Review: The Way of Julian of Norwich

The Way of Julian Norwich: A Prayer Journey Through Lent, Sheila Upjohn. London: SPCK, 2020.

Summary: Six meditations on the writings of Julian of Norwich that redirect our focus from sin and judgement to the greatness of God’s love revealed in Christ’s incarnation and death.

Julian of Norwich chose a life of prayer and seclusion in a cell attached to St. Julian’s church in Norwich. At thirty, she nearly died, and during the time of her illness, experienced a series of “showings” of the Passion of Christ that were recorded in Revelations of Divine Love, the first book written in English by a woman.

Sheila Upjohn first read Revelations of Divine Love fifty years ago and is a founding member of Friends of Julian of Norwich. Out of her lifetime of reflecting on Julian, she offers this book consisting of an introduction to the life of Julian of Norwich and six meditations drawing upon the material from Revelations of Divine Love. This makes for an ideal guide to reflection during the six weeks of Lent for individuals or groups.

One of the themes running through these reflections is — surprise–Divine love. The first reflection is titled “Our Prayer Makes God Glad and Happy.” This drawn from Julian herself who wrote:

“Our prayer makes God glad and happy. He wants it and waits for it so that, by his grace, he can make us as like him in condition as we are by creation. This is his blessed will. . . He is avid for our prayers continually.”

Julian of Norwich, Chapter 41 as cited in Upjohn, p. 6.

In the second reflection on the “Huge, High Wholeness of God” Upjohn shows us Julian’s adoration of the Trinity and concept of God as both Father and Mother to us. Then in the third, and perhaps to me, most striking reflection, she explores the idea of sin as “behovely.” Using the example of the exposure of David’s sin by Nathan and his repentance and casting of himself upon the mercy of God, Julian argues that sin is behovely, or behooves us, in that “it cleanses us and makes us know ourselves and ask forgiveness.” For Julian, the fear of God’s anger is in us and drives us to God who we find is not angry but good.

In the fourth reflection, Julian explains how this all could be so. Not only in Adam did we all fall, she also explains how the Son fell with us, becoming a servant, bearing our sin that we might be blameless. Julian’s vision of divine love does not obliterate an understanding of evil and temptation, which Upjohn explores in the fifth reflection on the temptation of Christ. The sixth and final reflection brings us to Good Friday and the different ways we see the cross, either in horror tinged by our own guilt or the wonder that through the cross, we belong to God:

“Then our good Lord Jesus Christ said: ‘Are you well paid by the way I suffered for you? I said: ‘Yes, Lord, I thank you. Yes, good Lord, blessed be your name.’ Then said Jesus our kind Lord: ‘If you are well paid, I am well paid, too. It is a joy, a happiness, an endless delight that ever I suffered my Passion for your sake. If I could have suffered more, I would have suffered more.’ For the Father is fully pleased with all the deeds that Jesus has done to win our salvation. Through this we are his, not just because he bought us — but also by the gracious gift of the Father. We are his joy, his reward, his glory and his crown by the generous gift of his Father.”

Julian of Norwich, (Chapter 22) as cited in Upjohn, p. 78.

Upjohn not only introduces us to Julian, but to the God of divine love, moving our focus from ourselves, our fear, our guilt and our shame to the unfailing mercy of God, revealed in his son. The work is tastefully illustrated with artwork and photographs. Each reflection concludes with questions for discussion and directs the reader to stations of the cross and Julian’s reflections. The fourteen stations are included in the after matter as well as Margery Kempe’s account of her visit to Julian.

This is a wonderful compilation to familiarize one with Julian’s work that may be used at any time of the year as well as one in the ‘Prayer Journey Through Lent’ series published by SPCK. My suggestion would be to obtain a copy now to read and then use with several others during Lent next year. The combination of Julian’s writings and Upjohn’s thoughtful meditations offers rich material for reflection and prayer at Lent or throughout the year.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Autobiography of Saint Therese: The Story of a Soul

The Autobiography of Saint Therese: The Story of a Soul
The Autobiography of Saint Therese: The Story of a Soul by Thérèse de Lisieux
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I take personal retreats regularly at a center named after Saint Therese. So it seemed only right that at some point I should read her autobiography.

It is personal narrative with a single thread throughout: Therese’s intense love for Jesus that was a consequence of her great confidence that she was greatly loved by Jesus. It is this love, even more than the fact that two of her sisters had preceded her in entering the monastery, that moved her from an early age to long to be “wed” to Christ.

She confesses at times that her writing is “muddled” and indeed it has something of a “stream of consciousness” flow to it moving from an event in her family to reflections to a narrative on caring for novitiates. Yet the theme of the love of Christ and her love for Christ weaves throughout and gives the narrative an underlying coherence.

The book speaks of her earliest spiritual memories in her awareness of the love of God for her manifest both in nature and in the Catholic mass. She describes her confirmation and chrismation and the joy of knowing herself sealed by Christ’s Spirit. She recounts her pleas with her priest, bishop, and finally on pilgrimage, the Pope to be allowed to enter the Carmelite order early. At last, all relented and she entered at age 15.

She describes the vicissitudes of monastic life and how she learns through each of these to see them as loving gifts from God to form her more deeply in the love of Christ. She discovers that this is a love that is greater than all her weaknesses. We see her embrace of caring for others in her novitiate beginning with her prayers. With that love, we see a growing passion for “lost souls” expressed in prayer both for missionary priests and the people they sought to win.

We hear this love burning more brightly as her death at age 24 approaches. Toward the end of this narrative (and her life) she wrote this, which expresses well the recurring theme of this narrative:

“O eternal Word, my Saviour, You are the Eagle I love and the One who fascinates me. You swept down to this land of exile and suffered and died so that you could bear away every soul and plunge them into the heart of the Blessed Trinity, that inextinguishable furnace of love. You re-entered the splendours of heaven, yet stayed in our vale of tears hidden under the appearance of a white Host so that You can feed me with Your own substance. O Jesus, do not be angry if I tell you that Your love is a mad love…and how can you expect my heart, when confronted with this folly, not to soar up to You? How can there be any limit to my trust?(p. 158).

The Catholic context in which this love is expressed may seem foreign to the non-Catholics like me who read this account. But one cannot help but ask oneself in reading Therese’s narrative, “do I love Jesus with anything like the longing of this woman who died so young?” As one who believes in the grace of God in Christ, I must ask whether I have anything like the confidence of Therese in the greatness of God’s love to overcome my lesser and greater sins?

Good questions for my next retreat, it seems.

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