Contextualizing Julian of Norwich’s Spiritual Genius

We are turning to the great Julian of Norwich, called “the first woman of English letters,” to meditate on her profound gifts of creation spirituality for our times.  But first we are putting her in an historical context which in many ways parallels our current coronavirus emergency since her lifetime spanned many invasions of the bubonic plague in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

“The Triumph of Death” Painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. In the collection of the Museo del Prado; on Wikimedia Commons.

Yesterday we considered how, due to the plague of Julian’s time, spirituality from the fourteenth century on became more and more privatized and more and more preoccupied with salvation and set humans and their religion apart from nature.  The fear of nature engendered by the plague and the subsequent disinterest in nature as a source of spiritual experience set religion up for its divorce from science in the early 17th century.

Icon of Julian of Norwich. Artist unknown; from HolySpiritArt

Because of the plague the creation spiritual vision of such people as Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, Mechtild of Magdeburg, and Meister Eckhart over the previous 150 years was practically abandoned in favor of Thomas a Kempis (“every time I enter creation I withdraw from God”) and other more introverted thinkers.  Julian clearly represents the last and the best of this lineage of creation spirituality mystics—even though she lived through a harrowing time of pandemic.

Jesus of Nazarus was steeped in creation centered spirituality because he was steeped in the Wisdom and prophetic traditions of Israel.  One scholar has said that Paul’s theology is not only of the Cosmic Christ but of a “metacosmic” Christ.  The Gospel of Thomas, written about the time of Paul’s letters, also declares a Cosmic Christ. Church fathers such as St. Irenaeus and the founders of Western monasticism, Saint Benedict and St Scholastica, and the Celtic tradition such as Scotus Erigena, also taught the creation spirituality tradition.

St. Augustine, author of the doctrine of original sin. Painting by Botticelli; photo by Sailko. On Wikimedia Commons.

But this tradition had already been profoundly compromised in the fourth century when Christianity took over the Roman Empire and sought to build an empire of its own when St Augustine pronounced his theory of “original sin” (which he linked to our sexuality).  Jesus would not have recognized such a concept since it is not Jewish.  The quest for a Christian empire and a theology of original sin were strikes number one and two against CS.

But the Bubonic plague delivered a third strike against CS and by the time Protestant reformers came along in the sixteenth century they were dripping with the anthropocentrism of Augustine’s preoccupation with personal salvation,  banishment of the Cosmic Christ, and fear of death.  The preoccupation with sin and redemption displaced the blessing of creation a la Genesis One as a starting point for Western religion.  The teachings of Genesis One–where the world is praised as “good” and “very good”–took back seat to fear and self pity. 

In this historical context we can begin to realize what a brave and fresh teacher Julian was and still is.

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

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.

Banner Image: Window blinds drawn, nature scenes on a screen: how we have distanced ourselves from the natural world. Photo by Denislav Popov on Unsplash

Queries for Contemplation

Do you sense a decisive detour in Christianity away from the attitude of love of the earth and a spirituality of awe and wonder for creation that occurred with the time of the Black Death?  What follows from that?  How does science assist us to return to a more earth-honoring spirituality?

Recommended Reading

Wrestling with the Prophets: Essays on Creation Spirituality and Everyday Life

In one of his foundational works, Fox engages with some of history’s greatest mystics, philosophers, and prophets in profound and hard-hitting essays on such varied topics as Eco-Spirituality, AIDS, homosexuality, spiritual feminism, environmental revolution, Native American spirituality, Christian mysticism, Art and Spirituality, Art as Meditation, Interfaith or Deep Ecumenism and more.

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7 thoughts on “Contextualizing Julian of Norwich’s Spiritual Genius”

  1. Avatar
    Vivian Franck

    Even though my father (especially) loved nature and the great outdoors (he was a game warden for ten years as a young man), he, as well as my mother, lived in such fear of committing sin and going against anything that the priests voiced in their biased sermons, that they became overly strict with us, teaching us to fear sin above all else even as very young children. Everything could become a sin!!

    And when at the age of seven, we were considered to be of the age of “reason,” and had to start going to confession, the nun teaching us read a whole list of sins that we could be guilty of, (including sexual sins, of course) and I, sensitive soul that I was, became totally fearful of sinning and of going to confession. From that time on, I HATED confession with a passion, and stopped going the minute I left the convent.

    It took many years of searching and inquiry for me to start seeing that this way of life was not what God intended for me; that he created me to be like him, joyful, peaceful and loving life without fear of his ever not loving me, and loving me “no matter what!”
    I am so very grateful for all he/ she has done to help me see the Light and Love in everyone and everything he/she has created, and keeps breathing Life into! Hallelujah!

    1. Gail Sofia Ransom

      Dear Vivian,
      Thank you for sharing the story of your relationship to the doctrine of original sin. I am sorry for the loss of joy and blessing in your childhood because of it. But the liberating concept of Original Blessing kept bubbling up for within your soul when you were our in nature with your father, in the confessional with the nuns, and on your life journey. What a blessing to be so loved to have that truth pursue you until you could recognize it and accept it.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team

  2. Avatar
    Vivian Franck

    I have to add something to the above: I was fortunate in finding teachers like Bruce Lipton, Gregg Braden, and the like, to really open my eyes to all the possibilities available for my inner growth , mentally, psychologically , spiritually and physically.

    I am devouring the Cosmic Christ, Matthew, slowly absorbing and returning to passages that ceaselessly continue to enlighten and re-educate me. I am eternally grateful for the part you’ve played in introducing me to the mystics. I LOVE THEM ALL! Thank you, Thank you, Thank you! Love and blessings.

    1. Gail Sofia Ransom

      Dear Vivian,
      Thank you for adding this into your story. Filling it out with the people who taught you makes the story all the more richer and relatable. We are all connected!
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team

  3. Avatar

    All ways good to here from you Vivian
    Thank you for your lovely sharing
    I am devouring the original blessing once again
    It’s great to have wonderful spiritual teachers
    Like Matthew fox etc
    Stay safe
    From bonnie scotland

  4. Avatar
    Thomas Ivan Dahlheimer

    Genesis 1:30 reads: “…and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food;” and it was so…” According to this scripture; when the creation was “good” or “very good” or pure… or before “Adam’s original sin” all of the animals were vegetarian.

    The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church says: “Jesus came to restore creation to the purity of its origins” (CCC, n. 2336). One Bible scripture (Romans 8:21) states that “the creation itself,” will be “delivered from its bondage to corruption”. In respect to what is prophesied to occur when the creation is “delivered from its bondage to corruption” or “restored to the purity of it origins,” Isaiah 65:25 says: The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox,…”

    According to these scriptures and the central dogma of the Roman Catholic Church, when the creation is “delivered from its bondage to corruption” or “restored to the purity of its origins” all of the animals will once again be vegetarian.

    The Roman Catholic Church’s vetted and canonized St. Basil the Great wrote: “…it is customary for vultures to feed on corpses, but since there were not yet [before Adam’s sin], corpses, nor yet their stench, so there was not yet such food for vultures. But all [beasts] followed the diet of swans and all grazed the meadows…none of the beasts were carnivores…such was the first creation [Gn 1:3], and such will be the restoration [RV. 21:1-4] after this.”

    Every human being on earth today is a Homo sapiens. We are Homo sapiens who originated in Africa between 200,000 – 300,000 years ago. If there had actually been a “Garden of Eden” where a single couple (“Adam and Eve”) lived, it would had to have been divinely created on earth HUNDREDS Of THOUSANDS of years ago in Africa, and HUNDREDS Of MILLIONS of years of animal evolution would have already taken place.

    Those hundreds of millions of years of animal evolution that occurred before we Homo sapiens came into existence were very corrupt. They were corrupted by a lot of animal deaths (making available many corpses for “vultures” to eat), sickening deadly deceases and devastating natural catastrophes. There were several mass extinctions of animals. Many vicious carnivorous animals existed. Every animal eventually died, often in a violent and cruel way. It was a brutal “survival of the fits” world then, as it still is today. The creation was never “good” or “very good,” as claimed in Genesis by the Old Testament “God” Jehovah, or “pure,” as claimed by the Roman Catholic Church.  

    1. Gail Sofia Ransom

      Dear Thomas,
      Thank you for this enlightening information about the traditional church interpretation of the garden of Eden and the life of the animal world before the arrival of our species. Could it be possible that those who composed the story of the Garden of Eden and passed it on until it became an oral tradition, were telling a story about the course of our souls and our relationship to nature more than about nature itself? Was the story trying to grapple with the reason for the brutal deaths that animals and humans inflict upon each other? We were humans supposed to use our capabilities, our consciousness, and our creativity to try to find a better way?Was it an attempt to explain why growing a vegan diet is so labor intensive and back breaking, and why giving birth, among many other life experiences, is so painful for women. (This origin story would have been before Lamaze breathing technique was taught When women were left to scream it out.

      Giving birth was painful enough, but the specter of imminent death or the death of the baby hovered in the air. And yet, none of the animals seem to have this pain when they gave birth. Is it the thought that we on this planet have broken the divine order of love and beauty? What Creation Spirituality offers is a way to accept the darker side of creation is the source of creativity and change. And Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and transformation reminded us that there is more to life in the flesh, and there is more than each of our individual lives. We are part of something larger which we constantly try to comprehend.

      Your description of the animal world preying upon each other is not lost on me. I am stunned by it actually. Do we have it right or are we doning this all wrong, or did we misstep when we first stepped out of the Garden of Vegan.?

      Thank you for writing.

      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team

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