September 25, 2020

The Common Teaching of Holy Church

Today is the last of our series on Julian of Norwich. Damaris and Martha have walked us through Amy Frykholm’s book about Dame Julian, as well as exploring themes that Julian introduced six hundred years ago. I hope you’ve enjoyed these discussions this week. JD

And yet in all this time, from the beginning to the end, I had two manner of beholdings.  The one was endless continuant love, with secureness of keeping, and blissful salvation,— for of this was all the Shewing.  The other was of the common teaching of Holy Church, in which I was afore informed and grounded — and with all my will having in use and understanding.  And the beholding of this went not from me: for by the Shewing I was not stirred nor led therefrom in no manner of point, but I had therein teaching to love it and find it good: whereby I might, by the help of our Lord and His grace, increase and rise to more heavenly knowing and higher loving. (Julian of Norwich)

In Amy Frykholm’s contemplative biography, she makes a great point of Julian being a woman, writing in English, at that particular time.  Julian of Norwich’s “Revelations of Divine Love” is thought to be the first published work written in English and by a woman, so it is important.  But for Frykholm, it is not important merely for being the first such work that we have any record of; she deems that Julian was standing in opposition to the official Church of her time –  she refers to the “extraordinary personal risk” Julian was running, writing on theological matters for the laity while being a layperson – a laywoman, moreover.

And I can see why Frykholm would think that; the 14th century was a time of great upheaval both in England and in the wider continent of Europe.  Firstly, in 1347, the Black Death (bubonic plague) appeared in Europe.  The first wave lasted from 1347-50 and one estimate by a chronicler of the time was that a third of the population of Europe died – this would have been some twenty million deaths.  Nobody knows for sure how many really died.

And it wasn’t a once-off.  Waves of plague – six more – hit Europe between 1350 and 1400, so that by the end of its run, the population had been halved.  In 1300, the population of England was estimated at around seven million, by 1400 it was somewhere between three and four million.  Julian would have heard about these outbreaks and probably experienced the first wave herself.  On top of this, Europe was going through what was the start of the Little Ice Age – around the start of the century, warm summers stopped being predictable and dependable; there was a Great Famine in 1315-17; rainy, cool summers and severe winters became the norm, and crop yields were dropping.

All this had an effect on the culture and society of the time; reform movements and even abandonment of traditional religion sprang up because of the seeming ineffectualness of prayer and corruption in the Church was blamed for the ills of the time.  Reformers such as John Wycliffe – who produced translations of Biblical texts in Middle English and inspired the movement known as the Lollards – and Jan Hus made a stir.  The Great Schism, where there were rival popes in Avignon and Rome, to the disgrace of the Church and the troubling of Europe with political intrigue and outright wars, did not help matters any.

The Ottoman Empire was gaining territory in Eastern Europe and in 1394 the Pope (the one in Rome) called for a crusade against the Turks.  In 1396, an allied Western force marched against the Ottomans in Bulgaria and were routed, thus ending the last of the series of crusades in failure.

Civil authority wasn’t faring any better.  The massive population losses and the ensuing breakdown of social structure meant the old notions of rank and duty were challenged.  Kings and governments were seen to be fallible and unable to protect or help their subjects.  England was occupied with the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) against France for control of the French throne.  The Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 had made demands on the king that very nearly succeeded.  The Scots, after being suppressed by Edward III, achieved independence in his grandson’s reign and restored their monarchy.

And what of Julian’s home town?  Norwich wasn’t some little village or bucolic backwater; it was the capital of the most populous county in England, and had good claim to be the second most important city after London.  To quote Wikipedia:

The engine of trade was wool from Norfolk’s sheepwalks.  …Throughout this period Norwich established wide-ranging trading links with other parts of Europe, its markets stretching from Scandinavia to Spain and the city housing a Hanseatic warehouse.  To organise and control its export to the Low Countries, Great Yarmouth, as the port for Norwich, was designated one of the staple ports under terms of the 1353 Statute of the Staple.

By the middle of the 14th century the city walls had been completed.  At around two and a half miles (4 km) long, these walls, along with the river, enclosed a larger area than that of the City of London.  …Around this time, the city was made a county corporate and became capital of one of the most densely populated and prosperous counties of England.

So Julian was not some dreamy country lass in a sleepy small town where going to church was the only entertainment.  Think of Carl Sandburg hailing Chicago as “Hog Butcher for the world” – does that sound the place where you would expect a visionary and mystic to come from?  The point of all this is that Julian lived in a world not so very different in its essentials to our own time.  A wealthy, cosmopolitan commercial city; climate change and its effects; natural disasters; wars and political upheaval on the continent; religious disputes and calls for reform and liberalisation; the threat of militant Islam; the old certainties being overthrown; culture wars – she and her time experienced them all.  The problems of theodicy were just as acute for them as for us – how could God allow half of Europe to die by a dreadful disease?  Was this punishment for sin, as many alleged?  Did a caring God exist?  Did any god exist at all?  14th century Norwich was not so different from our own times – or the days of Noah, as it says in Luke 17:26-30:

“Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot — they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all — so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed.”

What I want to hold up in opposition to Frykholm’s imaginative reconstruction of Julian’s life and times is that I don’t think she quite understands or considers how interwoven the structure of the liturgical year and the rituals of the church were with ordinary life, or the support Julian got from these.  She presents Julian as almost a daring revolutionary, putting in disclaimers in her writings about how these are not contrary to the teachings of the Church as a prudent precaution to protect against heresy charges, since she was a laywoman writing in the vernacular and claiming to have direct experience of revelation from God unmediated by the clergy or the hierarchy.  (I am also, I have to admit, amused by Frykholm’s idea that Julian had a particular spiritual director in a certain friar.  Yes, she may have done, but obviously Amy Frykholm is a higher-minded person than I am, because it must never have crossed her mind about all the jokes from Chaucer to Boccacio to an 18th century Irish poem about frisky friars and coaxing clerics and married or widowed women.  The author of the “Ancrene Wisse” warns his female readers to trust laymen little and religious men less, when it comes to spending time with them alone).

I don’t see it like that.  I look at Julian, and I don’t see an isolated exception, I see a woman in a tradition.  Yes, we don’t have many writings by women on church matters, but we do have some, and more by men about women involved with the church.  I am thinking of Egeria, the 4th century woman (whether lay or nun, it is not firmly established) who had enough education, wealth and leisure to go on pilgrimages as far afield as the Holy Land (and who, in her letters, tells us of the “Kyrie Eleison” being sung during Vespers in Jerusalem) and St. Paula, the wealthy Roman matron who supported St. Jerome in his translation of the Bible into Latin (even editing his translations from Hebrew) and who founded a monastery for men and a convent for women in Bethlehem.

I am thinking of the “Ancrene Wisse”, the first guide for anchoresses written in the early 13th century for three sisters who wished to become anchorites, written in Middle English and mentioning that already twenty women were anchoresses.  I am thinking of a later woman mystic, writing in English, Margery Kempe, who herself went to visit Julian in her anchorhold for advice and for counsel as to whether her visions were true or delusions.

I am thinking of the second woman Doctor of the Church, St. Catherine of Siena – the Italian laywoman and mystic who wrote letters scolding the Pope to come back to Rome from Avignon.  Frykholm may have thought Julian was moved by caution to avoid seeming to challenge the Church since she was a woman, but with the example of Catherine – who Julian would have known about – well, you can’t get much more challenging than telling the pope what to do.  I am thinking about another saint who Julian reminds me of in her self-description as a “simple creature unlettered” – St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who wrote that her way was “all confidence and love” and that she would do small things in a simple way since she could not do great things.

I am thinking of the traditions still current, of the different vocations of  hermits and of anchorites and of consecrated virgins who are laywomen living in the world while belonging to consecrated life.

The time that Julian spent between having her visions and writing them down reminds me of the twenty years Jesus spent with His parents before embarking on His public ministry.  We know as little how one was spent as we do the other.  Julian’s decision to become an anchoress – and we don’t know why she decided to do this, or what her circumstances were – is not an extravagant flight from the world for some imagined sacred retreat, and it certainly wasn’t done as an independent, individual, autonomous decision.

Those who wished to become anchorites had to have the permission of their bishop, there was a prescribed rite to bless and devote them to their vocation, and they were sources of advice and support for their communities, not alone in their task of praying for all the living and the dead, but in their availability for anyone to come and speak to them, to ask for counsel, for prayer, for reassurance.  It seems extravagant and even, from our modern perspective, life-denying – but Julian was no Gnostic, and it does not appear from her writings that she was much of a reformer, either.  The rhythm of the liturgical year, the devotions and ceremonies, the prayers and practice of her faith provided her with a structure for her life.

And when she became an anchoress, that too was within the structure.  Like the Rich Young Man who asked “Good teacher, what must I do to be saved?” she heard “Come, follow me” and she met that challenge.  She gave away everything , left everything – “house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands” – and went to follow her Master.  The two most difficult things are surrender to God in love, and prayer and trust – and these she learned to do.

So what does she have to say to us?

I was an ordinary woman, living in a world every bit as complex and uncertain as yours.  Wars and natural disasters, foreign politics impinging upon national affairs, business and success and money-making taking up most of our attention, calls for revolution and reform, claims that the old ways were out-worn and a failure, new ideas and new fears coming along in a never-ending rush.  I lived an ordinary life, trying to juggle the demands of my faith with the obligations of my life.  When I had my visions, I thought I was crazy.  When I was convinced they were true, I struggled to reconcile them with what I had been taught in church and what I had always believed was the right interpretation.  It took me a long while, and I still didn’t get everything all at once.  I’m not special, I’m not better than you.  Even when I was having my visions, I was told I would sin, and I did. But you know what?  That isn’t important.  Here’s what is important.  Here’s what I learned.  I hope it will help you.”

“And this word: Thou shalt not be overcome, was said full clearly and full mightily, for assuredness and comfort against all tribulations that may come.  He said not: Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be afflicted; but He said: Thou shalt not be overcome.  God willeth that we take heed to these words, and that we be ever strong in sure trust, in weal and woe.  For He loveth and enjoyeth us, and so willeth He that we love and enjoy Him and mightily trust in Him; and all shall be well.”





  1. Since this is filed under “Martha of Ireland” I am assuming this particular article was written by Martha. This article is full of some great history on women and the Church, Martha. I think I need to save this one on my computer. Thank you, Martha and Damaris, for this interesting series of posts!

    • Yes, Joanie, it is written by Martha. You didn’t think I could write something this well thought out and insightful, did you? Of course not!

      • Jeff ~ I wouldn’t have thought you wrote it but only because there was no video of Julian performing one of your all time favorites!

        It’s okay – I’m still chuckling over the ” I Thought Turkeys Could Fly” segment that you shared with us. 🙂

      • Jeff writes much more considered articles drawn from his wide-ranging experience 🙂

  2. Martha ~ what does the word Shewing mean? What a beautiful statement: “And yet in all this time, from the beginning to the end, I had two manner of beholdings. The one was endless continuant love, with secureness of keeping, and blissful salvation,— for of this was all the Shewing.”

    Again you and Damaris have done a terrific job and I have been really privileged to “meet” this woman through your posts. Thank you both.

    • it’s the old-fashioned spelling for “showing” or the name Julian gave to her series of visions, because she reiterates again and again that “I was shown this… I saw… I looked…”

    • That Other Jean says

      I’m not Martha, but I believe that “the Shewing” of which Julian wrote meant the series of visions, or “showings,” that she experienced, in all of which God demonstrated to her His “continuant love, with secureness of keeping, and blissful salvation.”

      Thank you, Martha and Damaris, for this series of posts on one of my favorite Medieval people.

  3. Thanks for sharing.

    Not my cup of tea. I like to keep the focus on Christ. The one who died for the ungodly…like me.

    • Steve,
      Assuming we actually have a Trinitarian God, how exactly is this series not focused on Christ?

      May not be your cup of tea, but it is my cup of blessing.

      Thanks Martha and Damaris (for sharing).

    • Yes, Martin, you’re ungodly, and ill-mannered.
      Thanks to all for these good posts.

    • Then you choose the same part as Julian did, Steve:

      “In this I would have looked up from the Cross, but I durst not. For I wist well that while I beheld in the Cross I was surely-safe; therefore I would not assent to put my soul in peril: for away from the Cross was no sureness, for frighting of fiends.

      Then had I a proffer in my reason, as if it had been friendly said to me: Look up to Heaven to His Father. And then saw I well, with the faith that I felt, that there was nothing betwixt the Cross and Heaven that might have harmed me. Either me behoved to look up or else to answer. I answered inwardly with all the might of my soul, and said: Nay; I may not: for Thou art my Heaven. This I said for that I would not. For I would liever have been in that pain till Doomsday than to come to Heaven otherwise than by Him. For I wist well that He that bound me so sore, He should unbind me when that He would. Thus was I learned to choose Jesus to my Heaven, whom I saw only in pain at that time: meliked no other Heaven than Jesus, which shall be my bliss when I come there.

      And this hath ever been a comfort to me, that I chose Jesus to my Heaven, by His grace, in all this time of Passion and sorrow; and that hath been a learning to me that I should evermore do so: choose only Jesus to my Heaven in weal and woe.”

  4. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Given the upheaval of Julian’s time, I’m surprised there weren’t end-of-the-world scares popping up all over the place. Or is that more of a modern phenomenon?

    • There had been huge scares at the millennium, because when the year 1000 rolled around, a lot of people were convinced this is it; this is the end, this is the thousand years spoken of in Revelation done with and the Second Coming is surely at hand.

      The first wave of the Black Death was of an impact we can’t really imagine; everyone died, rich, poor, clergy, lay, kings, commoners – there was no distinctions made between sinners and the virtuous, and so many of the people who survived either fell into a ‘eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die’ mindset that it didn’t matter what you did as you could be struck down dead at any time, or they went for overt public displays of repentance like the Flagellants. There were also hysterical persecutions of anyone who could be regarded as a scapegoat; the Jews, mostly (who were accused of poisoning wells and the like).

      And in civil society, there were waves of peasant uprisings, like the English Peasants’ Revolt , which were put down (sometimes with great difficulty) by the powers of the day. One reason may have been that so many people had died, there really weren’t the numbers to maintain a large-scale popular revolt (also, pikes and scythes going up against armour and trained fighters not so successful).

      And the effect upon popular and high culture is easily seen; the whole “Dance of Death” genre of paintings and woodcuts, Boccacio’s “Decameron” where a party of wealthy young aristocrats lock themselves up in a castle to party away the time until the plague either disappears or (more likely) they succumb, and which surely influenced Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”, and Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”.

      But the world didn’t end, even though every time things looked to be settling down, they got shaken up again, and people had to come to terms with it and find some way of making sense of what was happening. The 14th century really is what we have been taught to think of as “the Dark Ages”, because the continuity between the old mediaeval world up to then (which was making progress in science and technology) and the Classical past was disrupted so fundamentally, the bright young things of the Renaissance were enabled to think they were the first true pioneers discovering the lost heritage of Greece and Rome, and to sneer at their backwards forebears.

  5. As the contemplative thing is right up my alley, I have enjoyed this series very much. Thank you Martha and Damaris…

    I am of the mind that everyone should get away from the world even for a few hours to “just be” instead of “must do” once in a while. Although this can be perceived as selfish by some, it is a wonderful way of slowing down to remember where our focus should be, instead of running at 100 mph all the time.

    And since I am also into history I really enjoyed this….

  6. Christiane says

    I, too, have enjoyed this series. ‘Contemplative’ prayer for me brings peace. There are some phrases and prayers that are so imprinted in my spirit that simply recalling them up during a time of trouble can bring back the awareness of balance and peace to give perspective and restore calm within.

    Currently re-reading ‘The Cloister Walk’ by Kathleen Norris. It helps.

    Thanks for the posts on Julian. They helped.