The comforting voice of God and C S Lewis’s favorite mystic Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I relate in what follows, I have been in many Pentecostal /charismatic services in which someone has spoken a prophecy that is a direct message of love, hope, and assurance from God. I don’t pretend to know how prophecy works or whether in all cases it really is God communicating. But I remember when I first read the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, thinking “the way God speaks to her seems familiar!” Then later, when I found out that Julian was one of C S Lewis’s favorite medieval authors, I thought “Lewis must appreciate this particular ‘voice’ of God too.” In the “affective devotion” chapter of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis, I dig a bit further into Julian’s revelations and Lewis’s interactions with them:

Julian of Norwich (1342 – ca. 1416)

Possibly Lewis’s most favorite devotional writer—certainly one of the ones he quoted the most (in a half a dozen of his books)—was the English Anchoress Julian of Norwich. “Julian’s visions made a deep impression on Lewis, and he refers to her in half a dozen of his books. In a letter written in 1940 to his friend Sister [74] Penelope, he spends more than a page talking about Julian’s vision of holding the whole universe in the palm of her hand [like a hazelnut] and of Christ’s reassurances that ‘All shall be well.’ He thought it just the right balance to say that the material world is not evil, as the Manichaeans taught, but merely little. He particularly enjoyed the ‘dream twist’ of describing the whole created universe as ‘so small it might fall to bits.’ Lewis concluded his sermon ‘Miracles’ with Julian’s vision of the hazelnut and referred to it again in The Four Loves as a vivid image to help Christians understand how far beneath the majesty of God are even the most magnificent things in his created order. Lewis quoted Julian on Christ’s reassurance that ‘All shall be well’ in The Great Divorce, The Problem of Pain and again in his essay ‘Psalms,’ collected in Christian Reflections. Clearly, Julian is the sort of person Lewis had in mind when he described mysticism (in the same paragraph where he discusses the hazelnut vision) as ‘wonderful foretastes of the fruition of God vouchsafed to some in their earthly life.’”[1]

Modern Quaker spiritual writer Richard Foster describes having taught Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love to a classroom of undergraduates. Unlike the other books he had assigned, this one sparked a controversy—even an uproar—with students not only disagreeing with each other but even shouting at each other. Foster was puzzled: Surely this language of devotion was familiar to these students—even from the movies and television shows of their experience. But Christian devotion seemed an alien concept (ironic, given the romanticism, not to say sentimentalism, of much modern worship music). Said Julian: “The Trinity is our everlasting lover, our joy and our bliss, through our Lord Jesus Christ.” And again, “In his love he wraps and holds us. He enfolds us for love, and he will never let us go.” Somehow this seemed “too much” for Foster’s students.[2]

Foster continues, “Our class began to realize that contemporary culture had conditioned us to think of passionate love exclusively in erotic and sexual terms. We all found Julian illuminating many biblical passages such as the story of John—”the one whom Jesus loved”—laying his head on Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper. At the same time, we found it hard to believe that this relationship of deep, holy intimacy could be right, could be true, could be ours.”

I cannot tell you how many times, as a young Christian in a Pentecostal church in Halifax, Nova Scotia, I heard words both of loving assurance and of exhortation to “enjoy the Lord” prophesied by members of the congregation. In fact Pentecostal prophecy, in my experience, is usually intended to comfort “His people,” and stimulate them to both be assured and enjoy His protection, salvation, and presence.  Here—though most modern charismatics don’t know it—something is being recovered that was quite everyday for Julian and others in the affective tradition: the understanding that devotion to God should involve our emotions as well as our intellects.

Like Rolle, Julian also experienced direct, physical evidences of God’s love, and taught others to expect these: “there will be many secret touches that we shall feel and see, sweet and spiritual.”[3] Woven throughout the Revelations, again and again, are assurances of God’s everlasting love. Assurance of salvation is a perennial issue for Christians throughout history, and it was no different in the Middle Ages. She enumerates a number of subjective, approximate measures: “tears of contrition, devotion and compassion,” but a gap remained.

Into this gap stepped God, communicating his love to her directly in visions or “showings.” Other mystics wished to instruct; Julian, to comfort. Throughout her book we have direct words from the Lord: “I am keeping you very securely.” “You will not be overcome.”[4]

Then she also received encouragements to respond with particular emotions to these assurances: “Because I love you, enjoy me! This will please me most of all.”[5]

In fact – and this is one of the things that has made Julian controversial in my own classrooms, like Foster’s, Julian refers to God—even to Christ—as feminine: a mother to us children. As the translator of the Penguin edition notes, we may find biblical warrants for this “feminizing” of God and Christ in Isaiah 49:1 and 66:13 and Matthew 23:37, but it still makes many uncomfortable. But it is a natural development of affective devotion: not just the married sexual relationship but the child-mother relationship is an obviously close, intimate relationship that can prove a fruitful parallel for our devotions – perhaps even more appropriate than the sexual one, since Christ is indeed he(she) through whom we were created! We owe our being to him, as we do (in a different way) to our mothers—and when we return to his arms, it can certainly feel similar to how we felt as children, nestling in our mothers’ arms.

And in answer, we have a Jesus who weeps over us – nothing like the impassible God of the Greek philosophers (and Christian theology). Julian portrays God’s emotions (86), his “thirst” and “yearning” for us. How he is “cheered” by our prayers (124), and looks for them. This is a very human Jesus indeed—vividly embodied, strongly emotional (e.g. 72). Julian recommends that in answer to that vivid humanity, in our devotions to Christ we should use all five of our senses (129-130). God is in our sensuality! (159) This is a challenge to Protestants (especially those of us in the free-church and Reformed traditions): could we stand to focus more of our contemplation and worship on bodily, visual,  themes, and to respond to God bodily, visually? The genuflections, holy water, and incense of the medieval worship experience served this purpose of wooing our “deep places”—our very embodied emotional lives—by means of our often distractable senses.

On the other hand, she recognizes (as Lewis does too, very much) the ways that our emotions can lie to us – can lead us astray in their extremes. She urges a kind of detachment that balances the emphasis on emotion’s role in our devotions. For example, she describes swinging twenty-five times (!) from depression to joy and back again, and then relativizes these emotions, saying “I should not be made glad by anything specially, nor on the other hand should I be much distressed by anything else, for ‘Everything will be all right’ [as she had heard God say to her]. The fullness of joy is to see God in all things.” (114) This echoes what we have already heard from Boethius: our earthly fortunes—their ups and downs—may mislead is in the unavoidable limitedness of our perspectives. Providence is behind it all. We need to raise our heads to the higher, God-perspective. This provides a kind of joy, even bliss (Jesus is for her “King of bliss” (140)), but it is a supernatural kind, which is different from our paltry, protean, passion-driven emotions.

Another struggle some have with Julian is that her God seems never to be wrathful. In her visions we are forgiven, really, at the very moment of the Fall (148). In the Augustinian tradition of seeing evil as only a privation, not a positive force, Julian portrays sin as having no reality—and indeed as being something for which God will not ultimately blame us (104). We have an original, sinless will that the Fall has not destroyed. She seems Pelagian in her insistence that this will is “why we can always do what pleases him” (118), though she stops short of saying that this will is the source of our salvation. Her famous line, which Lewis took as something like a motto—“All will be well, and all manner of things will be well”—may seem to wink at the Fall by simply bringing all people back into the good graces of God without question. (36 – 37).

[1] [David Downing, Into the Region of Awe, 73 – 4]

[2] [Richard Foster, “People worth knowing: Discovering devotional masters,” Christian History Issue ___ [get cit.]]

[3] [Julian, Revelations, Penguin edition, 129]

[4] Revelations, Penguin edition, 117, 185, 123]

[5]  [Revelations, Penguin edition, 116],.

5 responses to “The comforting voice of God and C S Lewis’s favorite mystic Julian of Norwich

  1. Speaking as a fellow medievalist (grad student) who became involved in the charismatic movement before going off to college, I can really identify with this. I will never forget discovering Julian freshman year, and the way the coffee shop around me seemed to pulse with the real love of God, distinctly reminding me of the church I’d left at home. For someone who simply wanted her visions to be used for others’ benefit (rather than to outline some twelve-step path to union with God), Julian certainly manages to reproduce her mystical experience in others’ hearts through this meditative and spacious vision-poem. I think the real danger of the Universalist speculation (and the reason, possibly, why Julian was so careful with her words) is that it shifts our attention away from Christ himself to the question of “Will I or won’t I go to heaven/hell when I die?” We quickly fail to realize, as Julian does, that Christ himself IS heaven, and sin IS hell–whatever additional eschatological shape these may take.

    • Thank you! Wonderful comment. I wish I had the time right now to respond as it deserves – but I am working on the final chapter – on the Incarnation – and trying to get it in tonight! Whew. This book-writin’ stuff is not for sissies. Thanks so much for sharing from your experience and for your thoughtful (and I think spot-on) comment about the distracting quality of Universalist speculation. Trained as I was at a Reformed seminary, I do feel the force of that critique: that we are prone to get dragged down into our subjective situations and not to see God above the horizon of our experiences. Of course, it was in charismatic worship that I first, and most consistently, sensed the utter glory and majesty of God – so sometimes the subjective and objective can mesh in amazing ways.

  2. Thank you J. Ellul has been chastised for this and so many have not realized his insight and wisdom because of the smell of his ethics of
    Freedom . Perhaps you could do the same for Ellul? And tell the story of his radical transformation and the life context of his spiritual awareness and prophetic discernment .

  3. may seem to wink at the Fall by simply bringing all people back into the good graces of God without question. (36
    Was Lewis a proponent of universal salvation ?

    • I actually don’t know this, though I know George MacDonald – Lewis’s “spiritual mentor” so to speak, in a literary sense – espoused a species of “hopeful universalism” – that is, not a dogmatic certainty that all will be saved, but a belief that based on scripture, Christians may reasonably hope that God will save all.

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