Julian of Norwich: Creation Spirituality in a Time of Plague

We have meditated recently on the importance of return to Source in a time of crisis and upheaval and we have considered the role that music and nature and silence can play in taking us there.  We have also stressed the importance of calling on our ancestors who were mystics and prophets in their time for their wisdom.  Julian of Norwich certainly stands out as a wisdom teacher for her and our times.

Statue of Julian of Norwich, Norwich Cathedral, by David Holgate FSDC. Photo by rocketjohn on Wikimedia Commons

Julian’s entire life (1342- c.1415) spanned the terrifying “Black Death” plague of the late middle ages.  In her homeland of England it is estimated that one-third of the population was killed in the plague—and probably 2/3 of the clergy.  She lived through numerous “waves” of the pandemic beginning with the most deadly first strike that occurred when  Julian was seven years old.  This most severe first wave  struck the hardest from June 1348 to December 1349.  All the street cleaners in London died of the plague and in that city it is estimated that 33 to 50 % of the population died. 

The plague returned from 1361 to 1364; more waves struck from 1368 to 1371; 1373; 1390; 1405.  Julian’s vision which formed the basis of her book Showings occurred in 1373 when she was 30 years old.  The second and longer version of her book, she wrote during her fifty-first to fifty-sixth year.

One can say that the plague was raging almost her entire life, some times more fiercely than others. 

St Julian’s Church (James Sillett (1828)). Julian of Norwich was an anchoress; her cell, demolished centuries before, and since rebuilt as a chapel, was located around the other side of the church. Lithograph in Norfolk Museums Collections; on Wikimedia Commons.

This makes all the more remarkable her trust in creation and in the God of creation when she teaches such lessons as “all will be well; every manner of things will be well.” 

She does not share her theology of hope from a place of comfort or security or privilege but from within a moment in history that was just as confused and upended as our own. 

Of course in her day Europe lacked the science that we have today to know what the causes of the plague were and what (if any) remedies could be applied.  Thus, a lot of bad religion jumped into the fray blaming the plague on God punishing humans for their sins and many apocalyptic sects popped up to encourage flagellations and more to achieve atonement for one’s sins that would presumably end the plague.  This, needless to say, did not solve the problem at hand. 

“The Triumph of Death.” Fresco, c. 1446; artist unknown. From the book: From Pierluigi De Vecchi ed Elda Cerchiari, I tempi dell’arte, volume 2, Bompiani, Milano 1999, Galleria Regionale della Sicilia (Palermo). Wikimedia Commons. .

But the plague did have an enormous consequence on the history of western religion: In addition to killing 25 million people in Europe, it also, as Thomas Berry observes, practically killed the creation spirituality tradition in Western Christianity when it substituted fear for trust and set the human against nature and birthed an obsessive preoccupation with redemption over love of creation.  Clearly, we are still struggling with that loss of creation spirituality today.

See Matthew Fox, “Creation-Centered Spirituality from Hildegard of Bingen to Julian: Three Hundred Years of an Ecological Spirituality in the West,” in Matthew Fox, Wrestling with the Prophets, pp. 75-104.

See Matthew Fox, Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh, (North Atlantic Books edition, 2016), pp.163-166.

Banner Image: The people of Tournai bury victims of the Black Death. Miniature by Pierart dou Tielt illustrating the Tractatus quartus bu Gilles li Muisit (Tournai, c. 1353) ms. 13076 – 13077 fol. 24v. Wikimedia Commons.

Queries for Contemplation

What lessons do you draw from hearing of the context for Julian’s spiritual teachings?

What follows from Thomas Berry’s observation that the plague was heavily responsible for the loss of creation spirituality in Western religion including reformation theologies?

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2 thoughts on “Julian of Norwich: Creation Spirituality in a Time of Plague”

  1. Avatar
    Margaret Rose Hess

    Meditating on this morning’s lesson has helped me very much to feel more centered today. In the moment, it seems that all is not / are not well. But when the moment stretches 700 years and multiples of 700 back in time and henceforth, then it is clearer that as people say ‘this too shall pass’. And moment to moment it seems to me that I am in control of my destiny, even to the extent that (like folks from Julian’s time) psychological self-flagellation seems justified when things don’t go as planned. But ego doesn’t control my fate, or the outcome of my intentions, or the time or manner of my end. Likewise, humans can only learn from and work with nature; we do not control her. Will our species survive 700 or even 70 years hence? If we do it will be because we have placed our faith in the Source of All, rejoicing that “This is the day we have been given”, and confident that, in the bosom of the One who is too powerful to name, “all will be well; every manner of thing will be well”.

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