experience
Roberta Bondi

J ulian of Norwich, the fourteenth-century English recluse, has bequeathed to


us, her modern readers, a short and a long version of a single book, Showings.1 83
The two versions detail an account of a series of “revelations” that she received
from God in her thirtieth year while she was seriously ill. During these revelations
Julian encountered the living Jesus hanging upon the cross, with whose help she
learned to think in new ways about human nature, sin, human suffering, the
character of God as Trinity and Unity, as well as the Incarnation. The overarching
theme of Julian’s book, however, is none of these. Rather, what holds her book
together is the theme of God’s absolute, baffling, completely non-judgmental, and
utterly undefeatable love for human beings as individuals and as a species.
Teaching and leading retreats on Julian over the last few years have demon-
strated to me that her words about the nature of this divine love frequently fall on
modern ears like rain on dry ground—as, indeed, they did for me nearly twenty-
five years ago when I first read the short text of Showings. Julian’s book had been
sent to me by a friend when I first moved with my children to Atlanta soon after a
divorce. When the book arrived, I was feeling as unlovable to God and my fellow
human beings, as incompetent, exhausted, and theologically confused as I had ever
felt in my life. By the time I opened the book and began to read, my body and soul
were ready to soak up Julian’s description of God’s truly unconditional love for
humanity, myself included. In my condition, I desperately needed to hear and
believe her repetition of God’s promise of love, made to her on behalf of all of us: “I
will make all things well, I shall make all things well, I may make all things well and
I can make all things well; and you will see that yourself, that all things will be well.”2
Though I had found broad hints of these ideas in the writings of the early
church I love, I had never been struck by them in quite the same way as I was that
day when I first read them in Julian. Still, though I longed to know them to be true,
to assimilate them, and let them do their healing work on me, by the next morning I
was skeptical. I simply couldn’t get past the fact that all that Julian had to say primarily
had come to her through a series of visions and actual conversations she had had
with Jesus as he hung upon the cross. Both my education as a modern person and
the ancient desert fathers and mothers who were my teachers had taught me only
too well a profound skepticism with respect to any religious experience.

Bondi | A Conversation with2 Julian


Spiritus of Norwich
(2001): 83-98 © 2002 by on Religious
The Johns Hopkins Experience
University Press
By the time that, many years later, the needs of my teaching brought me back
to Julian, a great dealing of healing had taken place in my heart and mind. Much
of the healing had come to me through the vehicle of my daily discipline of prayer
which I had taken on since that earlier time. Part of that prayer had included
strong images, ideas, spoken words and vivid dream-like experiences of God that
had provided me with new heart-knowledge not only of myself and God’s world,
but of a God of breathtaking, heartbreaking love. I had already written two books
on what I believed the Abbas and Ammas of the ancient Egyptian desert have to
teach modern Christians. I had come to terms, I thought, with the whole question
of the experience of God as it confronted me. I could hardly deny what I knew
84 first-hand, that God can and does reveal God’s self to human beings. It had been
excruciatingly painful, but I had worked hard at figuring out how to do theological
reflection using personal autobiographical material, including using some of my
own religious experience and writing about it.3
Returning to Julian and Julian’s religious experience so many years later
showed me that the terms I had come to were not as clear as I had supposed. It was
more apparent to me than ever that Julian’s spirituality, with its theological
convictions about the love of God, was something both I and the Christianity I
knew needed desperately. I was surprised, nevertheless, to find my old hesitations
and fears around the question of religious experience in general still operating.
Still, I knew enough about Julian to be certain that her experience is not separable
from her theological conclusions. A bleeding, talking crucifix, something like a
hazelnut placed in her hand by God, the sight of Adam running away so quickly to
do God’s will that he falls into a ditch, a vision of God in the person of a beautiful
brown-skinned king sitting in the road, Jesus’ suffering on the cross explained as
the labor pains by which he who is our mother gives birth to us—none of these
experiences are accidental to Julian’s writings; they are intrinsically part of what
she has to teach.
As for the reasons for my uneasiness, in spite of whatever experiences of God I
had had, I still lived in a rationally structured universe. I believed my experiences
of God were real, but I also believed in the laws of nature, and it did not, and does
not, seem possible to me to believe otherwise. But I could not avoid wondering,
How is an individual experience of God possible in such a universe? It was a
frightening question. What if, at the end of my work, I would have to choose
between religious experience and a rationally structured universe? If I were to
embrace one all the way to the bottom, would honesty not compel me to give up
the other?
What was I to do? I knew that Julian’s experiences really were crucial to her
whole thought—as were mine to me. Then, there were my students. Over the years,
so many of them have told me that they arrived at seminary as a result of some
experience of God that profoundly affected their perspective on everything. Yet,

SPIRITUS | 2.1
once there, they discovered that there was no legitimate place in school to bring it
up, discuss it theologically, evaluate it, and consider its validity. Rather, it was
suggested in class in a variety of ways that their amazing experience, whatever it
was, was likely the product of no more than a naïve, or ultra-conservative faith or
of a serious psychological problem. I also thought of the folks I had met on retreats
and workshops I had given, in a variety of Protestant and Roman Catholic settings.
Many of them had spoken to me of the pain and frustration they had felt when
they realized there was no place in their church communities where they felt
comfortable speaking of their religious experience.
As I mulled this over, I found myself wondering: how much damage are we
mainline protestant and Roman Catholic Christians of the more liberal persuasion 85
doing to ourselves, our seminaries, and our communities by our persistent unwill-
ingness or inability to find a way to discuss religious experience as possibly
revelatory of the living God? I do not think the answer is to encourage folks to
seek out a religious experience. The early monastic texts I study and have been
teaching for years maintain that such seeking of experience can be dangerous—and
it still seems dangerous. It is all too easy to confuse what is no more than the
expression of our own subconscious with the voice of God. Even a real experience
of God carries with it the temptation to feel somehow “better” or more favored
than others. On top of that, I know for myself the temptation to confuse a desire
for the experience of God with a desire for God’s own self.
Still, it is hard for me to see how we can expect to grow in love of God and
neighbor, in Christian community as well as individually, if we cannot find a way
to trust that God really does reveal God’s self in the present to God’s people. Even
if we do trust in its possibility but cannot find a meaningful way to speak about it,
how will we learn to tell the difference between a real experience of God and
something else that is simply the result of stress, or illness, or activated memories,
or old mental and emotional habits, or even our anxieties about change? Nor will
we be able to draw on the collective experience of the body of Christ to help us
think theologically about our experiences, learn from them, and be transformed by
them unless we can talk about them. I am convinced that Julian of Norwich has a
great deal to say to us that can help us with these difficult questions. Because of
this, and because I am convinced that this is such an important topic for so many
of us both individually and in community, I invite you to enter with me into an
honest conversation with Julian on the subject of religious experience.

DISCUSSING RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE IN A CONTEMPORARY CONTEXT


Why is it so hard for so many of us to speak of religious experience? At one level,
at least for me, the difficulty is simple; I hate to be seen as naïve, and I don’t like to
be rude or make others squirm. Then again, I absolutely do not want to be lumped
in other folks’ minds with those who want to invoke their own private experiences

Bondi | A Conversation with Julian of Norwich on Religious Experience


to validate their condemnation of what they deem to be the sins of other people.
And certainly, I would not want to give my more skeptical therapist friends a
chance to explain away my experiences as mere self-induced coping devices, much
less make them worry about whether I might be mentally ill. In these particular
concerns, I am sure I am not alone.
But not all of my therapist friends are skeptics, nor are all my other friends.4
In parts of my extended worshipping community—which includes the United
Methodist Church in Kentucky in which I grew up, the United Methodist Seminary
Candler School of Theology where I teach, St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph,
Minnesota where I am an oblate, and the house church to which my husband and I
86 belong—it is generally taken for granted that spirituality addresses a very real,
common God. Still, among some of these folks, I used to hesitate due to worry that
if I were to try to speak of my experiences of God, it might be thought that I
regarded myself as special or people might judge me prideful, presumptuous, or
stuck up. Now, I hesitate because I do not want to cause unnecessary pain to
others in these same communities whom I suspect believe they never experience
God at all, and thus must not be “real Christians.” Who wants to add to the
unnecessary burden of guilt of those who, as I, have already been told in a whole
range of protestant churches that when God doesn’t seem present to us, “it isn’t
God who moved; it is we who have moved away from God?”
Mostly, however, I hesitated because my rationalistic education, which was the
product of the dominant American and British culture of the 1940s, 1950s, and
1960s, was still at work within me. Whatever else might be in my head, my
education is in my bones. In my early years, I learned only too well the importance
of “objectivity” in all research as well as the value of “the universal” over against
the “merely” personal. What I had accepted earlier as true was reinforced and
amplified in my seminary days, when I further learned to assume that the same
God who rules the whole universe rationally, equitably, and dispassionately could
not possibly care about a single poor, or hungry, or suffering individual. And I
wasn’t alone in believing this, either. Back in the 1960s, a host of liberal, socially
aware Protestant intellectuals like myself could not imagine how God could be
interested in “personal religion.” Rather, we thought it was self-centered, even
immoral to think that God’s concerns could be other than strictly global—for
justice among the nations, for world hunger, peace, the global economy,
homelessness, and racism (Environmental concerns and sexism weren’t widely
regarded as worthy issues in those days.). All this being the case, how could we see
anything that seemed to be a personal, direct experience of God as more than self-
indulgence or self-delusion?
On the other hand, as strong as these statements sound, I am not in the least
bit single-minded with respect to my early education. As rationalistic as a part of
me will always be, it is clear to me that present-day culture is pulling away from

SPIRITUS | 2.1
the super-rationalizing view of things I once tried so hard to accept—and I share in
that, too. I am aware, for example, that the theories of many living scientists
describe a universe that is much more baffling, much more complex, much less
governed by straightforward laws—laws that apply everywhere and can be grasped
through an educated common sense—than were the popular views of science I
grew up with. Today’s science is far more full of real mystery than it was in the
minds of nonscientists—and some scientists, too—in the earlier part of the last
century.5
Medicine, too, is freer than it used to be, as more and more people make their
own decisions to try alternative treatments. Where only a few years ago it would
have been written off by “intelligent people” as hocus-pocus, increasing numbers 87
of people are now willing to give acupuncture, yoga, and other similar disciplines a
try as we attempt to integrate the physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological
components of our lives.
But it isn’t only a new popular science that has created a healthy skepticism of
the kind of absolutizing rationalism that dominated our culture for so long. The
women’s movement, especially, has given not just me, but many people, men as
well as other women, permission to insist that the universalizing, one-particular-
kind-of-male-description of reality with which we grew up just doesn’t work for
us. It has also contributed in a major way to our ability to insist that our own
individual histories, emotions, theological insights, and experiences no longer be
written off as insignificant, or merely the source of “irrational contradictions.”
Much of North American Christianity, I believe, has been affected by this same
shift. It is certainly manifesting itself in an unfamiliarly widespread interest, both
inside and outside our churches, in prayer and spirituality. Certainly, large numbers
of younger people have decided that, in order for their own religion to be authen-
tic, they need to claim their spirituality from a variety of options among which
“traditional Christianity” is only one.
The view of science taught in the public schools in the 1940s and 1950s is
problematic in more ways than one. On the one hand, I suspect that having
internalized this way of looking at things has also made it easy for me to envision
reality, diverse as it is, as a single, intricately constructed, interconnected whole,
governed by fixed, predictable laws of nature that can be learned through reason
and experiment. Whether or not I give credence to religious experience, I do live,
after all, in a cause-and-effect universe. I expect gravity to work dependably;6 I
count on two and two equaling four; I am sure that acorns grow only into oaks
and never into maples.7
On the other hand, I have read too many patristic texts and seen too much in
“ordinary life” to expect that if they keep up their discoveries, scientists will
eventually be able to understand and explain how everything works, or why things
are the way they are. I am certain, in fact, that this is impossible. For a long time,

Bondi | A Conversation with Julian of Norwich on Religious Experience


this was because I took it for granted that some parts of our intricate universe are
just too complex even for computers to unravel in terms we can readily understand.
That I, and a myriad like me, assume reality to be constructed through and
through in this (at least theoretically) knowable fashion, does not mean, however,
that we reject the idea of God as its creator. I may very well confess quite firmly
that God created this marvelous, intricate whole. Indeed, I may be certain that God
is present precisely in the universal, dependable, impartial laws of nature.
The problem of religious experience comes back at the point of thinking about
how this impartial God actually could love one specific, individual human being.
Many of us simply cannot imagine how it might be possible for a
88 nonanthropomorphic God who desires the well-being of everything God created to
take a particular interest in a particular person and reveal God’s self to that
particular person. Wouldn’t that send everything else utterly out of kilter, including
God’s own justice? Not if we are able, quite contradictorily, to believe that God
can sometimes intervene from outside and overturn the fundamental laws of reality
on behalf of that person to perform a miracle (where a miracle is defined specifi-
cally as just this kind of stepping in from the outside to do the impossible).8 But
for many of us such a view of things strains credulity.

JULIAN AND RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE


Julian does not look at the whole question of God’s relation to and involvement in
the world in the ways I have just outlined. Indeed, though Julian will speak of
miracles, she gives no appearance of understanding them as we tend to do, as God
crashing in “from the outside” to break what would otherwise be fixed, unalter-
able laws of nature on behalf of a particular person or people.9 I do not intend to
suggest, however, that Julian rejects the idea that God can and does intervene in
human lives in a variety of ways. Certainly, she understood God’s intervention on
her deathbed in these terms, and she gives every indication of believing in God’s
direct involvement in the lives of ordinary people as well as the saints.10
None of this means that Julian thinks of reality as fluid or basically unpredict-
able any more than we do. Indeed, her world, including its miracles, is governed by
“law” intrinsic to the very nature of things as much as ours is.11 The difference is
that for Julian, the laws that are fixed and a hundred percent reliable are not
universal, neutral laws of mathematics, physics, and biology that govern what is
essentially a value-free, neutral universe. “It is known,” Jesus says to Julian, “that I
have performed miracles in time past, many most great and wonderful. . . and
what I have done I always go on doing, and I shall in time to come. It is known
that before miracles come sorrows and anguish and trouble . . .” Julian goes on to
add, “this is for the strengthening of our faith, and as it is this may increase our
hope in love. Therefore it pleases him to be known and worshipped in miracles.”12
Julian’s laws are those that follow out of God’s absolutely dependable, equitable,

SPIRITUS | 2.1
reliable, “always there,” attentive, and particular love for the whole of a mortal
and limited creation and all the mortal, limited people in it.
For most of us, reality is at bottom consistent through and through (at least in
theory). This is also true for Julian. She would find it as illogical as we would, I
think, to believe that God would intervene in creation to favor one person over
another, revealing God’s self to one and leaving another without revelation. Here is
where we come to a significant difference between Julian and ourselves: whereas
we struggle to understand how God could violate God’s own fixed laws of cause
and effect on behalf of anybody, for Julian it would be a violation of the very order
of things if God were not concerned for a particular, individual human being; the
consistency of the universe lies precisely in the fact that God’s love is always 89
present in a personal way to and in each person God has created.13 This is because,
as she tells us, “. . . by the same power, wisdom, and love by which [God] made all
things, our good Lord always leads them to the same end, and he himself will bring
them there. . . . ”14 Though the form of the revelation of God may differ from
person to person, I suspect that Julian wouldn’t be able to imagine how God could
violate God’s laws of love by being permanently absent to anybody.15
Listen, for example, to the language she uses in her account of her first
revelation, in which the crucifix held up before her eyes by the priest came alive:

At the same time as I saw this sight of the head bleeding, our good Lord showed a
spiritual sight of his familiar love. I saw that he is everything which is good and
comforting for our help. He is our clothing, who wraps us and enfolds us for love,
embraces us and shelters us, surrounds us for his love, which is so tender that he
may never desert us.16

In this passage, this love with which God loves each one of us is not a detached,
distant, but benevolent impartiality, nor is it one that is only for the saintly Julian.
Rather, Julian tells us here that God wraps up each one of us from head to foot in a
warm coat of God’s own self, protecting us, hugging us close as a mother hugs a
little child.17 God loves us with a tender love that is as absolutely firm and depend-
able as the ground beneath our feet or the air we breathe.
It is important here to see that it isn’t only human beings that Julian believes
God loves in this intimate, particular way, either. It is the whole of creation. Hear
what Julian goes on to tell us in the same chapter in which she recounts this part of
her revelation:

And in this [that is, at the same time, Jesus] showed me something small, no bigger
than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was as
round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: What
can this be? I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its
littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my
understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything
has being through the love of God.18

Bondi | A Conversation with Julian of Norwich on Religious Experience


The round, hazelnut-sized ball that Julian is shown, then, represents the whole
universe, “everything [that] has being.” As Julian sees it, as it is true for all human
beings who were brought into existence and continue to exist through God’s love,
it is also true of everything, and every single thing, because everything is precious
to God who loves it.
God’s love, furthermore, is not a passive, universal, benevolent-but-distant
blessing on all things. God’s love is active. Julian is convinced, along with so much
of the tradition in which she shares, that the God who loves everything seeks to
draw creation to God’s own self with passionate, involved longing, and at the same
time desires human beings to look with the same intense longing back toward
90 God.19 So, Julian tells us:

Our good Lord revealed that it is greatly pleasing to him that a simple soul should
come naked openly and familiarly. For this is the loving yearning of the soul
through the touch of the Holy Spirit, from the understanding which I have in this
revelation: God, of your goodness give me yourself, for you are enough for me. . . .
And these words of the goodness of God are very dear to the soul. . . for his
goodness fills all his creatures and all his blessed works full, and endlessly
overflows in them. For he is everlastingness, and he made us only for himself, and
restored us by his precious Passion and always preserves us in his blessed love. . . .20

As God revealed it to Julian, then, human beings are made to long for God and
know God, and yet are only able to long for and to know God because it is God
who longs for us and fills each one of us with this longing in return. And Julian
believes this is not true just for good people or for Christians, but for everyone.

TWO WORLDS OR ONE


One common cause of our inability to conceive of a way for God to be present in
the world—except by supernatural intervention—is the rigid division we often
make between the “supernatural” (or “spiritual”) realm and the so-called “natu-
ral” world. It is easy, for example, for us to talk sincerely to our religious friends
about “God’s will for our lives,” “what God has in store for us,” whether God
ever “sends us more than we can bear,” or “God’s love for all people.” Then, two
hours later we may very well be found making various decisions and judgments in
the everyday, ordinary world based on the conviction that whatever happens in life
is basically no more than a matter of blind, impersonal luck.
It is important to realize that splitting reality in this way, then switching back
and forth between its two halves, is bound to have terrible consequences both for
our personal lives and for life within our communities. Trying to live in two
apparently mutually exclusive worlds at the same time causes craziness, not to
mention blindness, and it feeds the fires of those who accuse Christians of hypoc-
risy and naiveté. I suspect that even those of us who know that this kind of

SPIRITUS | 2.1
dualistic thinking is dangerous find it hard, nevertheless, to imagine what other
choice we might have. How can we think about our lives in a way that honors our
actual experience in the modern, cause-and-effect world, and at the same time
honors our experience of God and that of our Christian ancestors? How can we
claim it all as valid?
Here, in struggling with the problem of a split reality, I find Julian particularly
helpful. Where as modern folks we often find ourselves stuck because of the belief
that there is no choice but to divide reality into the “either-or” of the natural and
the supernatural, for Julian there is no “either-or.” Everything that exists is all of a
piece. She is convinced that what is impossible to human beings is not impossible
to God, and that God does not look at sin from the same perspective as human 91
beings. She is also sure that everything, absolutely everything that exists and
everything that happens, is perfectly “natural”; that is, fitting, suitable, and
consistent with God’s intention and ways of being in and with the actual universe
God created. Thus, when the second person of the Trinity appears to her as a
bleeding, talking crucifix, while it may be very unusual, unexpected, and out of the
ordinary,21 it doesn’t seem to her to be impossible, or an intervention “from-the-
outside,” or “unnatural” in the way it might appear to be to us. This is because for
her, as is also true for most of the Christian culture that preceded her and in which
she shares, God does not have to be absent from or uninvolved in the universe at a
personal level in order for the universe to be reliable. 22 To Julian, God and God’s
love only have to be consistently, always “naturally” present in and to it, rather
than only present in it and to it sometimes but not other times.
This is what Julian understood that God revealed to her when she was shown
the hazelnut-shaped world. Creation, she says, has three properties: “the first is,
God made it, the second is God loves it, the third is that God preserves it.”23 If this
is true, then for Julian there can be nothing really “supernatural” about God’s
presence and involvement in any part of the world—because it is God’s world, a
world in which God thoroughly and continuously dwells, a world that also
thoroughly, continuously dwells in God.24
That the world is related to God in this way means that Julian would not think
there could logically be any private “spiritual” realm opposed to and radically
different from “ordinary” life. For Julian, God’s continual interaction with us in
“nature, mercy, and grace” is as all-pervasive, “as proper to the way things are,”
even public, as the workings of gravity, the air we breathe, or the blood that flows
through our veins. God naturally wants us, Julian teaches us, and reality itself has
been so structured by God that we naturally seek God in return. If this is true,
however, it means that, though there can be some very surprising encounters with
God, we, no more than Julian, need find the fact of religious experience surprising.
Indeed, as I read Julian, there is no place or situation where one could expect
never to find God revealed. This is why Julian can describe not only what might be

Bondi | A Conversation with Julian of Norwich on Religious Experience


identified as “visions” or “mystical experiences” but also just about everything else
she experienced and felt in that three-day period, no matter how ordinary, as a part
of her revelations. Her all-inclusive perspective is why she can include this wonder-
ful reflection on bodily excretion as part of her account of the first revelation:

A man walks upright, and the food in his body is shut in as if in a well-made purse.
When the time of his necessity comes, the purse is opened, and then shut again, in a
most seemly fashion. And it is God who does this, as it is shown when he says that he
comes down to us in our humblest needs. For he does not despise what he has made,
nor does he disdain to serve us in the simplest natural functions of our body.25

92 Religious experience. It is all there for us to read about in the short and long
versions of her book: her bodily illness, which she had prayed for when she was
young, but also the ordinary sacrament of the last rites of the church; the changing
light in the room in which she lay supposedly dying, and the sight and voice of a
crucifix that came alive to her actual eyes and ears. It is there in her conversation
with Jesus on the cross; the appearance and smell of sulfurous smoke when the
devil went out the door after her dream; in her vivid, almost hallucinatory interior
images, as well as the more “ordinary” mental images, metaphors, and theological
reflections that do not have such a striking character. There are crystal clear but
imageless ideas, and there are only partially thought-out images and theological
notions. There are matter-of-fact interpretations or partial interpretations of what
she saw, what she had been taught by “holy church,” and what her revelations told
her about God and human beings that appeared to conflict with what she had been
taught by “holy church”; a revelatory dream. There is also sorrow for her sins;
compassion for the suffering of Jesus and Mary along with compassion for her
fellow Christians; a sense of confidence with respect to God; despair over God’s
apparent absence; even a shifting back and forth of moods (which she wasn’t quite
sure was a revelation at the time). Throughout all this, though it is more a cause
for wonder than the rest, Julian doesn’t distinguish between or take account of
what she experiences. It is as though the living image of Jesus on the cross is more
“spiritual,” more “of God,” more to be attended to than her quickly changing
moods. To Julian, though this list encompasses a huge range of experiences, each
as she speaks of it is a revelation, or part of a revelation, of God.
With respect to the huge variety of these experiences of God, however, it seems
important to note that even in the midst of them Julian was well aware that a good
many of her experiences were extraordinary and would be regarded so by others.
She tells us quite clearly, furthermore, that there was a time as she lay on her
sickbed, between the fifteenth and sixteenth revelations, when she herself thought
that she must have been out of her mind.26
Still, to say that Julian recognized the extraordinary character of God’s
revelations to her is different than claiming that she believed those experiences

SPIRITUS | 2.1
were categorically different from her reflections on them both at the time and in
the twenty years that followed before the completion of the Long Text. Whatever
her original readers may have thought of them, Julian is emphatic in her insistence that
they do not in any way mean that she loved God more, or even knew more of God,
than “ordinary” but presumably attentive Christians who simply went to church.27
At the same time, to say that for Julian reality was all of a piece does not
suggest that she ever had a simple-minded view of things. God’s love for the human
beings God creates, redeems, and preserves is the most fundamental fact of reality
for her. God’s relation to God’s people, nevertheless, appeared to her to be com-
plex, paradoxical, and not straightforwardly explainable. Certainly, she was
painfully aware that there was much she trusted in her revelations to be true that 93
also appeared to be in conflict with what she had learned in church and equally
believed to be true.28
She was convinced to the core that the teaching of the church as she received it
had been revealed by God. How could it be the case, she wanted to know, that
Adam’s sin could be the worst thing that ever happened, and yet God looks at our
sins and tells us God doesn’t blame us for it? How can the church preach God’s
anger, and yet Julian be plainly shown that God is never angry with us? Again and
again, she asked God: How, if God is all love, was it possible that the final judg-
ment as she heard it preached and saw it depicted on the walls of the church could
take place? And yet, if it were not to occur, what could she make of sin, which
causes so much pain and suffering to others that the damage seems irreparable?29
To these doubts and worries, God answered her only, “sin is necessary, but all
will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.”30 How all
these apparently contradictory realities can exist at the same time, God did not tell
Julian. She does not tell us how they can be held together, either. Still, she does pass
on what she heard in her revelations: that love is the fundamental fact of reality,
that there is much hidden from human sight that will remain hidden until the end,
and finally, that “what is impossible to you is not impossible to me [as God]. I
shall preserve my word in everything, and I shall make everything well.”31

JULIAN AS A RESOURCE
This, then, is some of what I believe Julian brings us in the twenty-first century as a
resource to begin to conceptualize how it is possible for God to reveal God’s self
through religious experience, as well as to help us identify, think through, and
speak of the experience of revelation. Julian is convinced, as most of us are, of the
consistency of creation. Yet, in finding that consistency to be most deeply present
in God’s love for every single thing God has created, Julian does not fall into the
trap of the kind of universalistic view of things that excludes God’s very personal
love for each individual. Considering the gospel proclamation that God watches
every sparrow’s fall, in this she is far more biblical than most of us are.

Bondi | A Conversation with Julian of Norwich on Religious Experience


Then again, we can surely benefit by claiming with Julian the whole of life as
equally significant and full of the possibilities of knowing God’s love. By seeing
God’s revealing hand of love in absolutely everything that happens, from the
arrangement of our physical bodies to our moods of “weal and woe” through our
more extraordinary experiences, Julian gives us a rational way both to honor the
“everyday” and to find a place for and talk about such events as striking dreams or
visions.
At the point of our potential worries over why God might reveal God’s self to
some and not to others, I also find Julian to be extremely helpful. If, according to
Julian, God is revealed to everybody in a multitude of daily ways, then no one has
94 reason to be proud for having been singled out for special gifts. Nor do any of us
have to worry that, just because we don’t feel the presence of God, we aren’t “real
Christians.” Here, Julian changes our question from “why to some and not to
others?” to “how do we pay attention to, claim for ourselves, ponder the meaning
of our own experience, and use from it what we can for the purpose of growth in
love of God and neighbor?”
At the same time, one of the things I find most helpful in Julian is her complex,
many-layered, paradoxical vision of reality. It is all too easy in our modern world
to fall into the trap of believing that if we were to have “real faith,” we would
“trust God” and see life as essentially simple and straightforward. Julian trusts
God, and she wants us to trust God, but she also asks painful questions, and she
isn’t always given answers—and I appreciate her willingness not to clean up the
mess or explain everything away. She expects life to be hard, but she is certain it
will not ultimately defeat us. At the end of her dream of temptation by the devil,
she passes these words on to her readers:

[The words] You will not be overcome, were said very insistently and strongly [to
me], for certainty and strength against every tribulation which may come. He did
not say: You will not be troubled, you will not be belabored, you will not be
disquieted; but he said: You will not be overcome. 32

She concludes her reflection on this vision by telling us,

God wants us to pay attention to these words, and always to be strong in faithful
trust, in well-being and in woe, for he loves us and delights in us, and so he wishes
us to love him and delight in him and trust greatly in him, and all will be well. 33

For Julian, the nature of created life is such that, even for God’s lovers, because we
cannot look on the face of God continually, it is to be expected that it will be full
of both “well-being” and “woe.” 34
As I arrive at the end of this essay, I realize there are at least two other issues
Julian addresses that are also relevant to the subject of religious experience. The
first is that of “testing the spirits.” Given my description of her thought, one might

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well worry whether, if Julian thinks all events have the potential to reveal God, she
desires her readers to trust that whatever might come by way of dreams, odd
experiences, visions, or feelings should be taken at face value. It is important to say
that she does not believe this; Julian is neither gullible nor naïve. For Julian, being
“created” means we don’t always see God (hence sin), and we don’t always
understand what we see. At the same time, though she does it only in passing, she
gives her readers quite specific and helpful guidelines for testing the interpretation
of religious experience.35
The second issue that needs more discussion with respect to religious experi-
ence is that of God’s providence. Though Julian believes in human freedom, the
reason she also believes all things can reveal God is that everything that exists is in 95
God and God is in everything. Julian never ascribes to God a desire for harm to
come to any human being, yet paradoxically, nothing happens in this world
without God’s knowledge, intention, and indeed, God’s direct involvement. “See,”
says God to Julian, at the end of the third revelation,

I am God. See, I am in all things. See, I do all things. See, I never remove my hands
from my works, nor ever shall without end. See, I guide all things to the end that I
ordained them for, before time began, with the same power, wisdom, and love with
which I made them; how should anything be amiss? 36

It is only because God “guides all things to the end” for which God made them
that God can tell her that, in spite of appearances, all will finally be well. But this
leaves unaddressed the problem of the relation of the human will to God’s
undefeatable intentions for creation. Can a human being ultimately reject God’s
revelation of God’s self in a human life?
For Julian, the reliability of God’s love is at the root of every revelation of God
she has been given.37 For fifteen years she pondered the ultimate meaning of her
earlier experiences of God. “What,” she was told in the last revelation she shares
with her readers, “do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know
it well, love was his meaning. . . . Remain in this, and you will know more of the
same. But you will never know different, without end.” This conviction is at the
heart of Julian’s understanding of religious experience: God is above all benevolent,
courteous, never-failing, never-angry love; by this encompassing love, God dwells
in all things and all things dwell in God.

NOTES
1. The standard edition of the Middle English texts is to be found in A Book of Showings
to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich, ed. Edmund Colledge O. S. A. and James Walsh S.
J. (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1978), 2 Vols. Quotes in this essay
come from their translation into English of the two texts in Julian of Norwich:
Showings (New York: Paulist Press, Classics of Western Spirituality series, 1978). I have

Bondi | A Conversation with Julian of Norwich on Religious Experience


abbreviated the two texts as ST, for Short Text and LT, for Long Text. A particularly
nice edition for reflection and prayer, because it takes account of Julian’s style, and thus
lays out the text in lines that make her thought visible on the page is to be found in A
Lesson of Love: The Revelations of Julian of Norwich, ed. and trans. Father John-
Julian, O. J. N. (New York: Walker and Company, 1988). For help in seeing Julian in
the context of her own time and place, three books stand out as being particularly
helpful: Ann K. Warren, Anchorites and Their Patrons in Medieval England (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1985), Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars:
Traditional Religion in England 1400–1580 (New Haven and London: Yale University
Press, 1992), and Frederick Bauerschmidt, Julian of Norwich and the Mystical Body
Politic of Christ (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999).
2. ST, 151.
3. Memories of God: Theological Reflections on a Life (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995)
96 was the first of these books. This was followed by In Ordinary Time: Healing the
Wounds of the Heart (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997). The most systematic and
difficult of these books is Houses: A Family Memoir of Grace (Nashville: Abingdon
Press, 2000), which I was also working on as I began my project on Julian.
4. In fact, I have found conversations with my therapist husband as well as Tere
Canzoneri, who is my closest therapist friend, very helpful for clarifying the question of
religious experience.
5. To name but two books written by scientists that offer helpful discussions of modern
science for nonscientists, see Ken Wilber, ed., Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of
the World’s Greatest Physicists, (Boston: Shambala Press, 2001) and Brian Greene, The
Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate
Theory (New York: Vintage Books, 1990).
6. Even though it has been a long time since, with his theory of relativity, Einstein
demonstrated that this is not, in fact, the case.
7. Whatever happens mathematically, however, I have no reason to believe that there is
anywhere in the universe that the seeds of oaks or maples would produce some other
kind of tree.
8. And, of course, logical or not, many of us scientifically oriented folk do believe that
God can and does break the “inalterable” laws of nature and produce miracles when it
suits God to do so.
9. Though she does not write about it directly, I have found Caroline Walker Bynum’s
essay on wonder in the Middle Ages particularly clarifying and helpful for sorting out
the differences between Julian’s world view and our own, in Metamorphosis and
Identity (New York: Zone Books, 2001), 37–75.
10. She refers in the LT, for example, to the Vernicle of Rome, 194–95, and to St. Cecilia’s
wounds in the first chapter of the ST; there, she tells us that it was Cecilia’s wounds that
made her ask for the three wounds from God. This detail is left out of the LT, perhaps,
because it is a personal detail. As Ann Warren demonstrates, anchorites were to strip
themselves of all personal identity. In entering the cell, the anchorite, “denied individu-
ality, sexuality, rank, money, will, and speech—psychologically he [or she] became a
non-person rather than a new person.” Ann K. Warren, Anchorites and Their Patrons,
95.
11. This is my language, not Julian’s.
12. LT, 240–41.
13. Many, if not most, scholars are convinced that, for a number of reasons, it is only
Christians that Julian is writing about. However, the possibility does exist, it seems to
me, that when Julian speaks of “all those who will be saved,” she is using deliberately
ambiguous language. Julian clearly admits that “hell exists” (LT, 233) because the
Church teaches it, and since Christ is the Church (LT, 236) it has to be in some way

SPIRITUS | 2.1
true. On the other hand, it is inconceivable to Julian that “all will be well” if everyone is
not saved, and this is at the heart of her theological dilemma. Barbara Newman places
Julian within a long line of medieval women mystics “who found it inconceivable, on
some level, that the God who had died for them might be less merciful than they. So,
whatever the theoretical necessity of hell, its practical possibility repelled them.” See
Barbara Newman, “On the Threshold of the Dead,” in her From Virile Woman to
WomanChrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature (Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania, 1995), 134.
14. LT, 237.
15. Julian does, however, state that God can withhold revelation for a time for our own
good but even this withholding is “personalized” according to the need of the person
from whom it is withheld.
16. LT, 183.
17. The well-known image of Christ as mother is fundamental in Julian’s theology, and not 97
just an image she uses in passing. See LT, 293 ff. For a helpful discussion of the variety
of uses of this theme in the twelfth century by such writers as Anselm and Bernard of
Clairvaux, see Caroline Walker Bynum’s “Jesus as Mother and Abbot as Mother: Some
Themes in Twelfth-Century Cistercian Writing,” in Jesus as Mother: Studies in the
Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1982),
110–69.
18. LT, 183.
19. Julian shares this fundamental conviction with her Christian Platonist brothers and
sisters. See, for example, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, who, as Kendra Hotz has
demonstrated in her excellent dissertation, consistently uses the term eros to describe
this longing of God for us and us for God. Kendra G. Kotz, “The Theurgical Self: The
Theological Anthropology of the Pseudo-Dionysius” (Ph.D. diss., Emory University,
2000).
20. LT, 184. Notice the way this passage seems to echo the famous passage in Augustine’s
Confessions, Book I, chapter 1. See also J. P. H. Clark, who is convinced that Julian is
writing in an Augustinian tradition, “Nature, Grace, and the Trinity in Julian of
Norwich,” The Downside Review 100 (July 1982): 203–20.
21. Notice that, in a moment of lucidity in her illness, Julian tells us she herself dismissed
her experiences to a visiting priest as “raving,” LT, 310–11.
22. Think, for example, of the first chapter On the Incarnation of God the Word, in which
Athanasius of Alexandria states that there is no discontinuity between revelation and
creation
23. LT, 183.
24. “We are enclosed in the Father, and we are enclosed in the Son, and we are enclosed in
the Holy Spirit. And the Father is enclosed in us, the Son is enclosed in us, and the Holy
Spirit is enclosed in us, almighty, all wisdom, and all goodness, one God, one Lord.” LT,
285.
25. LT, 186.
26. LT, 310–11.
27. LT, 191–92.
28. One might think that Julian only claims to believe what the church has taught her in
order to protect herself from the accusation of heresy. This is not only a cynical reading
of Julian; it is also to miss one of her most fundamental theological convictions. She is
not about to reject the teaching of the church in favor of her own revelations because of
the way she understands the church itself: “God showed the very great delight that he
has in all men and women who accept, firmly and wisely, the preaching and teaching of
Holy Church, for he is that Holy Church.” LT, 236.
29. LT, 232.

Bondi | A Conversation with Julian of Norwich on Religious Experience


30. LT, 225.
31. LT, 233.
32. LT, 315.
33. LT, 315.
34. For Julian’s very important extended discussion of this point, see the key passage in the
Parable of the Lord and Servant, LT, 267, 272.
35. Julian, for example, sought to convince her readers of the authenticity of her experi-
ences of God by repeating that they were not for her alone but for the building up of the
whole church. LT, 314–15. She implies throughout her texts that whatever is true must
reflect God’s love. A real experience of God will make a person love God more, LT,
191, as well as grow in compassion for the brothers and sisters, LT, 226. It will also
have to be in agreement with the witness of the Church, LT, 235–36.
36. LT, 199.
98 37. LT, 342.

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