“Mirth and Mourning”

“Mirth and Mourning” are equally important, claims Julian in Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic — and Beyond by Matthew Fox (iuniverse, 2020). An inspiring thought, asking us to be happy as well as sad, from a medieval mystic living in the 15th century during the bubonic plague. A Catholic anchoress, not a nun, but a woman choosing to live in isolation, Julian lived from 1342-1429 during the plague which killed 50% of the people in Europe. As Fox points out, she has much to say to those of us living through the current pandemic of coronavirus. I had never heard of Julian before my foray into mysticism but she espouses wisdom for us all.

While little is known of her early background, she chose not to become a nun but to live as an anchoress in a small room with two windows connected to a Catholic Church. One window opened to the church, the other to the world outside. This provided opportunities for her to be a spiritual counselor to those who passed by, many of whom were sailors coming from their ships in the harbor.

She became devoted to the church after a revelation from God. “I understood that the vision I was receiving was not for me alone, but for all.” She honored that commitment and devoted her life to others, both in her spiritual counseling and her writing. The first woman to write in English, her books were not published until decades after her death, understandable considering her heretical views. She encouraged each of us to trust our own experiences, one of the tenets of a mystic that I find enlightening, telling us to “cultivate our intention and wait for God…trusting that he is working within us.”

“The mixture of sorrow and joy is so powerful that we cannot figure out how to handle it all, let alone assess how our fellow spiritual seekers are doing. The diversity of feelings can be overwhelming.” Julian

She wanted us to live a life of passion and awe, a life of joy and mirth. Again, not something one might expect from a 15th century anchoress. Yet she also stressed mourning, not ignoring the sadness. She talked of the evil or negative of life and the need to feel the pain, not neglect or sublimate it. We should not give in to our negative impulses, she cautioned, as she continually emphasized the goodness of life. 

“Evil is everything that is counter to peace and love.” Julian

Goodness, she saw, as “the quality of God that meets evil with good.” As Fox points out, she stressed taking “delight and joys in life with a sense of wonder.” An unexpected thought from a woman in isolation during the bubonic plague. Her words are especially relevant when we are dealing with and feeling the effects of our covid isolation, even if it is a little less dramatic than hers. Her belief in gratitude and goodness encourages us to be thankful each day for all that we have, an important part of any spiritual journey.

“Redemption, then, is not a matter of absolving sin; it is about loving us into the wholeness of who we really are.” Julian

”Loving us into the wholeness of who we really are.” What a major shift from the teachings of the Church I grew up in, where original sin was stressed. Julian, rather than seeing us as flawed with sin, saw humans as part of God, as natural and holy. Fox points out that she believes in Panentheism, as did Teasdale in my previous blog “Each of Us is a Mystic.” She “saw that God is in all things” and “saw no difference between the divine substance and the human substance; it was all God.”

“No theologian up to the late twentieth century has so devoted herself or himself in an explicit way to the return of the divine feminine than has Julian of Norwich.” Matthew Fox

A mystic who defied the customs of her time and celebrated the divine feminine when patriarchy ruled the Church. A Catholic feminist of the 15th century. Along with her optimistic, yet realistic view of life, her feminism is the most delightful surprise for me. As I began writing my blogs, I was immersed in male mystics, all positive, yet I was searching and asking for some feminine energy. As often happens when we request help, this book appeared the next day. At a time when I see the need of increasing the role for women, I am humbled to realize Julian understood that importance six hundred years ago. 

“God willed that we have a twofold nature: sensual and spiritual.” Julian

Honoring the body, another astonishing view from a woman devoted to the church of long ago. “It is through our bodies and our sensual knowledge that we learn about goodness and grace.” A contemporary view from a medieval anchoress.

“I was reminded, too, that I must not focus on the imperfections of others, but instead take responsibility for my own.” Julian

Taking responsibility for our own imperfections. Another inspiring belief. An admonition that a mystic journey requires a tough reckoning of our own frailties. In her counseling Julian had many opportunities to understand the weaknesses of others, yet she assessed her own. Her humility serves as a mirror for me on my continuing spiritual quest.

“What do I want to do with my life? What is the best contribution I can make, given my particular gifts and background…” Julian

A mystic does not just contemplate God, or the divine, but acts on her or his own convictions. Julian believed that “Charged with the quality of reverence and loving awe, we turn ourselves with all our might toward action.” Julian exemplified that with her counseling and her writing, showing us that words and thoughts alone are not enough.

“The God of goodness and awe, beauty and justice and love — isn’t it time for that God again?” Matthew Fox

2 responses to ““Mirth and Mourning””

  1. Oh my goodness, Cheryl! Thank you for introducing me to this wise mystic. I had heard the name before, had never bothered to find about her, had supposed that she was a man! Your blogs are highly informative and thought-provoking!! THANK YOU!!!


    1. Love your comments, Susan. I know, I was surprised by this mystic also. Thank you.


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