Julian of Norwich ‘A Book of Showings’ Chapter 1

Everybody’s favourite medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich! We don’t even know whether it was her real name, or a pseudonym adopted by her, as she was an anchoress living in a solitary cell near the church of St Julian in Norwich. We know about her pretty much only what she wrote herself. We know she existed because there are several wills from the era in which the testators bequeath some sums of money for her support. And even though she was an anchoress, her cell was in the centre of a very busy market town and she received visitors who came to her for spiritual advice. We know it because another visionary of this era, Margery Kempe (coming soon) visited her and described the meeting.

Julian’s “Showings” are a meditation upon a series of visions she received at the age of thirty and half. She probably was a nun by then, although not an anchoress yet. Perhaps these visions prompted her to choose a more austere life. in the excerpt from the first chapter she describes the illness that set off these visions. She was so ill that she thought she was dying and so did everybody around her. Her only regret, as she writes, was not about anything left in this world, or fear of pain, but the fact that she did not live long enough to worship God. She received last rites, and felt ready to die, feeling numb already from the waist down. She was helped to sit upright and looked towards heaven, but the priest accompanying her put the crucifix in front of her, encouraging her to look at it for comfort. When Julian looked at the crucifix, she saw the room drowning in darkness and the only light coming from the crucifix. She felt numbness of her whole body, shortness of breath and the relief coming over her. She was sure she was already dead. At this point she started to desire one of the gift’s she had prayed for – direct experience of Christ’s passion. She emphasized she did not want any bodily stigmata, but the spiritual, empathetic experience.

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