The Journalist and writer Philip Toynbee once wrote that books were his royal road to God. In his second volume of published Journals, End of a Journey, he regularly commented on his reading of Julian of Norwich's astonishing book Revelation of Divine Love. For much of that Journal Toynbee was journeying through illness, which eventually he discovered would be terminal. So his reading of Julian became an inner conversation about divine love, human suffering, and the dilemma of the benevolent purposes of God being at odds with much of the evidence of a broken world, and his own experience of foreshortened hopes. By the time the reader finishes Toynbee's Journal they know that he is approaching the end of his own journey. The tone has become resigned in a hopeful kind of way, as he holds on to the theological optimism and spiritual assurance of this 14th Century Anchoress, quoting phrases and sentences, and writing his own reflections, which sometimes sound like a gentle preaching to his own tremulous heart, oscillating between hope and sadness.
Last week there was a BBC4 documentary on Julian's Revelation: The Search for the Lost Manuscript of Julian of Norwich. It will be on Iplayer for a few weeks and is worth the watching. That said there's a fair amount of speculation and gap filling with precious little hard evidence, and far too much anachronism about Julian the proto feminist, or medieval suffragette! But that aside the programme provided a well narrated story of how Julian, a woman, wrote the first book by a woman, and in the English vernacular, and a book of theology, and a book of radical and dangerously novel theology by the standards of Medieval Catholicism. Julian lived in a dangerous age, and one which was fatally intolerant of theological novelty.
I was especially pleased to see that Grace Warrack got a good mention and justice was done to her role in bringing Julian's book into circulation. Grand daughter of a Wee Free minister, she spent weeks in the British Library copying out by hand the entire 17th Century manuscript, and the persuaded Methuen to publish it. The Manuscript she used, and her own notes provide much of the scaffolding for later translations and critical editions. Imagine - a strict Scottish Presbyterian, in London to resurrect a theological book, written by a 14th Century medieval Catholic mystic whose theology was a galaxy or two to the left of Scottish Presbyterian Calvinism and Medieval Catholic dogma.
I first read and wrote about Julian's Revelation in 1980 and since then have continued to read, study and teach the significance of a book that speaks into the darkest corners of existence words that radiate with hopeful trust and daring, risk-taking prayers. Her most famous line remains an inspiration which seems so unreal and contradicted by the realities of a world at once brutal and beautiful; but they are words that are defiant of the cynicism and despairing desperation of a world afraid of the very terrors human beings, God's creatures, create and bring on each other. "And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well...."
I have several copies of the Showings, or Revelation. I doubt a year goes by without further reading, and thinking through the theological conundrums Julian takes on - the meaning of Christ's death, the blessedness of creation, sin as nothing at all and yet as cause of divine suffering, God as mother, hell as an ambiguity and mystery on which no one should pontificate, the great eschatological act of God by which God's justice and love can and will be satisfied, beyond our knowing, perhaps even beyond our hoping for God is greater than even our wildest hopes.
T S Eliot brings Little Gidding, his fourth quartet, to a close with a climactic vision of Julian's hopefulness for a redeemed creation. He too is reticent, allergic to dogmatic certainties which dissolve mystery into doctrinal constraints, or worse, petrify living truth into static propositions:
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.