New Age Sensibilities Found in the Middle Ages.
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Mirabai Starr attempts to make relevant the words and visions of a medieval Catholic mystic to a modern spiritual society in her new translation of The Showings of Julian of Norwich.
Little is known about the woman who was known as Julian of Norwich; we know merely the identity she chooses to expose to us, an identity she would have considered of no consequence to the importance of her revelations. Even her name is derivative of the location where she famously cloistered herself, the church of St. Julian in Norwich, Norfolk, in the lowlands of East England.
The date of her birth is known to us only from her own writings in which she informs her audience that at roughly the age of 30 she became deathly ill. She recovered from her illness in May of 1373, placing her date of birth at the beginning of 1343, indicating that for the majority of Julian’s life she would have encountered the rigorous onset and horrors of the Black Death, whose first recorded case in England was in 1348 and within a year had spread island-wide.
The British population suffered intense hardship and, although estimates vary, it is presumed that the first outbreak of the plague wiped out about one third of the existing population; Norwich itself had been hit by three different bouts of the plague in Julian’s lifetime.
While Julian makes no mention of the plague in her writings she does reflect on the losses she has witnessed and it would be nearly impossible for her not to have been a personal witness to the horrors that surrounded her. The effects of the plague were not limited to loss of life. With the eradication of such large swaths of the population there was a shortage of labor combatted by the aristocracy with higher taxes and a greater degree of oppression for the poor, the landless and the laboring classes. With fewer people to tend the fields, crops wasted in the fields causing food shortages island-wide. Conditions were, to say the least, desperate for the average person.
Religious cohesion was also at its nadir in this period. Political strife between the French crown and the Pontiff caused the beginning of what became known as the Avignon Papacy in which the Pope relocated from Rome to Avignon France in 1309 where it remained for the next 67 years. Although the Pope returned to Rome in 1377, the Church split again and now two—-and at one point three—-supreme pontiffs claimed supremacy over the Catholic faithful, one ruling from Rome and the other from France. This rift was not healed until 1417.
This is the world in which Julian of Norwich lived and prayed. Is it any wonder that her view of God’s love may have been perceived as divergent from the doctrine of the Papacy?
In the midst of this social, economic, religious and spiritual turmoil, Julian of Norwich fell ill; it was an illness, she explains, she had begged God to grant her.
As a younger child she had prayed God grant her three wishes: participation in the Passion; a life-threatening illness, carrying her to the brink of death, but not beyond, so that, once recovered, purified by her sickness, she could live more fully for the sake of God alone; and to experience a three-fold wound of a humble heart, compassion, and an all-consuming longing for God.
Julian’s “shewings”, as she calls them, answered her prayers.
In Mirabai Starr’s The Showings of Julian of Norwich, a translation of the Middle English text of what Julian herself refers to as “a revelation of love,” the author has made a clear and conscious choice to draw Julian’s revelations and teachings out from under the confines of Catholic teaching, making it more accessible to people with a desire for spiritual awakening and understanding unrelated to Christian teachings.
She states this goal explicitly in her introduction:
“I want to make a place at Julian’s table for people of all faiths and none, without offending those of her own root tradition.”
With this goal in mind, she makes deliberate changes to the verbiage chosen by Julian so that references to “Christians” becomes “spiritual seekers”; “those who will be saved” becomes “all beings”; “The Church” becomes “our spiritual community”; “God” becomes “our Beloved” and other like-minded alterations.
Starr opens the introduction to her work by calling the reader into Julian’s mind at the moment of her sickness:
“You have been to the threshold of death and felt the breath of eternity on your eyelids. You don’t need the appointed intermediaries to tell you about the Holy One: you have had a direct encounter, and it has changed you.“
I’m captivated at this point.
Then she continues:
“When they speak about “God’s will” and tell you exactly how to interpret it, you stifle a chuckle and try to look pious.” (xiii)
With this statement I feel Starr’s interpretation of Julian’s text deviates from Julian’s religious intent. Julian was a devout Catholic woman, living a large portion of her life as an anchorite, and would not have laughed at the Church’s teachings, adopting a facade of insincere piety. She explicitly states:
“I try to conform to the teachings of my faith tradition and not deviate from them. I do hope, by the grace of God, that I kept the beliefs I held before these revelations close to me throughout the showings. I would not have presumed to say or do anything contrary to the teachings of the Church! And so, with this intention, I diligently contemplated my visions and never experienced anything I beheld as being in conflict with my religion.” (p24)
In this way Starr’s edition of Julian’s text is a translation in a very literal sense; not only does she change the language—-from Middle English to Modern English—-but she also changes the form, the condition, the nature and the context of Julian’s work. It is indeed a dramatic departure from the original.
Having said that, many of the revelations Julian experiences can be transposed into a modern more neutral idea of spiritualism.
Julian spent more than 20 years meditating on the visions she had in the throws of her illness and many of these interpretations are universal, beautiful and life affirming.
Most compelling, I believe, is her view of sin. Julian did not believe in a cruel or punishing God; to her, God was all compassion and joy, “there can be no wrath in God” (p34), an uncommon belief in an ear consumed with the idea that the Black Death was a sign of God’s disapproval and his way of punishing transgressors of his law.
With Julian’s view of God as an all loving, all compassionate Beloved, is it any surprise that Julian viewed sin, a heavy burden to the Catholic mind, as a thing of “no substance, not a particle of being, and cannot be detected at all except by the pain it causes” (p68)?
She believed that people sin not out of malicious intent, but only out of ignorance; sin can only be what God is not, and that in itself can only be a temporary situation since God is all things.
Julian found that pain in this world is not punishment; some people benefit from a range of emotions and the existence of pain allows God’s faithful to find inner peace. The human heart suffers so that it may know true bliss; pleasure is unknown without its opposite (p.52). It is the spiritual education that dissolves sin, not the act of penance. A belief system based around this idea of compassion and educations as the true eradicators of sin must have balked at the processions of flagellants who scourged themselves in hopes of seeking divine forgiveness.
Another image Julian develops throughout her text which may appeal to the modern spiritual reader is the concept of God the Mother, differentiated from the mother of God.
This is a fascinating departure from the beliefs of her contemporaries.
From the 11th through the 16th centuries the veneration of Mary, the mother of Christ was in vogue, so to speak, but this is not the mother to which Julian refers. She sees Christ himself as God the Mother in a seemingly literal sense.
Only a mother would give herself so completely to her children; only a mother’s bond with her child can demonstrate the nature of the bond between Christ and his followers; only a mother births as God created the universe and his believers.
Mirabai Starr has taken the showings Julian experienced in the moments of her enlightening and translated them from their origins in Catholic mysticism, from their groundings in the turmoil of the Church and society of Julian’s era, into a more generalized sense of spirituality.
While I believe it is impossible to say that the resulting work is true to Julian’s original text—removed as it is from the confines of the religion Julian knew, practiced and revered—it remains true to the spirit of the eternal love and forgiveness of Julian’s beneficent deity.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise