We all have our own stories of the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mine looked a lot like other parents of young children. Without preschool and my parents’ help with our kids, my husband and I floundered as we tried to manage our responsibilities at work and home. Rest was elusive; frustrations ran high. And even as the chaos in our house felt unmanageable, the world outside our front door was in still greater distress. Amid disastrous news updates and the infinite stretch of uncertainty that lay ahead, I felt hopeless. How long would God let the world suffer, from illness and death to joblessness to loneliness and exhaustion?
Perhaps it seems unlikely that any medieval saint could relate to our recent struggles. But although she lived some six hundred years ago, Julian of Norwich experienced similar trials. Born in England in 1342, she too lived through a pandemic—the devastating Black Death, which killed an estimated one-third of Europe’s population. Later in life she became an anchoress, leading a life of contemplative prayer in a secluded cell. Though hers was a chosen vocation, she certainly was familiar with the isolation that comes with social distancing!
Most importantly, however, Julian’s understanding of God offers a beacon of hope for even the most desperate times. At the age of thirty, Julian experienced a series of mystical “showings,” or visions, about the nature of God’s love. Fortunately for us, she wrote them down in detail. The resulting book, Revelations of Divine Love, presents an intimate picture of the Lord that’s as moving today as it was then.
Enveloped by God. The Church in Julian’s time was experiencing a number of crises. Political strife and power struggles had corrupted the Church’s hierarchy and confused the faithful; even many parish priests seemed more interested in wealth and power than in the call to holiness. And while a more personal image of God had begun to take root in the Church, it was not uncommon for people to still see God through the restrictive lens of authority and punishment, and to see Jesus simply as a distant warrior who had conquered Satan.
That’s what makes Julian’s story so radical. As a laywoman at the time of the showings, she would have had little status in the Church or the world. Relatively uneducated, she wrote—or perhaps dictated—Revelations of Divine Love in conversational English rather than ecclesiastical Latin. What’s more, it became the first published book in English known to have been authored by a woman.
But most radical of all is the content of her revelations. Having prayed for a greater understanding of God and the suffering all around her, Julian fell seriously ill and then experienced a miraculous and full recovery. Immediately afterward, while she was still in her bed, the showings began. Each emphasized something distinct about God and his love, much of which ran contrary to common perceptions of God at the time. Far from being distant or judgmental, God revealed himself to Julian as an intimate, loving Someone who was “nearer to us than our own soul.”
“He is our clothing, wrapping and enveloping us for love,” she wrote, “embracing us and guiding us in all things, hanging about us in tender love, so that he can never leave us.”
In one showing, Julian saw her soul “as large as if it were a kingdom; . . . it seemed to me to be a glorious city. In the center of that city sits our Lord Jesus, true God and true man, glorious, highest Lord. . . . In all eternity Jesus will never leave the position which he takes in our soul; for in us is his most familiar home and his favorite dwelling.”
Imagine: Jesus sits in your own glorious soul!
Safe in Suffering and Sin. Of course, medieval Christians weren’t the last to picture God as a distant judge. Even if we believe in his unconditional love and faithfulness, difficult seasons or struggles with sin can sow doubt and worry into our hearts. Every day in quarantine that I ran out of ideas to entertain our stir-crazy children, every day that my husband and I snapped at each other out of exhaustion, every day that I berated myself for not handling this trial with more grace and fortitude, it seemed as if God grew further and further away.
In reality, however, he was as close as ever. In one particular showing, Julian received a deep spiritual comfort—which suddenly vanished. “I was left oppressed, weary of myself, and so disgusted with my life that I could hardly bear to live,” she wrote. “There was no ease or comfort for my feelings but faith, hope, and love, and these I had in reality, but I could not feel them in my heart.”
The pattern repeated: bliss, agony, bliss, agony. “This vision was shown to me, as I understand, to teach me that it is necessary for everybody to have such experiences, sometimes to be strengthened, sometimes to falter and be left by himself,” Julian explained. “God wishes us to know that he safely protects us in both joy and sorrow equally, and he loves us as much in sorrow as in joy.”
God is near even when the news overwhelms us, when uncertainty takes hold, when we find ourselves facing personal trials and battles with sin. Indeed, sin is insignificant compared to our almighty God and his love for us—so much so that it did not appear in Julian’s showings. “Ah, wretched sin!” she wrote. “What are you? You are nothing. For I saw that God is all things: I saw nothing of you.”
Whatever our missteps, whatever our emotional state, God desires our closeness in prayer. “Pray earnestly even though you do not feel like praying,” God urged Julian, “for it is helping you even if you do not feel it doing you good, even if you see nothing, yes, even if you think you cannot pray.”
Hope for the Future. It is a profound comfort to know that God holds us close today. Still, it can be difficult not to be anxious about tomorrow. “They’re saying it may be months,” I wrote in my journal in the spring of 2020, as news of the virus continued to unfold. “I don’t know how we’re going to make it that long.”
God pointed out the dangers of precisely this attitude to Julian. “God showed me that we suffer from two kinds of sickness, of which he wishes us to be cured,” Julian wrote. “One of them is impatience, because we find our trouble and suffering a heavy burden to bear, and the other is despair, or doubtful fear.”
These sicknesses, she explained, stem from a lack of a belief in God’s love. “This is the knowledge of which we are most ignorant; for many men and women believe that God is almighty and has power to do everything, and that he is all wisdom and knows how to do everything, but that he is all love and is willing to do everything—there they stop.”
And yet the proof of God’s love for us hangs in every church, likely even on the walls of our homes: the crucifix. In several of the showings, Julian witnessed various aspects of the passion: blood trickling down from the crown of thorns, Jesus’ face on the cross, blood flowing from his wounds. His suffering moved her deeply, and Jesus told her, “It is a joy and a delight and an endless happiness to me that I ever endured suffering for you, for if I could suffer more, I would suffer” (emphasis added).
Whatever our trials, we can be confident that the real victory has already been won for us. Jesus conquered sin; therefore, as he told Julian, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
All for Love. We know little about Julian beyond what she recorded herself. Some time after her visions, she became an anchoress, living a life of contemplation and solitude and offering spiritual direction to visitors. We know that she lived until at least 1416, based on mentions of her in other historical documents, but we don’t know when or how she died.
Despite its distance in time and history, her Revelations of Divine Love is a volume that I will return to. Even if the worst of the pandemic is behind us, a sense of instability lingers. But if there’s anything that it has taught me, it’s that I can always trust in God’s love.
“Do you want to know what your Lord meant?” Jesus asked Julian of why she received the showings. “Know well that love was what he meant. Who showed you this? Love. What did he show? Love. Why did he show it to you? For love.”
Our God loves us beyond measure—and it’s in his love that we can stake our security. All shall be well, indeed.
Laura Loker writes from northern Virginia.