As you’ll know if you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, I receive books from the very generous SPCK every now and then that I can read and review. One such book, that I actually received quite a while ago now, was Revelations of Divine Love, by a Christian mystic called Julian of Norwich.
Julian, an English nun, wrote the book after seeing a series of visions from God whilst seriously ill and in the introduction to this edition, critic A. N. Wilson says that this is believed to be the first book written by a woman in the English language. The edition that I read is a translation from Julian’s Middle English by Grace Warrack, which has also been modernised by Yolande Clark, turning it into an easily readably, modern book.
I always find it hard reviewing old, classic books. There’s something about them that makes them seem untouchable, in some ways. And, as my edition is just a translation, I can’t really engage with much on a textual level, either.
What I can do, however, is give you an overview of the ideas contained within the book. Considering that Julian of Norwich is a medieval, Catholic writer, I found that many of her ideas carry over pretty well into the evangelical, 21st century Protestantism that I am most familiar with. Most appealing and familiar to Christians in this tradition will be Julian’s emphasis on the love of God and the value of learning how to suffer with Jesus.
However, others of Julian’s views would be alien to a more conservative, modern Christianity, appearing, perhaps, more ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal.’ Her references to Jesus as a mother, for example, are striking. They emphasise the caring side of God’s nature and Julian seems perfectly happy to use them in conjunction with more conventional paternal language.
Also notable is her refusal to acknowledge the wrath of God. As Wilson points out in the introduction, this is bordering on heretical as far as conservative Protestantism is concerned. Julian goes as far as to say that God’s ‘clarity and […] unity do not allow him to be angry’ (chapter 46)
It’s worth noting that, in this regard, Julian was also opposed to the prevailing Catholic teachings of the time. Her notion of a life longing for God as penance for sin in itself (chapter 81) seems at odds with Catholic teachings of confession and indulgences, though she is still perfectly happy to talk about hell and purgatory.
The reality is, Julian’s thought is too original and striking to be boxed within one category, and I think that doing so would be missing the point of her writing. She is placed within the Christian mystic tradition because she is not trying to rationalise her experiences, instead she is conveying what she can of her emotional response to an intense spiritual experience, sometimes reconciling it with mainstream theology and other times letting her thoughts go where they will.
The result is a deeply personal account of an encounter with God that is both sincere and challenging, without forcing you to assent to an intellectual idea in order to enjoy it. Theologically, I’m sure I differ from Julian in many ways, but that didn’t matter to me when I was reading Revelations. What is important to me is to see the way that an encounter with God profoundly affected her, leading her to return again and again to the idea of God’s love for humanity.
The book itself is fairly short and divided into chapters of a couple of pages. It’s put together in such a way that it lends itself to shorter reading, perhaps even devotional reading, with each chapter rarely longer than two or three pages. That said, it is certainly engaging enough to be read in longer stints, and you may well find yourself unable to put it down.
This is the kind of book that I think any Christian could read and benefit from. It may challenge you, it may present ideas that are unfamiliar, but I also think it will deepen your own love for God as you read the words of a woman who seemed to see it so clearly.