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Book Summary - JULIAN OF NORWICH: WISDOM IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC – AND BEYOND

Book Summary -  JULIAN OF NORWICH:  WISDOM IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC – AND BEYOUD

MATTHEW FOX

ENDORSEMENTS

Suppose you had a wise woman friend who was a scholar – and also the survivor of a plague many times longer and more lethal than the one we are going through now. Wouldn’t you want to know what she has to say? Thanks to Matthew Fox, we can find a friend in Julian of Norwich, exactly the mental, emotional, and spiritual vaccine we need now.   Gloria Steinem

Warrior brother to the Feminine, Rev Father Matthew Fox, like a tender archaeologist brushes away the sands of time under which lay the remarkable blessings and cogent views of Julian who wrote in the time of plague, so very similar ro our times. This work is its own kinds of spiritual vaccine to help keep one’s head even if some others are losing theirs. In this, as always, Matthew Fox anoints modern Souls with a medicine he finds in the old and venerable Holy voices. Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Matthew Fox, in this gorgeous, brilliant, and beautifully written book, invites us into the heart of one of the greatest Christian mystics, Julian of Norwich. He shows us that Julian is an extraordinarily intense and inspiring guide for our time. She herself lived in a time of plague and social cataclysm, but never lost her hope in humanity or her joy in the divine presence. This inspired book will attune you to tireless truths in the middle if a whirlwind of distress and chaos and will inspire in you the courage to go in deepening your relationship with God and standing up for the glory of the creation. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Andrew Harvey

MATTHEW FOX

When Father Matthew Fox’s groundbreaking book Original Blessing was published in 1983, it revolutionised the Christian community by daring to suggest that (as Christ told Julian in her visions) we replace our preoccupation with original sin with an openness to wonder, recognising that every particle of creation is imbued with goodness. Including you – and me.  And every other being, human and otherwise. Fox was rewarded for his theological generosity with being formally silenced by the Catholic church for fourteen months. A few years later he was expelled from the Dominican Order, which he had belonged to for over three decades. While painful, this break with his beloved tradition catapaulted him into the center of his prophetic calling, gifting the world with the treasure of creation spirituality. This book of reflections on the teachings of Julian of Norwich and their startling relevance for our times is, in many respects the ripened fruit of Fox’s decades of cultivating a spirituality of radical blessedness. (Mirabai Starr)

MIRABAI STARR

Mirabai Starr is an author, translator of the mystics, and a leading voie in the interspiritual movement. She has received acclaim for her translations of St John of the Cross, St Teresa of Avilla, Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich.

She is author of a poetry collection Mother of God Similar to Fire with iconographer William Hart McNicholls, and Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Woman Mystics.

It was her translation of Julian’s book Showings that Matthew Fox mostly relied on in this book, and she is the author of the Foreword.

I don’t just want my translations to be true: I want them to be beautiful – a pleasure to read, a heart opening encounter.  Mirabai Starr

FOREWARD

“All will be well” says the medieval English mystic we call Julian of Norwich. “And all will be well,” she says again. Then, in case we didn’t take that in the first two times, she repeats with lucid zest, “and every kind of thing shall be well.”

In a time of global pandemic and rampant racial injustice, this may sound like a spiritual bypass (borrowing an apt term from contemporary Buddhist philosophy to convey the impulse to check out of painful experiences by religious platitudes and practices). But it’s quite the opposite.

But it’s quite the opposite. Julian, who lived through many rounds of the Black Death, experienced unspeakable suffering within and around her.

If, as historic records indicate, up to 50% of the population of Europe  died during the plague, then statistically speaking, Julian may have lost half of the people she was closest to.

Julian’s visions of the passion of Christ arose from the depths of her own suffering. At the age of 30, stricken by a grave illness, believing she was on her deathbed, and with nothing to live for, Julian welcomed death.           

On the threshold between this world and the next, she encountered the living Christ not as a remote and tortured sacrificial victim but rather as “friendly” and “merry”, as warm and welcoming.

In her Showings, as she called them, Christ revealed his bleeding and his dying as acts of unconditional love. “The blood of Christ nourishes and feeds all living things.”

Who but a mother, Julian asks, would break herself open and pour herself out for love of her children? Redemption, then, is not a matter of absolving sin; it is about loving us into the wholeness of who we really are.

Julian immediately recorded her Showings in what is known as the “short text”, and spent the rest of her life contemplating the meaning of these visions in the form of the “long text”, Revelations of Divine Love.

DEDICATION

I dedicate this book to women everywhere (and the men who love them) who are asked to speak their truth in words and actions in defense of Mother Earth and all her creatures. In this time of excessive patriarchy may wisdom prevail over folly, love over fear, compassion over hate, justice over injustice, the mammal brain over the reptilian brain so that future generations may thrive. All in the spirit of out sister Julian, who insisted that “we are born into a birthright of never-ending joy”.

FRONTISPIECE

Wisdom is the mother of all good things. Wisdom7:10-11

The first good thing is the goodness of nature.

God is the same thing as nature.

God feels great delight to be our Father.

God feels great delight to be our Mother.

We experience a wondrous mix of well and woe.

The mingling of both well and distress in us

is so astonishing

that we can hardly tell which state

we or our neighbour are in-

that’s how astonishing it is!

  • Julian of Norwich

JULIAN’S TIME OF PANDEMIC AND OURS   (Introduction)

Julian lived in Norwich, England 1342-ca.1429. The plague first struck when she was 7 years old, and it returned in waves for the next 55 years. By the 1370s, when she wrote her first treatise, the population of England was cut in half. So many people died that they were buried five deep in the mass graves. All the street cleaners in London dies, and two out of three of the clergy – probably the best and the bravest, who were visiting the sick and the dying.

The bubonic plague was terrifying and ugly. One’s body would become riddled with ugly sores and scars, and black boils would ooze blood and pus. One would typically be dead in three to four days. It was so contagious that touching infected clothes could be deadly. One could go to bed at night healthy and be dead in the morning!

Creation Spirituality and the Showings

Julian’s response to the pandemic was grounded in a love of life and gratitude. Instead of running from death, she actually prayed to enter into it, and it is from that experience of death all around her and meditating on the cruel crucifixion of Christ that she interpreted as a communal, not just a personal event, that her visions arrived.

She was a champion of the divine feminine in a century when patriarchy ruled. She insisted that the feminine permeate every aspect of our understanding of the divine, all dimensions of God.

She is a forceful spokesperson for the ‘motherhood of God’ in our day when matricide, the killing of girls and women, wisdom, creativity and compassion, a matricide that culminates in the despoiling and crucifixion of Mother Earth, is going on everywhere.

Julian and the Search for Wisdom

Julian’s work was considered heretical, and her being a woman was not considered a mark of credibility in her day. She spoke of “an apprehension of the hostility which her writings may arouse”.

She was also one of the pioneers of the English language, and in fact invented the work enjoy.

She was never, until the twentieth century, a popular author, ans was said to have often “startled” her readers.

However one notable nineteenth-century exception was Florence Nightingale, who read her work and practised her teachings of mother love by pursuing a nursing vocation and essentially birthing the nursing profession.

And in the early twentieth century the poet TS Eliot incorporated her work into his Four Quartets.

Julian as Anchoress

Julian chose not to live in a monastery as an adult, but became an anchoress, living more or less as a hermit, a religious recluse, in a cell attached to a church. She attended mass regularly from her cell, with a small window into the chapel to receive communion. The cell also had a window to the outside, through which she would offer counsel and instruction to those seeking spiritual advice.

This book follows seven distinct lessons that Julian shares with us, and I’ll talk about the first three.

FACING THE DARKNESS   (Chapter 1)

Sometimes we experience such darkness that we lose all our energy – Julian

The Dark Night of our Species

Julian speaks of the depression that burdens can bring upon us, and of the capital sin of acedia, described as a “loss of energy to begin new things, derived from a deep sadness, especially about spiritual things. She talks of being “borne down by the weight of mortal flesh” and how “because of this darkness, allowing and trusting God’s great love ...is almost impossible.”

 “But our intent in life is to continue to live faithfully in God and faithfully trust that we will be shown compassion and grace.” “This is God’s own working in us.”

Julian”s first lesson about a dark night of the soul is to face it for what it is. “We see so much evil around us, so much harm done, that we think it is impossible that there is any good in the world.” “But “this is because we use our reason so blindly, so unfully and so simplemindedly that we are unable to know the marvellous wisdom, capability and goodness of the joyful Trinity.”

She warns us not to seek a refuge in bad habits, that numb our feelings, and our ability to respond creatively and effectively. Do the tasks as hand: wear the mask, bury the dead, provide food to the hungry, care for the sick and the elderly.

Moving Beyond Denial and Addiction

Julian urges us to move beyond addiction and fear of pain or suffering – and utterly beyond denial. She assures us that we are stronger than we think and that we can endure much that life asks of us.

GOODNESS, JOY, AWE   (Chapter 2)

God is all that is good.... God says “I am the sovereign goodness of all things.” – Julian

Julian’s Showings went beyond death to what matters most – goodness, joy and awe. For her, retrieving and remembering goodness and recovering a sense of goodness is at the heart of combating suffering and evil.

And when it is hard to see the goodness of things, and when one is mired in the darkness and chaos that is everywhere, it is all the more important to remember the goodness of things.

A Metaphysics of Goodness

 “God is all that is good. God has created all that is made. God loves all he has created. And so anyone, in loving God, loves all his fellow creatures, loves all that is. All those who are on the spiritual path contain the whole of creation, and the Creator.” Because “God is the same thing as nature.”

Goodness surrounds us in the manifestation of all of nature, but it also flows though us on a regular basis; it is Spirit at work in and around us. We must open our hearts and minds to hear that wisdom.

Awakening to Joy

Julian insists that “the fullness of joy is our birthright”, and this goes along with “intense yearning and unshakeable trust.” She writes” we will not take possession of our birthright of never-ending joy until we find ourselves fully gratified with all that life offers us, the ”well and the woe”. We must love “all of creation” as God does.

Remembering Awe

Julian instructs us to take delight and joy in life and to respond “with reverence and humility”. “We experience this gift when we feel the presence of God.”

 “This holy awe is the experience we most deeply long for because it creates a wonderful sense of security, true faith, and certain hope.”

“God’s Goodness invokes love. It is our nature as his servants to revere God in awe, and it is in our nature as his children to adore him for his goodness. Although holy awe cannot be separated from love, still they are two different things.... You cannot have one without the other.”

Thanksgiving

“This is the holiest prayer – the loving prayer of thanksgiving in his sight.”

“Good Lord, thanks be to you! Blessed are you, O God, and blessed may you always be.”

NATURE AND GOD ARE ONE   (Chapter 3)

God is the same thing as nature – Julian

“God rejoiced in his creation and creation rejoices in God. They are endlessly marvellous to each other. In the act of marvelling, we behold our God – our Beloved, our Maker – utterly exalted.”  We become “stilled by holy awe”, and this stillness takes us over.

She talks about light. “This light is the source of our life. And the night is the source of our pain and woe.” When we “acknowledge and believe in our light, we walk wisely and powerfully in it.” “I saw that our faith is our light in the darkness of night, and that light is God, our endless day.”

Love, Joy, and Nature

Joy and love go together, and both extend to all of creation: humans “have been given creation for our enjoyment because we are loved.”

Panentheism

Panentheism talks about the relationship of divinity and nature – literally meaning everything is in God and God is in everything.

Julian says ”in my understanding I saw God in a point. In seeing this, I saw God in all things. God works in creatures because God is the mid-point of everything and does all that is done.”

To know oneself is to know God, and to know God is to know oneself.

He calls us inwards, where ”he dwells within us in infinite bliss, drawing us ever deeper inward...Our true essence is one with God.”

The Cosmic Christ

Julian tasted deeply of the cosmos and its meaning as a whole, and share that with her celebrated vision of a hazelnut.

God showed me in my palm a little thing round as a ball about the size of a hazelnut. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and asked myself: “What is this thing?” And I was answered “It is everything that is created.” I wondered how it could survive, since it seemed so little it could suddenly disintegrate into nothing. The answer came: “It endures and ever will endure, because God loved it.” And so everything has being because of God’s love.

MOTHERHOOD OF GOD, TASTING NON-DUALISM, TRUSTING OUR SENSUALITY   (Chapters 4-6)

The Divine Feminine and the Motherhood of God

God feels great delight to be out mother – Julian

“Compassion is a kind and gentle property that belongs to the Motherhood in tender grace.” The ground of compassion is love and the working of compassion keeps us in love.

“Compassion is a sweet gracious working on love, mingles with abundant kindness; for compassion works at taking care of us and makes all things become good.”

Compassion allows us to fail measurably, and in as much as we fall we die.” Compassion persists in the hardest of times. It is strong, it is our strength.

She claims the Divine Motherhood of God, not only as God the Creator, but also in Jesus and the Christ.

Tasting Non-Dualism

Between God and our soul ... there is no between – Julian

Julian’s word for the metaphysical experience is oneing: In our creation we were knot and oned to God. By this we are kept as luminous and noble aas when we were created. By the force of this precious oneing we love, see, praise, thank and endlessly enjoy our creator.”

One way we “one ourselves to God” is by contemplation, which makes us like the one we contemplate. “The fruit and purpose of prayer is to be oned with and like God in all things.”

Trusting Our Sensuality

For Julian, God is a kind of “glue” knitting our soul and body together, spirit and matter in one. “God is the ground in which our soul stands and God is the means whereby our Substance and our Sensuality are knot together so as to never be apart.”

THE POWER OF LOVE OVER EVIL: A CALL TO WELLNESS   (Chapter 7)

We were made for Love....It amuses me that the Lord of Love overcomes the spirit of evil – Julian

“We will never be blissfully liberated until we are at peace, and love, for that is our liberation.”

Julian informs us that “Our good Lord answered all my questions and doubts by saying with full energy “I can make all things well, I know how to make all things well, I desire to make all things well, I will make all things well, and you will see with your own eyes that every kind of thing will be well.”

LIVING FULLY DURING AND BEYOND A PANDEMIC (Summary)

Charged with the quality of reverence and loving awe, we turn ourselves with all our might toward action – Julian

Julian on the Four Paths

Matthew Fox relates the teachings of Julian to the four paths he has developed in Creation Spirituality.

Path One: The Via Positiva – the way of awe and wonder, joy and delight.

Path Two: The Via Negativa – facing the shadow and the underlying darkness, but also resisting denial.

Julian named these as the paths of “wellness and woe” that follow us all our lives.

Path Three: The Via Creativa – Showings is a testimony to her art as a meditation practice, and the birthing of her book, and even of the English language through her writing.

Path Four: The Via Transformativa – she discusses compassion and justice, and develops our need to become warriors and prophets, who overcome the forces of evil with Love.

WHY JULIAN? WHY NOW?  (Conclusion)

The fact that Julian’s book was essentially ignored for centuries does not diminish its importance. But it gives us pause to ask: Why? Why was she ignored for centuries?

How would history, both religious and cultural, have been changed if her book had been studies centuries ago? Would the wiping out of indigenous cultured have been averted? Would slavery never have occurred? Would two world wars never have happened? Would schooling for children be funded properly? Would the destruction of the planet and climate change have been stopped in its tracks.

But today, thanks to the women’s movement, the ecology movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, and to the facts of climate change and its child, the coronavirus, we are awakening to what we have done – and the price we have paid.

Maybe we were not ready to hear from the creation mystics until now. Maybe we were not worthy. We had chosen a path of domination and destruction, of power over, of patriarchy, of rugged individualism and survival of the fittest.

Julian’s teachings, such as “the fullness of joy is our birthright”, could assist with the reinvention of our culture.

A PROPHET FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY   (Epilogue)

A pandemic is too important to waste. This pandemic is here to wake us up. To what? To a “new normal”. One that honours the sacredness of the earth and all of its life forms. One that honors the divine feminine alongside a sacred masculine. One that honours the human body and its basic needs, along with those of the earth’s body, and on that basis gives birth to a new body politic.

Julian gifts us with a paradigm shift of “how do we give thanks, and give back to mother earth and the cosmos all the blessings our species has inherited?”

CONCLUSION

Julian of Norwich lived through the dreadful bubonic plague that killed close to 50% of Europeans. Being an anchoress, who ‘sheltered in place’ and developed a deep wisdom that she shared in her book Showings, which was the first book in English by a woman.

A theologian way ahead of her time, Julian develops a feminist understanding if God as mother at the heart of nature’s goodness. Fox shares her teachings in this powerful and timely and inspiring book.

Rose Isbell, Christchurch, New Zealand

For the Knox Church Book Club

September, 2021

 

Fox, Matthew

Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic – and Beyond. Foreword by Mirabai Starr

Universe, 2020

ISBN 078-1-6632-0868-2