This guide is one of a column series that invites Adventist readers to reflect on important classics of the Christian spiritual tradition. Each guide provides a brief biography of the classic’s author, a section on historical context, a short outline of the classic under discussion, reflection and analysis, and questions for personal spiritual reflection.
Biography of Julian
Julian, a mystic and anchoress, was born in 1342, possibly in Norwich. Nothing is known of her family. Her name was probably taken from church records and no one is certain if it was Juliana or Julian. She may have had some connection with the Benedictine nuns at Carrow Abbey and possibly some education there. It is unlikely that she was a nun, but she was obviously a devout woman.
Julian, in her search for God, prayed three prayers. Her first prayer was for understanding
of the passion of Christ, not merely on an intellectual level, but at a level of personal participation. Her second prayer was for a physical illness so severe that she herself and those around her would think she was dying. Her third prayer was for “three wounds”: true contrition, loving compassion, and full-hearted longing for God.
Julian’s prayers were answered at the age of thirty through an unusual and unexplained illness. When it seemed she was at the point of death, Julian received a series of visions of Christ on the cross. She felt herself to actually be at the foot of the cross with Mary and other women. The visions, referred to by Julian as “showings,” occurred over a course of hours. Soon thereafter, she transcribed what she had seen in the short version of Revelations of Divine Love. Julian spent the next twenty years contemplating those visions, eventually writing the long version of the same volume and becoming the first woman to write a book in the English language. It may have been at this time that she became an anchoress.
As an anchoress, Julian retired from the world to live in an enclosure – anchorhold – in the side of a church. Following the pattern of the early desert fathers and mothers, Julian set herself apart from the world to live a life of prayer and communion with God. Through the openings in her enclosure, she would communicate with a priest for confession, with her spiritual director, and with people of the village who came to her for spiritual counsel and guidance. She herself does not refer to spiritual direction, but it can be assumed that she engaged in the process (as both directee and director), as this was common among anchorites and anchoresses of her day. 1.
Julian lived during a period of significant change in the church and in Europe. From the fourth century until the fourteenth century, Christendom had been the unifying force of Western Europe. At the beginning of the fourteenth century the monarchies of England and France progressed in asserting state power. They were at odds with each other over land issues. To finance their campaigns, both monarchs decided to begin taxing the clergy. The pope thought the church’s revenues should be exempt from state assessments. He rebelled by issuing the most extreme assertion of papal power in all of church history, declaring that every human being was subject to the Roman pontiff. So while the empire declined, papal sovereignty diminished as well. All in all, the fourteenth century was filled with turmoil. While Julian lived through this turmoil, she never directly addressed any public, church, or personal issues.
Outline of Julian’s Writings
It seems that the totality of Julian’s visions – the things she saw with her eyes – were of Christ’s sufferings on the cross. Through her deep and extended contemplation on what she saw came the revelations, the “showings,” and the personal reflections which she later wrote. In Chapter nine Julian describes these three means of stirring that God used to reveal himself to her:
“All his revelation was shown in three ways, that is to say, by what I saw with my eyes, by words formed in my understanding and by spiritual insight. The spiritual insight I neither can nor may show as openly and fully as I would like to, but I trust in our Lord God Almighty that he shall, of his goodness and for your love, make you understand it more spiritually and sweetly than I can or may tell it.”2
Julian writes of all sixteen showings in eighty-six chapters. In the first chapter, she outlines each of the showings; in the second she recounts her three-fold prayer, and in the third, the sickness obtained from God through petition. Each remaining chapter begins with a short abstract of what Julian saw, followed by more details of her visionary experiences (illumination of the showing), and finally her own spiritual commentary on what she was shown (exploration of the meaning). While the whole volume is filled with enlightening insights, I will highlight only a few that seem to connect with concerns, needs, and issues of our day.
Julian was a woman who believed her church was “the extension in time of Jesus,” and therefore she never imagined that she could receive anything contrary to her church’s teachings. This left her considerably taxed when words, spoken to her in the vision, seemed to contradict those church teachings. Particularly troubling to her was her belief in the church’s teaching on the damnation of evil persons and also the paradox of baptized Christians leading unchristian lives. She declared her inability to understand, but chose still to trust God’s goodness:
“Concerning all this, I had no other answer in any showing from our Lord God but this: ‘What is impossible to you is not impossible to me. I shall save my word in all things, and I shall make all things well.’” 3
As Julian explains her fourteenth revelation she begins by speaking about prayer. She explains that God is the source of our prayer and that our prayer is his willing within our lives. She speaks also of our Lord being glad and delighted with our prayer.
“This is his blessed will, for he says, ‘Pray inwardly, though you think it gives you no satisfaction. For the prayer is profitable though you feel nothing. In dryness and in barrenness, in sickness and in feebleness—then is your prayer most pleasing to me, though you think it gives you but little satisfaction. And so it is with all your believing prayers, in my sight.’” 4
As she continues, she speaks much of the Trinity and develops the metaphor of Jesus Christ as Mother, for which she is well known. Never does she refer to Jesus as female; she always refers to Jesus our mother as he. Yet in her understanding, Jesus embodies every nurturing quality of motherhood.
“A mother’s service is nearest, readiest and surest. It is nearest because it is most loving. And it is surest because it is most true. This office no one but him alone might or could ever have performed to the full.”5
“A mother can hold her child tenderly to her breast, but our tender mother, Jesus, can lead us in friendly fashion into his blessed breast by means of his sweet open side. And there show us something of the godhead and the joys of heaven with a spiritual assurance of endless bliss.” 6
Chapters 45 through 49 address the issues of judgment, sin, and the wrath of God. I cannot choose specific quotes from this portion of Revelations of Divine Love. I can only say that these chapters had a role in changing my fear-based allegiance to God into deep and grateful love. Julian’s insights can raise theological defensiveness, but with time and prayer one begins to understand through her that God’s reckoning is beyond our human understanding.
In Chapter 86, Julian reflects on the meaning of her entire written work.Her words are better than mine:
“This book has been begun by God’s gift and his grace, but it has not yet been completed, as I see it. We all pray together to God for charity, thanking, trusting and rejoicing by the working of God. This is how our good Lord wills that we pray to him, according to the understanding I drew from all of what he intended us to learn and from the sweet words he spoke most cheerfully, ‘I am the ground of your beseeching.’
For I saw and understood truly from what our Lord intended that he showed it because he wills to have it known better than it is. In this knowing he wills to give us grace to love him and cleave to him. He beholds his heavenly treasure with such great love on earth that he wills to give us more light and solace in heavenly joy, drawing our hearts from the sorrow and darkness they are in.
From the time of the showing, I desired frequently to understand what our Lord’s meaning was, and more than fifteen years afterward I was answered by a spiritual understanding that said, ‘Do you want to understand your Lord’s meaning in this experience? Understand it well: love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love. Hold yourself in this truth and you shall understand and know more in the same vein. And you will never know or understand anything else in it forever.’
Thus was I taught that love is our Lord’s meaning. And I saw most certainly in this and in everything that before God made us he loved us, and this love never slackened and never shall. In this love he has done all his works, in this love he has made all things profitable for us, and in this love our life is everlasting. In our creation we had a beginning, but the love by which he made us was in him from without beginning, and in this love we have our beginning. And all this we shall see in God without end.”
Reflection and Analysis
I encountered Julian in the fall of 1987. I had recently completed a M.Div. degree and was intellectually certain of God’s love for me. But it was a time during which I struggled with many life issues and often felt a great gap between the truth in my head and the seeming absence of God’s love in my life experience. As a fourth generation Seventh-day Adventist I was well nurtured in the writings of Ellen G. White and the “subtle dangers” of all things Catholic. I read Revelations of Divine Love with no small degree of caution and some resistance. Thankfully, I was reading it prayerfully, for God had much to say to my hurting heart. I began to hear his love for all of us. It seemed a long way between head knowing and heart knowing. Today as I look again at my well worn volume I see my note about Baby Jessica who had fallen into an abandoned well. The whole nation was on pins and needles as hour after hour the rescue efforts went on. Everyone was longing for her safe recovery. I wrote, “Jesus, God is longing to bring all of us up out of the well.” Something clicked deep within and I knew God’s love in a new and restoring way.
I’ve pondered much, wondering why I needed to hear of God’s love through Julian’s telling. As an adult I had discovered Ellen White in a manner different from when I heard the Testimonies during family worship as a child. I was blessed reading Desire of Ages. I was familiar with the oft-quoted paragraph:
“It would be well for us to spend a thoughtful hour each day in contemplation of the life of Christ. We should take it point by point, and let the imagination grasp each scene, especially the closing ones. As we thus dwell upon His great sacrifice for us, our confidence in Him will be more constant, our love will be quickened, and we shall be more deeply imbued with His spirit. If we would be saved at last, we must learn the lesson of penitence and humiliation at the foot of the cross."
As explicit as those words appear to me now, I did not know how to implement them in my own experience. Through the descriptions of Julian’s Showings I began to really imagine Christ on the cross. Part of me wanted to put down the book and go away. It was difficult to face the vividness of the suffering of Christ; yet, I could look on his face through Julian’s eyes and hear her astonishment at his love and friendliness toward her—and me. While Ellen had invited me to spend a thoughtful hour each day contemplating Jesus on the cross, it was Julian who showed me the benefit of spending that time. If Julian’s book had only contained the vivid descriptions of what she saw in vision, I’m afraid I would have put her book aside. But it was as if Julian had heard Ellen’s invitation centuries before Ellen was born. She lived and prayed through twenty years of contemplation that brought her to a deep knowledge of God – Trinity God – in fullness and love. As I read and prayed with Julian I gradually realized that God was and is inviting me into that same love relationship with him.
I recognize that Julian’s response to God’s call was an inner journey. She moved deeply into the solitary, contemplative mode that was in keeping with her religious heritage. She apparently viewed her written meditations on what God had shown her to be her work for God in order to give comfort and strength to her fellow Christians. From that meditative stance she speaks to me.
Ellen White responded to God’s call through a more outward journey, also in keeping with the religious milieu of her time and heritage. Hers was a life of Christian work and service. She wrote:
“The only way to grow in grace is to be disinterestedly doing the very work, which Christ has enjoined upon us—to engage, to the extent of our ability, in helping and blessing those who need the help we can give them. Strength comes by exercise; activity is the very condition of life. Those who endeavor to maintain Christian life by passively accepting the blessings that come through the means of grace, and doing nothing for Christ, are simply trying to live by eating without working. And in the spiritual as in the natural world, this always results in degeneration and decay. A man who would refuse to exercise his limbs would soon lose all power to use them. Thus the Christian who will not exercise his God-given powers not only fails to grow up into Christ, but he loses the strength that he already had.”8
Ellen White’s life was a true example of what she taught. A few pages later she wrote:
“God does not mean that any of us should become hermits or monks and retire from the world in order to devote ourselves to acts of worship. The life must be like Christ’s life—between the mountain and the multitude. He who does nothing but pray will soon cease to pray, or his prayers will become a formal routine… their prayers become personal and selfish. They cannot pray in regard to the wants of humanity or the upbuilding of Christ’s kingdom, pleading for strength wherewith to work.”9
I wonder what Ellen White’s response to Revelations of Divine Love and its author would have been. Of one thing I am certain: each women, both Ellen and Julian, responded whole-heartedly to the voice of God.
And what of myself? I believe that through the ministry of both Julian and Ellen, I have been gifted. God speaks to me and calls me to love and serve him. Julian has awakened my listening. Ellen has balanced my hearing; she helps me realize that I am not called to the life of Julian, but to the life of Delcy. I am called to live and to represent the way of Christ in the 21st century – between the mountain and the multitude. I am called to live contemplation and action in a journey of wholeness.
Questions for Personal Reflection
Is my knowing of Jesus love centered in my head or in my heart?
What confirmation of my answer do I see in my life?
What deep heart feelings do I have of the fact that Jesus really loves me?
How do I embrace paradox?
Might God be inviting me to know his love more deeply through Julian?
Delcy Kuhlman is the founder and director of Still Waters, a retreat house in Buchanan, Michigan.
1. While few specific details of Julian’s life are available, I draw heavily on the work of Grace M. Jantzen, Julian of Norwich: Mystic and Theologian, Paulist Press, 1988., and Juliana of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, trans. M.L. del Mastro, Image Books, 1977.
2. Juliana of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, Chapter 9, Paragraph 5
3. Ibid. Chapter 32, paragraph 9
4. Ibid. Chapter 41, paragraph 8
5.Ibid. Chapter 60, paragraph 3
6. Ibid. Chapter 60, paragraph 6
7. Ellen G. White, Desire of Ages, Pacific Press p. 83.
8. Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ, Pacific Press p. 80.
9. Ibid, pp.100-101.
1. While few specific details of Julian’s life are available, I draw heavily on the work of Grace M. Jantzen in Julian of Norwich: Mystic and Theologian. Paulist Press 1988 and Revelations of Divine Love, Juliana of Norwich translated with an Introduction by M.L. del Mastro, Image Books, 1977
3 . ibid. Chapter 32, paragraph 9
4 . ibid. Chapter 41, paragraph 8
5 . ibid. Chapter 60, paragraph 3
6 . ibid. Chapter 60, paragraph 6
7 . Ellen G. White, Desire of Ages, 1898 Pacific Press pg. 83
8 . Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ, Pacific Press pg. 80
9 . ibid, pg. 100 -101