Revelations of Divine Love/Introduction Part 1



The Lady Julian

Beati pauperes spiritu: quoniam ipsorum est regnum cælorum
S. Matth. v. 3

VERY little is known of the outer life of the woman who nearly five hundred years ago left us this book.

It is in connection with the old Church of St Julian in the parish of Conisford, outlying Norwich, that Julian is mentioned in Blomefield's History of Norfolk (vol. iv. p. 8l): "In the east part of the churchyard stood an anchorage in which an ankeress or recluse dwelt till the Dissolution, when the house was demolished, though the foundations may still be seen (1768). In 1393 Lady Julian, the ankeress here was a strict recluse, and had two servants to attend her in her old age. This woman was in these days esteemed one of the greatest holiness. In 1472 Dame Agnes was recluse here; in I481, Dame Elizabeth Scott; in 1510, Lady Elizabeth; in 1524, Dame Agnes Edrygge."

The little Church of St Julian (in use at this day) still keeps from Norman times its dark round tower of flint rubble, and still there are traces about its foundation of the anchorage built against its south-eastern wall. "This Church was founded," says the History of the County, "before the Conquest, and was given to the nuns of Carhoe (Carrow) by King Stephen, their founder; it hath a round tower and but one bell; the north porch and nave are tiled, and the chancel is thatched. There was an image of St Julian in a niche of the wall of the Church, in the Churchyard." Citing the record of a burial in "the churchyard of St Julian, the King and Confessor," Blomefield observes: "which shews that it was not dedicated to St Julian, the Bishop, nor St Julian, the Virgin."

The only knowledge that we have directly from Julian as to any part of her history is given in her account of the time and manner in which the Revelation came, and of her condition before and during and after this special experience. She tells how on the 13th day of May, 1373,[1] the Revelation of Love was shewed to her, "a simple creature, unlettered," who had before this time made certain special prayers from out of her longing after more love to God and her trouble over the sight of man's sin and sorrow. She had come now, she mentions, to the age of thirty, for which she had in one of these prayers, desired to receive a greater consecration,—thinking, perhaps, of the year when the Carpenter's workshop was left by the Lord for wider ministry,—she was "thirty years old and an half." This would make her birth-date about the end of 1342, and the old Manuscript says that she "was yet in life" in 1442. Julian relates that the Fifteen consecutive "Shewings" lasted from about four o'clock till after nine of that same morning, that they were followed by only one other Shewing (given on the night of the next day), but that through later years the teaching of these Sixteen Shewings had been renewed and explained and enlarged by the more ordinary enlightenment and influences of "the same Spirit that shewed them." In this connection she speaks, in different chapters, of "fifteen years after and more," and of twenty years after, "save three months"; thus her book cannot have been finished before 1393.

Of the circumstances in which the Revelations came, and of all matters connected with them, Julian gives a careful account, suggestive of great calmness and power of observation and reflection at the time, as well as of discriminating judgment and certitude afterwards. She describes the preliminary seven days' sickness, the cessation of all its pain during the earlier visions, in which she had spiritual sight of the Passion of Christ, and indeed during all the five hours' "special Shewing"; the return of her physical pain and mental distress and "dryness" of feeling when the vision closed; her falling into doubt as to whether she had not simply been delirious, her terrifying dream on the Friday night,—noting carefully that "this horrible Shewing" came in her sleep, "and so did none other"—none of the Sixteen Revelations of Love came thus. Then she tells how she was helped to overcome the dream-temptation to despair, and how on the following night another Revelation, conclusion and confirmation of all, was granted to strengthen her faith. Again her faith was assayed by a similar dream-appearance of fiends that seemed as it were to be mocking at all religion, and again she was delivered, overcoming by setting her eyes on the Cross and fastening her heart on God, and comforting her soul with speech of Christ's Passion (as she would have comforted another in like distress) and rehearsing the Faith of all the Church. It may be noted here that Julian when telling how she was given grace to awaken from the former of these troubled dreams, says, "anon all vanished away and I was brought to great rest and peace, without sickness of body or dread of conscience," and that nothing in the book gives any ground for supposing that she had less than ordinary health during the long and peaceful life wherein God "lengthened her patience." Rather it would seem that one so wholesome in mind, so happy in spirit, so wisely moderate, no doubt, in self-guidance, must have kept that general health that she could not despise who speaks of God having "no disdain" to serve the body, for love of the soul, of how we are "soul and body clad in the Goodness of God," of how "God hath made waters plenteous in earth to our service and to our bodily ease,"[2] and of how Christ waiteth to minister to us His gifts of grace "unto the time that we be waxen and grown, our soul with our body and our body with our soul, either of them taking help of other, till we be brought unto stature, as nature worketh."[3]

Julian mentions neither her name not her state in life; she is "the soul," the "poor" or "simple" soul that the Revelation was shewed to—"a simple creature," in herself, a mere "wretch," frail and of no account.

Of her parentage and early home we know nothing: but perhaps her own exquisite picture of Motherhood—of its natural (its "kind") love and wisdom and knowledge—is taken partly from memory, with that of the kindly nurse, and the child, which by nature loveth the Mother and each of the other children, and of the training by Mother and Teacher until the child is brought up to "the Father's bliss" (lxi.–lxiii.).

The title "Lady," "Dame" or "Madame" was commonly accorded to anchoresses, nuns, and others that had had education in a Convent.[4]

Julian, no doubt, was of gentle birth, and she would probably be sent to the Convent of Carrow for her education. There she would receive from the Benedictine nuns the usual instruction in reading, writing, Latin, French, and fine needlework, and especially in that Common Christian Belief to which she was always in her faithful heart and steadfast will so loyal,—"the Common Teaching of Holy Church in which I was afore informed and grounded, and with all my will having in use and understanding " (xlvi.).

It is most likely that Julian received at Carrow the consecration of a Benedictine nun; for it was usual, though not necessary, for anchoresses to belong to one or other of the Religious Orders.

The more or less solitary life of the anchorite or hermit, the anchoress or recluse, had at this time, as earlier, many followers in the country parts and large towns of England. Few of the "reclusoria" or women's anchorholds were in the open country or forest-lands like those that we come upon in Medieval romances, but many churches of the villages and towns had attached to them a timber or stone "cell"—a little house of two or three rooms inhabited by a recluse who never left it, and one servant, or two, for errands and protection. Occasionally a little group of recluses lived together like those three young sisters of the Thirteenth Century for whom the Ancren Riwle, a Rule or Counsel for "Ancres," was at their own request composed. The recluse's chamber seems to have generally had three windows: one looking into the adjoining Church, so that she could take part in the Services there; another communicating with one of those rooms under the keeping of her "maidens," in which occasionally a guest might be entertained; and a third—the "parlour" window—opening to the outside, to which all might come that desired to speak with her. According to the Ancren Riwle the covering-screen for this audience-window was a curtain of double cloth, black with a cross of white through which the sunshine would penetrate—sign of the Dayspring from on high. This screen could of course be drawn back when the recluse 'held a parliament' with any that came to her.[5]

Before Julian passed from the sunny lawns and meadows of Carrow, along the road by the river and up the lane to the left by the gardens and orchards of the Conisford of that day, to the little Churchyard house that would hide so much from her eyes of outward beauty, and yet leave so much in its changeful perpetual quietude around her (great skies overhead like the ample heavenly garments of her vision "blue as azure most deep and fair"; little Speedwell's blue by the crannied wall of the Churchyard—Veronika, true Image, like the Saint's "Holy Vernacle at Rome") her vow[6] might be: "I offering yield myself to the divine Goodness[7] for service, in the order of anchorites: and I promise to continue in the service of God after the rule of that order, by divine grace and the counsel of the Church: and to shew canonical obedience to my ghostly fathers."

The only reference that Julian makes to the life dedicated more especially to Contemplation is where she is speaking, as if from experience, of the temptation to despair because of falling oftentimes into the same sins, "especially into sloth and losing of time. For that is the beginning of sin, as to my sight,—and especially to the creatures that have given themselves to serve our Lord with inward beholding of His blessed Goodness."[8]

"One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in His temple"—His Sanctuary of the Church or of the soul. That was her calling. She had heard the Voice that comes to the soul in Spring-time and calls to the Garden of lilies, and calls to the Garden of Olive-trees (where all the spices offered are in one Cup of Heavenly Wine): "Surge, propera amica mea: jam enim Hyems transiit, imber ambiit et recessit. Surge, propera amica mea, speciosa mea, et veni." "Arise: let us go hence."[9] "For this is the natural yearnings of the soul by the touching of the Holy Ghost: God of Thy Goodness, give me Thyself, for Thou art enough to me; . . . and if I ask anything that is less, ever me wanteth; but only in Thee I have all" (v.).

"A soul that only fasteneth itself on to God with very trust, either by seeking or in beholding, it is the most worship that it may do to Him, as to my sight" (x.). "To enquire" and "to behold"—no doubt it was for these that Julian sought time and quiet. For she had urgent questionings and "stirrings" in her mind over "the great hurt that is come by sin to the creature"—"afore this time often I wondered why by the great foreseeing wisdom of God the beginning of sin was not letted" ("mourning and sorrow I made over it without reason and discretion"); and also she was filled with desire for God: "the longing that I had to Him afore" (xxvii.).

Moreover, this life to which Julian gave herself was to be a life of "meek continuant prayers" "for enabling" of herself in her weakness, and for help to others in all their needs. For thought and worship could only be held together by active prayer: the pitiful beholding of evil and pain and the joyful beholding of Goodness and Love would be at war, as it were, with each other, unless they were set at peace for the time by the prayer of intercession. And that is the call of the loving soul, strong in its infant feebleness to wake the answering Revelation of Love to faith that "all shall be well," and that "all is well " and that when all are come up above and the whole is known, all shall be seen to be well, and to have been well through the time of tribulation and travail.

"At some time in the day or night," says the Ancren Riwle, which Julian perhaps may have read, though as to such prayers her compassionate heart was its own director—"At some time in the day or night think upon and call to mind all who are sick and sorrowful, who suffer affliction and poverty, the pain which prisoners endure who lie heavily fettered with iron; think especially of the Christians who are amongst the heathen, some in prison, some in so great thralldom as is an ox or an ass; compassionate those who are under strong temptations; take thought of all men's sorrows, and sigh to our Lord that He may take care of them and have compassion and look upon them with a gracious eye; and if you have leisure, repeat this Psalm, I have lifted up mine eyes. Paternoster. Return, O Lord, how long, and be intreated in favour of Thy servants: Let us pray. 'Stretch forth, O Lord, to thy servants and to thy handmaids the right hand of thy heavenly aid, that they may seek thee with all their heart, and obtain what they worthily ask through Jesus Christ our Lord.'" Julian tells how in her thinking of sin and its hurt there passed before her sight all that Christ bore for us, "and His dying; and all the pains and passions of all His creatures, ghostly and bodily; and the beholding of this—with all pains that ever were or ever shall be" (xxvii). From sin, except as a general conception, Julian's natural instinct was to turn her eyes; but with this Christly compassion in her heart in looking on the sorrows of the world she could not but take account of its sin. As she came to be convinced that "though we be highly lifted up into contemplation, it is needful for us to see our own sin,"—albeit we should not accuse ourselves "overdone much" or "be heavy or sorrowful indiscreetly"—so when sins of others were brought before her she would seek with compassion to take the sinner's part of contrition and prayer. "The beholding of other man's sins, it maketh as it were a thick mist afore the eyes of the soul, and we cannot, for the time, see the fairness of God, but if we can behold them with contrition with him, with compassion on him, and with holy desire to God for him " (lxxvi.).

And notwithstanding all the stir and eager revival of the Fourteenth Century in religion, politics, literature and general life, there was much both of sin and of sorrow then to exercise the pitiful soul—troubles enough in Norwich itself, of oppression and riot and desolating pestilence—troubles enough in Europe, West and East,—wars and enslaving and many cruelties in distant lands, and harried Armenian Christians coming to the Court of Edward to plead for succour in their long-enduring patience. There was trouble wherever one looked; but to prayer, and to that compassion which is in itself a prayer, the answer came. Indeed the compassion was its own first immediate answer: for "then I saw that each kind compassion that man hath on his even-Cristen (his fellow-Christians) with charity, it is Christ in him." This is the comfort that both comforts in waiting and calls to deeds of help. And such "charity" of social service was not beyond the scope of the life "enclosed,"—whether it might be by deed or, as more often, by speech.[10]

It is in her seeking for truth and her beholding of Love that we best know Julian. Of the opening of the Revelation she says: "In all this I was greatly stirred in charity to mine even-Christians, that they might see and know the same that I saw: for I would it were comfort to them," and again and again throughout the book she declares that the "special Shewing" is given not for her in special, but for all—for all are meant to be one in comfort as all are one in need. "Because of the Shewing I am not good, but if I love God the better: and in as much as ye love God the better it is more to you than to me. . . . For we are all one in comfort. For truly it was not shewed me that God loved me better than the least soul that is in grace; for I am certain that there be many that never had any Shewing nor sight but of the common teaching of Holy Church that love God better than I. For if I look singularly to myself I am right nought; but in general [manner of regarding] I am, I hope, in oneness of charity with all mine even-Christians. For in this oneness standeth the life of all mankind that shall be saved, and that which I say of me, I say in the person of all mine even-Christians: for I am taught in the Spiritual Shewing of our Lord God that He meaneth it so. And therefore I pray you for God's sake, and counsel you for your own profit that ye leave the beholding of a worthless creature [a "wretch"] it was shewed to and mightily, wisely and meekly behold God that of His special goodness would shew it generally, in comfort of us all " (ix.).

Thus Julian turns our eyes from looking on her to looking with her on the Revelation of Divine Love.

Yet surely in her we have also "a shewing"—a shewing of the same. She tells us little of her own story, and little is told us of her by any one else, but all through her recording of the Revelation the simple creature to whom it was made unconsciously shews herself, so that soon we come to know her with a pleasure that surely she would not think too "special" in its regard. (For she herself in speaking of Love makes note that the general does not exclude the special). Perhaps we are helped in this friendly acquaintanceship by those endearingly characteristic little formulas of speech disavowing any claim to dogmatic authority in the statements of her views of truth: those modest parentheses "as to my sight," "as to mine understanding." "Wisdom and truth and love," the dower that she saw in the Gracious soul, were surely in the soul of this meek woman; but enclosing these gifts of nature and grace are qualities special to Julian: depth of passion, with quietness, order, and moderation; loyalty in faith, with clearest candour—"I believe . . . but this was not shewed me"—(xxxiii., lxxvii., lxxx.) pitifulness and sympathy, with hope and a blithe serenity; sound good sense with a little sparkle upon it—as of delicate humour (that crowning virtue of saints); and beneath all, above all, an exquisite tenderness that turns her speech to music. "I will lay thy Stones with fair Colours."

"Thou hast the dews of thy youth." Hundreds of years have gone since that early morning in May when Julian thought she was dying and was "partly troubled" for she felt she was yet in youth and would gladly have served God more on earth with the gift of her days—hundreds of years since the time that her heart would fain have been told by special Shewing that "a certain creature I loved should continue in good living"—but still we have "mind" of her as "a gentle neighbour and of our knowing." For those that love in simplicity are always young; and those that have had with the larger Vision of Love the gift of love's passionate speech, to God or man, in word or form or deed, as treasure held—live yet on the earth, untouched by time, though their light is shining elsewhere for other sight.

"From that time that the Revelation was shewed I desired oftentimes to learn what was our Lord's meaning. And fifteen years afterwards and more, I was answered in ghostly understanding, saying thus: Wouldst thou learn thy Lord's meaning in this thing? Learn it well: Love was His meaning. Who shewed it thee? Love. What shewed He thee? Love. Wherefore shewed it He? For Love. Hold thee therein and thou shalt learn and know more in the same. But thou shalt never know nor learn other thing without end."

And if we, with no special shewing, might ask and, in trust of "spiritual understanding," might answer more—asking to whom, and for whom was the Revelation shewed, we might answer: To one that loved; for all that would learn in love.

"Ecco chi crescerà li nostri amori"![11]
"Here is one who shall increase our love."

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

  1. This must have been a Friday—sacred Day of the Passion of Christ—for Easter Sunday of 1373 was on the 17th of April (O.S.). So when the Revelation finally closed and Julian was left to "keep it in the Faith"—the Common Christian Faith—it was Sunday morning, and the words and voices she would hear through her window opening into the Church would be from the early worship of "the Blessed Common" assembled there.
  2. See the Ancren Riwle Part viii. Of Domestic Matters, for counsels to anchoresses as to judicious care of the body: diet, washing, needful rest, avoidance of idleness and gloom, reading, sewing for Church and Poor, making and mending and washing of clothes by the anchoress or her servant. "Ye may be well content with your clothes, be they white, be they black; only see that they be plain, and warm, and well made—skins well tanned; and have as many as you need. . . . Let your shoes be thick and warm."
  3. cf. Robert Browning, Rabbi Ben Ezra, xii.
  4. S. de Cressy was probably the originator of the designation "Mother Juliana." The old name was Julian. The Virgin-Martyr of the Legend entitled "The Life of St Juliana" (Early English Text Society) is called in the Manuscripts, Iulane, Juliene, and Juliane and Julian. So also Lady Julian Berners is a name in the history of Fifteenth Century books.
  5. "So he kneeled at her window and anon the recluse opened it, and asked Sir Percival what he would. 'Madam,' said he, 'I am a knight of King Arthur's Court and my name is Sir Percival de Galis.' So when the recluse heard his name, she had passing great joy of him, for greatly she loved him before all other knights of the world; and so of right she ought to do, for she was his aunt." —Malory's Morte d' Arthur, xiv. i.
  6. Manuale ad usum insignis ecclesie Sarisburiensis (ed. of 1555), fo. lxix. Servitium includendorum,
  7. "pietaiis."
  8. The sins that Julian mentions, "despair or doubtful dread," "sloth and losing of time," "unskilful [unpractical, unreasoning] heaviness and vain sorrow," seem to be all akin to that dreaded sin, besetting particularly the Contemplative life, Accidia. See Ancren Riwle p. 287. "Accidies salue is gostlich gledshipe. The remedy for indolence is spiritual joy, and the consolation of joyful hope from reading and from holy meditation, or when spoken by the mouth of man. Often, dear sisters, ye ought to pray less, that ye may read more. Reading is good prayer. Reading teacheth how, and for what ye ought to pray. In reading, when the heart feels delight, devotion ariseth, and that is worth many prayers. Everything, however, may be overdone. Moderation is always best." —(Pub. by the Camden Society).
  9. Canticles ii. 10. St John xiv. 31.
  10. See the chapter "How an Anchoress shall behave herself to them that come to her," in "The Scale of Perfection," by Walter Hilton (died 1396), edition of 1659, p. 106. "Since it is so that thou oughtest not to goe out of thy house to seek occasion how thou mightest profit thy Neighbour by deeds of Charity, because thou art enclosed; . . . therefore who so will speake with thee . . . be thou soon ready with a good will to aske what his will is . . . for thou knowest not what he is, nor why he cometh, nor what need he hath of thee, or thou of him, till thou hast tryed. And though thou be at prayer, or at thy devotions, that thou thinkest loth to break off, for that thou thinkest that thou oughtest not leave God for to speake with any one, I think not so in this case, for if thou be wise, thou shalt not leave God, but thou shalt find him, and have him, and see him in thy Neighbour as well as in prayer, onely in another manner. If thou canst love thy Neighbour well, to speake with thy Neighbour with discretion shall be no hindrance to thee. . . . If he come to tell thee his disease [distress] or trouble, and to be comforted by thy speech, heare him gladly, and suffer him to say what he will for ease of his own heart; And when he hath done, comfort him if thou canst, gladly, gently, and charitably, and soon break off. And then, after that, if he will fall into idle tales, or vanities of the World, or of other men's actions, answer him but little, and feed not his speech, and he will soon be weary, and quickly take his leave," etc.
  11. Dante, Paradiso, v. 105.