The Spiritual Imaginary Issue 1: Guest Editorial – Julian of Norwich: Everybody’s Mystic by Emma Pennington

Over the summer of 2014 Kickstarter, a website which funds independent film projects, ran an internet campaign to raise money to produce a one hour documentary on the enigmatic anchoress called ‘Julian of Norwich – Everybody’s Mystic’. The tantalising teaser to the film concluded with the presenter, the arts professional and Julian devotee, Clare Goddard stating that, ‘The film will discuss the life and times of Julian as well as looking closely at exactly what she had to say in her mystical writings. She is an inspiration to a huge number of people all over the world. We’ll be investigating why’. Unfortunately, they were unsuccessful in their attempt and only £3,000 of the £30,000 was secured to complete the project and produce the film. However, the aspiration of the former BBC producer, Mr Tracy Williams, to produce such a documentary demonstrates an increasing desire to know more about this lady of Norwich – a desire which is unconnected to both the academy or the church; from pew to sofa the words of her mystical writings seem remarkably in tune with the modern search for spirituality without organised religion and inspires both those with faith and none at a deep level. The question of why this is an interesting one which cannot be easily answered.

One answer can be found in the hopes and expectations which are brought to study days or workshops on Julian. At recent study events in Sarum College and the Festival of Prayer, held annually at Ripon College Cuddesdon, the response to the question ‘What do you hope to get out of the day’ invariably elicits as many answers as there are people in the room. But over time a trend emerges: most people just want to know who she is, some to understand what exactly it was she said about the Motherhood of Love and a few want to read more, even her work in the original Middle English. Most come with tentative steps, having been tantalised by extracts from Julian’s Revelation of Divine Love in compilations and modern devotional works that have beautifully summarised her theology, written by people who have been inspired by Julian and desire to share their insights. Few, if any, have read the text itself or have any comprehension of the vast field of Julian studies that has been inspired by the writings of this late fourteenth-century anchoress.

It would be another essay in itself to summarise the academic field of Julian Studies and I do not wish to do that here. Suffice it to say that what is interesting about the academic scholarship on Julian is that the study of her life and work has never been limited to a single faculty. She is, and always has been, the focus of interdisciplinary scholarship. To study Julian within the academy you will therefore need to have access to the History, English, Philosophy and Theology faculties, as well as have access to rare manuscripts. Moreover, you must be willing to delve into the vast mine of linguistic, textual, historical, theological, spiritual and pastoral books and articles that have been written about Julian, in order to begin to ponder the question of who she was and the meaning of her work. Of course, this exploration does not lead to definite answers, in fact it invariably leads only to more questions. The enquirer who simply wishes to find out who Julian was, and what she means for us, at a Study Day for instance, will likewise come away with more unanswered questions.

In many ways this is itself the answer to the question of why Julian is so inspiring to so many people. She leaves us with so many unanswered questions: she does not present us with a definite script of her life and the tantalising words she speaks simply draw the reader or listener to want to know more. Whether it be to know how she lived her life as an anchoress, or how individual words shift and transform within her text, to explore her text for the fifth, sixth, or tenth reading is as fresh and illuminating as the first. It is in this realm of convergent possibilities that new insights and theological gems can be found. Julian’s life and work also allows for the artist to give self-expression to her work or a novelist to imagine the world of the fourteenth-century. But it also allows for the scholar to bring interdisciplinary insights to her work and for the spiritual seeker to be profoundly moved and drawn to God. At the conclusion to her Revelation Julian states that her writings are ‘begun by God’s gift and grace, but it is not yet performed’ (The Middle English reads: ‘begotten by Goddes giftes and his grace but is not yet performid’.) We are only now beginning to explore the scope of what this open invitation to us may mean.

[Unless otherwise stated the translation of Julian of Norwich used throughout the magazine is Edmund College and James Walsh, Julian of Norwich’s Showings, (NY: Paulist Press, 1978).]


Part I: Julian on Christ and the Body

Part II: Insights for Today

  • 4. Love as Delight – Love as Unknowing by Hilde Raastad
  • 5. From Anchorhold to Household by Stephen Batty
  • 6. ‘All Shall be Well’ by Vanessa Lawrence