The Harpy Hall of Fame is dedicated to those women who worked on behalf of advancing women’s rights, contributed to reshaping gender roles, or were just generally awesome and badass. These remarkable women left legacies that continue to resonate today.
Many of the details of Julian of Norwich’s life are uncertain, even including her name–sometimes given as Juliana–which comes from the church of St. Julian in Norwich, England, where she was an anchoress (a type of hermit who lives a life of prayer and contemplation, isolated but attached to a religious community). Just after her 30th birthday, she became gravely ill, and during her illness, she received a series of religious visions and revelations, which she called “the Shewings.” She recovered, and wrote down a narrative of the visions, which formed the basis for her theological masterpiece, Revelations of Divine Love, the first book by a woman written in the English language.
In stark contrast to Church teachings, Julian’s vision of religion was expansive, optimistic and woman-centric. The basis of Christianity, she argued, should be joy and compassion, not law and duty, and suffering was not a punishment inflicted by God for sins, an especially revolutionary idea in the years after the Black Death (1348-50), which killed 40% of Europe’s population and was seen by many–including the Church–as an act of Divine retribution against the wicked.
Even more revolutionary were Julian’s views on the female-ness of God. Besides describing God as compassionate and loving, Julian outright rejected the idea of God as Patriarch. She wrote of the Trinity in feminine, domestic terms, by giving Father, Son and Holy Ghost instead were given three female ideals: “the foundation of our nature’s creation, “the taking of our nature, where the motherhood of grace begins” and “the motherhood at work.” She even invokes conception, nursing, labor and upbringing when speaking metaphorically about Christ’s ministry, and asserts God to have the attributes of Fatherhood, Motherhood and Lordship.
Despite such unorthodox teachings, Church hierarchy did not clamp down Julian’s theology or writing, most likely because her spiritual authority was so highly regarded in England (in fact, the later English female writer and mystic, Margery Kempe, writes of a trip to Norwich to seek Julian’s counsel).
During her many years as an anchorite, Julian lived in cell with three windows–one opened to the church, one to a garden, and one to the street. Visitors seeking her advice would stand in the street and speak with Julian through a curtained window. Her only companion was the cat who she was allowed to keep in order to control rats, and to whom she was devoted. The cat has become part of her legend, and she is often depicted with one. There is even a veterinary clinic in Michigan named “St. Julian’s Cat Care” in honor of the great mystic and her kitteh. (Did the companionship and comfort of a pet also inform her descriptions of God’s unconditional love? You decide.)
Julian’s most famous saying, “…All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”, is still one of the most individually famous and oft-quoted lines in all of Christian theological writing. T.S. Eliot even co-opted it for the “Little Gidding” section of his religious poem “Four Quartets.” Although she was never formally beatified by the Catholic Church, Julian is still so beloved by Catholics and Anglicans that she is generally referred to as “Blessed Julian of Norwich” and pilgrims routinely visit the shrine on the site where her anchorage cell once stood.