Monday 22 July 2019

A (sort of) pilgrimage to Saint Julian of Norwich

I failed to visit the church and shrine of 'Lady Julian' or, St Julian (1342-1429) as she deserves to be called, in my last visit to Norwich; and regretted the fact - so this time it became a priority, and because of that element of pilgrimage, my wife and I were rewarded by a quietly sweet experience that we shall not forget.

St Julian is both a great writer, whose beautiful Middle English poetic-prose translates so much better than her contemporaries Chaucer, Langland and the Gawain poet that we feel no loss from the original; and an important ascetic mystic in the contemplative Orthodox and 'Platonic' tradition.

For me, her work communicates the same quality as Thomas Traherne - an immersion in the transcendental beauty, truth and virtue of God's love. She induces a kind of suspension of Time, a state of being; glimpses of perfection.

She lived for some decades as an 'anchorite' in a cell attached to the church which now bears her name and the site is now the place of a small, plain and tranquil chapel dedicated to her.

Outside in the churchyard, the tranquil contemplative quality still remains after 600 years.

And next door, there is a very charmingly unprofessional little room with books, cards, mementoes and a few modest refreshments that seems to have retained the spirit of the cell among its inhabitants - so little commercialism or vulgarity as to seem like a timeslip back sixty years to a more innocent age.

I find a direct and powerful appeal in the contemplative life and work of St Julian, and visiting the place reinforced this. I regard this type of spirituality as valid, but ultimately a thing from a past era of human consciousness, which we can glimpse and briefly attain and learn-from; but which we cannot sustain.

Indeed, I believe, we should not (as a generalisation) be trying to emulate the kind of life and and state-of-being that St Julian so inspiringly lived as a permanent thing; our task is different.

We can, however, experience this vicariously; and I recognise that her work has a quality of permanent value; perhaps because of the sweetness and loveliness of Julian's nature as a saintly person, which jumps across the centuries when we read her words, or think about her or her place of dwelling.

And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, 'What may this be?' And it was answered generally thus, 'It is all that is made.' I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.

In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it. But what is this to me? Truly, the Creator, the Keeper, the Lover. For until I am substantially “oned” to him, I may never have full rest nor true bliss. That is to say, until I be so fastened to him that there is nothing that is made between my God and me.

This little thing which is created seemed to me as if it could have fallen into nothing because of its littleness. We need to have knowledge of this, so that we may delight in despising as nothing everything created, so as to love and have uncreated God. For this is the reason why our hearts and souls are not in perfect ease, because here we seek rest in this thing which is so little, in which there is no rest, and we do not know our God who is almighty, all wise and all good, for he is true rest. God wishes to be known, and it pleases him that we should rest in him; for everything which is beneath him is not sufficient for us. And this is the reason why no soul is at rest until it has despised as nothing all things which are created. When it by its will has become nothing for love, to have him who is everything, then is it able to receive spiritual rest. (1st Revelation)

In middle English, in context...

In this same time our Lord shewed to me a ghostly sight of His homely loveing. I saw that He is to us everything that is good and comfortable for us. He is oure clotheing, that for love wrappeth us, halsyth us, and all becloseth us for tender love, that He may never leeve us, being to us althing that is gode as to myne understondyng.

Also in this He shewed a littil thing the quantitye of an hesil nutt in the palme of my hand, and it was as round as a balle. I lokid there upon with eye of my understondyng and thowte, What may this be? And it was generally answered thus: It is all that is made. I mervellid how it might lesten, for methowte it might suddenly have fallen to nowte for littil. And I was answered in my understondyng, It lesteth and ever shall, for God loveth it; and so all thing hath the being be the love of God.

In this littil thing I saw three properties: the first is that God made it, the second is that God loveth it, the third, that God kepith it. But what is to me sothly the maker, the keper, and the lover I canot tell, for till I am substantially onyd to Him I may never have full rest ne very blisse; that is to sey, that I be so festined to Him, that there is right nowte that is made betwix my God and me. It needyth us to have knoweing of the littlehede of creatures and to nowtyn allthing that is made for to love and howe God that is unmade.

For this is the cause why we be not all in ease of herete and soule, for we sekyn here rest in those things that is so littil, wherin is no rest, and know not our God that is al mighty, al wise, all gode; for He is the very rest. God will be knowen, and Him liketh that we rest in Him. For all that is beneth Him sufficeth not us. And this is the cause why that no soule is restid till it is nowted of all things that is made. Whan he is willfully nowtid for love, to have Him that is all, then is he abyl to receive ghostly rest.

Also our Lord God shewed that it is full gret plesance to Him that a sily soule come to Him nakidly and pleynly and homely. For this is the kinde yernings of the soule by the touching of the Holy Ghost, as be the understondyng that I have in this sheweing: "God of Thy goodnesse, give me Thyselfe, for Thou art enow to me, and I may nothing aske that is less that may be full worshippe to Thee. And if I aske anything that is lesse, ever me wantith; but only in Thee I have all."

And these words arn full lovesome to the soule, and full nere, touchen the will of God and His goodness. For His goodness comprehendith all His creatures and all His blissid works and overpassith without end. For He is the endleshede, and He hath made us only to Himselfe and restorid us be His blissid passion, and kepith us in His blissid love; and all this is of His goodness.


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I had never read this writer but now intend to do so on the strength of this excerpt! Thanks also for including the original, at least part of which ("But what is to me sothly the maker, the keper, and the lover I canot tell, for till I am substantially onyd to Him I may never have full rest ne very blisse...") seems to have got a bit mangled in translation.

Bruce Charlton said...

I haven't made any serious comparison at all, but where I've looked some translations seem very loose. I suppose this doesn't matter so much, or at all, when translating this kind of mysticism - which is extremely simple at root. What we look for are turns of phrase, pictures (e.g. the hazelnut) and other devices for encapsulating what we 'already know'.

In sum, this mysticism is a kind of Original Participation (or nearly so), and tends to induce OP; which is why we already know it, and recognise it. And that is why people have argued for a unity of mysticism (the perennial philosophy idea) - it is the unity of childhood as a mode of being.

In a Steiner-ish sense it can be a Luciferic temptation; which is why (I think) The System allows, and is sometimes mildly supportive, of this kind of spirituality (eg in New Age, among whom Julian is somewhat popular). So, there was a BBC TV programme about Julian, presented as a proto-feminist - and her mysticism seems palatable to the atheist presenter.

It can, quite easily, be re-presented in psychological terms, as a pleasantly blissful state of reverie, a sort of self-psychotherapy (like the recent bureaucratic fad for Mindfulness).

For Julian it was love of Christ, personally and specifically and aimed at life eternal; for a secular modern person it may be a diffuse abstract emotion of love.