I’ve been reading Julian of Norwich lately, and although she’s a slow read she’s worth every minute. In honor of Good Friday I’ve included part of her description of the dying of Christ on the cross.
Lady Julian, or Dame Julian (not quite Saint Julian), wrote her Showings (or “Shewynges”) in the late 14th century England. She was an anchoress (not quite a nun) at the church of St. Julian in Norwich. Not much is known about her outside of her writings, not even her name. She is called Julian after her church.
At age 30, probably in 1373, she became deathly ill and began to receive visions, revelations, or “showings” that she believed came from God. She wrote them down immediately and developed them years later into a longer text, which became a volume of 86 chapters. It’s humbly written, simple and powerful, and uncannily orthodox as far as I’ve read. Her perspective on matters such as creation, the Trinity, Christ’s death and God’s love appears to come from a different angle—and I suppose it would, if it comes from God. Her level of education is not known and was likely not very high; nevertheless she is known as the first woman published in the English language.
She wrote in a dialect of Middle English that resembles our language more than does Chaucer’s Middle English of the same period. But then, Chaucer wrote poetry and liked to show off.
I’ve taken this excerpt from Julian’s revelation VIII, last paragraph in chapter 16 and the first in chapter 17. I have modernized the spelling, even though the editor of my copy had already cleaned it up a bit. Not only does Julian’s spelling differ greatly from ours, it differs from her own. She couldn’t seem to spell a word the same way twice. To see what you’re missing, here are the first two lines in the selection, unchanged:
“Thus I saw the swete flessch dry in my syght, parte after perte dryeing with mervelous payne. And as long as any spryte had lyffe in Cristes flessch, so longe sufferede he.”
A few observations on Julian’s writings; and owing to her style I’ll list them in threes:
—The First, that this stuff is way better as a Christian devotional than just about any of the crud written for the mass market today.
—The Second, that Julian’s showings offer at least one good reason not to swallow a belief in the cessation of the apostolic gifts. And no, I’m not Pentecostal.
—The Third, that Julian’s style vaguely reminds me of Hemingway, and I don’t suppose I can help that. But sadly, Hemingway never wrote anything about creation likened to a hazelnut.
Here’s the Good Friday excerpt, and remember that we have to get through this to make any sense out of Easter:
Thus I saw the sweet flesh dry in my sight, part after part drying with marvelous pain. And as long as any spirit had life in Christ’s flesh, so long suffered he. This long pain seemed to me as if he had been sevennight dead, dying, at the point of out passing, always suffering the great pain. And there I say it seemed as he had been sevennight dead, it specifieth that the sweet body was so discoloured , so dry, so clinging, so deadly, and so piteous as he had been sevennight dead, continually dying. And me thought the drying of Christ’s flesh was the most pain and the last of his passion.
And in this drying was brought to my mind this word that Christ said, “I thirst.” For I saw in Christ a double thirst, one bodily and another ghostly. This word was showed for the bodily thirst, and for the ghostly thirst was showed as I shall say after. And I understood by the bodily thirst that the body had feeling of moisture, for the blessed flesh and bones was left all alone without blood and moisture. The blessed body dried all a lone long time with wringing of the nails and weight of the body. For I understood that for tenderness of the sweet hands and the sweet feet by the great hardness and grievous of the nails the wounds waxed wide and the body saddled for weight, by long time hanging and piercing and raising of the head and binding of the crown all baking with dry blood, with the sweet hair clinging the dry flesh to the thorns and the thorns to the flesh drying.
Denise N. Baker, ed., The Showings of Julian of Norwich. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005. pp. 27-28