Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 19, 2003
A woman who spoke of God's love
Julian's Cell: The Earthy Story of Julian of Norwich, by Ralph Milton, Northstone Publishers: Kelowna, B.C. 2002. 224 pages. Papercover.
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Special to the WCR
Who is Julian of Norwich (1342-1413?) and why has she currently become so popular and influential?
Canadian author Ralph Milton, by his own description a curmudgeonly Protestant liberal, writes this historical novel about an Englishwoman whose image, metaphors and worldview are those of the Roman Catholic late Middle Ages.
"I'm not a scholar," Milton says, "but I can do something many scholars can't. I can tell a story. . . . I can sometimes make history live." That, in essence, is what Julian's Cell is all about. It is not so much an academic presentation of her times and thought as it is a popular, fictionalized, yet nonetheless "truthful" rendering of her life. It is Milton's contention that by re-creating Julian in an unvarnished context we are helped to better understand our own.
Thomas Merton wrote this of her: There is no doubt that Lady Julian is the greatest of the English mystics. Not only that, but she is one of the greatest English theologians in the ancient sense of the word.
Julian is possibly the first woman writer of the English language and probably named after the Norwich church outside which she became an anchoress, or permanent resident. She received a series of visions in 1393 and became convinced they were authentic "showings" from God. Her account of these revelations, written shortly thereafter, and meditations on their significance made 20 years later (almost the only information we have about her) have survived in manuscript copies under the title: Revelations of Divine Love.
This remarkable person speaks reliably and basically to many moderns through her prayers, her assurance that everything is held in being by the love of God so "all will be well," and her poignant characterizations of key aspects of Christian theology.
The inner voice that commanded Milton to write for modern spiritual seekers called him to tell her story in such a way that ordinary folk, the people Julian describes as her "even Christians," can feel the breath of her spirit and be encouraged to learn more about her and of her faith. From this unwashed, earthy setting emerges her remarkable, radically refined, inclusive and integrated teachings about a very special God.
The story, whose chapters are headed by dates rather than themes, covers the period from 1358 to 1415. These were "calamitous times" in England. The fearful population was wounded, then wounded again by plagues and ill-conceived religious crusades of all kinds.
The Church in general preached that humans were loathsome worms, ruled by a domineering, vengeful God who established impossible standards and enacted catalytic punishment.
Julian, unschooled and self taught in theology and spirituality, believed that humans were a treasure in the hand of God, made of the same essence, and pursued by divine love with motherly tenderness. She believed that Creator and creation are not complete until a union is formed in that loving tenderness. It is amazing that such an eloquent, hopeful and joyful message could have emerged from such a dark and painful time.
Katherine (her original name) marries young. She bears two children, but almost immediately, the offspring and their father succumbed to the pestilence and died. Within a few years, she received her visions, entered the anchorhold as Julian, a layperson, and probably remained there until her death. Her reputation grew as a copier of manuscripts, a theological writer and spiritual guide.
Milton's sometimes raunchy style will either appeal to or bring discomfort to readers. There are suspenseful moments in this drama, but the storyline wavers a bit and the book ends benignly. That said, Julian's Cell is worth the effort and should entice readers to become more familiar with her actual writings themselves.
(Rev. Dr. Wayne Holst is a writer who has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary.)