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Michael Cherry
LITR 512
17 March 2008
"All Hot, Flowing Freely":
Mysticism, Intimacy, and Pain in Julian of Norwich's Showings

Really, she was not yet an anchoress. Dying of an unspecified illness (or so she, and those
close to her, believed), Julian of Norwich was probably bedridden at home when she beheld her
visions (Armstrong 174). But, knowing what we do of her work, it is hard to read the Showings
without characterizing her already as one departed from this world, the "real" world. Remote in
time, she becomes even remoter in mind, especially to 21st-century readers deeply immured within
the modern psyche, more fully walled off in a "scientific" humanistic (or post -humanistic)
Weltanschauung than Julian was within her cell (because she, at least, had windows of a sort)
(Macquarrie 146-147). Though as a mystic and later an anchoress she went somewhat beyond the
bounds of the Catholicism of her day, hers was a departure more of degree than of kind. The
problem in understanding her is not that she left behind our world; rather, it is that we have
departed from hers.
Not that mysticism is no longer possible or likely. The modern brain is not structured
differently from that enclosed in medieval skulls. The nervous system, and the body i n general, have
not changed. The laws of physics remain consistent. We remain bound by gravity, peering up at a
still-majestic sky. People still hunger, people hate; once in a while people love. And even those
whose ontology is entirely materialistic nevertheless sometimes feel a yearning for some sort of
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completion beyond their ordinary, everyday, mortal limitations. Perhaps, in a materialistic world, we
feel such yearning even more strongly. Perhaps it kills us.
What is harder to get at, and what is really important to get at, in Julian's writings is the
peculiar historical face that her Showings show to us. Mysticism is available to people in any time and
place, but why does Julian see the visions she does, with those details, with that emphasi s on
suffering and motherhood and the body?
Catholics still insist, formally, that theirs is the one true way, and that no other religion, or
even alternate sect of Chrisitianity (this means you, Lutherans!), offers a real path to salvation.
When regarding visions such as Julian's in this light, it is easy to reject her work outright; if one does
not believe in the literal truth of Jesus Christ, the Resurrection, the exclusivity of His salvific mojo,
and etc., then Catholic mysticism doesn't seem to have much to offer. However, other religions,
though equally if not more intensely mystical, are a bit more sophisticated on this point.
Contemporary Tibetan Buddhist teachers, for instance, when teaching modern Americans and
Europeans, make it clear that the symbols are not exclusive. Practioners of Tantric Buddhism are
taught to visualize certain "deities" for the sake of inner, psychospiritual transformation. But,
according to Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche, the transcendent reality they're aiming at is "by
nature limitless" (Sogyal 284). "For Christian practioners, the deities might take the form of Christ
or the Virgin Mary" because "the deities are understood as metaphors, which personalize and
capture the infinite energies and qualities of the wisdom mind" (284-285).
In this view, Julian's visions can be seen as legitimate even if one does not hold to the tenets
of the Catholic faith; one interprets the symbols to get past them to the deeper reality, whatever it is.
But the implication is also, obviously, that what one sees is very much determined by the culture in
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which the mystic lives. Tibetans see one kind of "deity," Christians see another; by extension,
Christians in one time and place see differently from those in another time and place.
"My priest had been summoned to be present at the end, and when he arrived, my eyes were
fixed and I could not speak. He held his crucifix before my face and said, 'I have brought you the
image of your Creator and Redeemer. Look upon it and take comfort!" Julian's entry into visionary
territory is thus triggered by the traditional symbol of Christ on the cross. We take for granted,
today, the connection between Christians and the crucifix. But this was not always so.
"For the first three hundred years of Christianity, there was practically no Christian art. . . . No one
had commissioned Jesus' portrait; indeed, it was several centuries before artists reached any
agreement on what Jesus had looked like. . . . Christianity spread across the Roman world in its first
few centuries unassisted by visual stimuli" (Loeverance 24). When Jesus was finally portrayed on the
walls of Roman catacombs, artists used used symbols such as "a fish, a vine, or a lamb" (Borchgrave
11). Sometimes he was painted and sculpted using the traditional visual trope of the shepherd (12).
If the cross was pictured at all, it was sneaked into other symbols—concealed, for instance,
"in the crosspiece of a ship's anchor, [an] emblem of hope" and also associated with the fish (Finaldi
10). Sometimes the first two Greek letters of Khristos, XP, were used as a sort of Jesus graffiti tag,
with the X turned sideways. The later Latin trigram IHS, for Ihsous (Jesus) and later Iesus Hominum
Salvator, was also rendered in such a way as to make the cross semi-conspicuous. "Early Christians
were reluctant to depict the gallows on which the common criminals were executed" (10). One
supposes their reluctance also had something to do with the gruesome death of Jesus himself, whose
agony was not yet the popular showstopper of later times. Waving a miniature "gallows" in the face
of a dying woman was not yet a spiritually efficacious act.
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Things would soon change. After Constantine's famous vision of a cross in the sky, the
cross became a symbol of power and victory, increasingly metonymical for the entire ecclesiactical
and imperial apparatus known as Christianity. By the late middle ages, the combination of
patriarchal and transcendent emphases initiated by Constantine, fomented by Augustine, and
perfected and perpetuated by a succession of popes, had clearly established the otherworldly, sin-
obsessed character of medieval Christianity. This is the cultural climate into which Julian and the
other female mystics of her time were born, and it is this matrix of theology and politics with which
they were forced to contend.
According to C.G. Jung, the unconscious mind tends to work in a compensatory manner,
bringing forth whatever the conscious mind has been doing its best to repress, so as t o achieve a
relative "wholeness." So, in a highly patriarchal culture which demands that people reject the body
and turn their conscious minds away from the physical world, it is inevitable that the unconscious
will demand just the opposite. Certainly, horrors such as the Black Plague were involved in the
medieval fascination with suffering and death, but almost-ceaseless war, frequent famine, and the
general hardship of everyday life were fairly constant features of life long before the Plague. Such
external events cannot by themselves account for the strange flowering of erotic, feminine, body-
oriented mysticism in the medieval period. If one prefers to shy away from Jung's hypothesis of the
collective unconscious, one must as least admit to something along the lines of the Zeitgeist. Nature,
the feminine, and the body were demanding some attention, and they were doing so via the very
Christian iconography and mythology that had been used to repress them.
If one had to put a name to the mood most characteristic of early Christianity, it would have
to be "astonishment." Something amazing and wonderful had happened, they believed, and now
everything was changed forever. The Gospels do not emphasize pain, nor do the other books of the
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New Testament. And yet the fetishization of suffering so common during the medieval period is so
familiar to us now as to seem "normal" Christianity (or, at least, Catholicism). The best word for the
mood of medieval Christianity is not a word at all; more of a low moan, combined perhaps with a
shriek, would be appropriate. The Italian artist Giovanni Cimabue was already portraying, in the late
13th century, an emaciated Christ with blood dripping out of his wounds (Borchgrave 29). A
hundred years later, Northern artists would make a small industry of gruesomely wretched dead
Christs on or just-removed-from the cross (76). Early 15th century painter Rogier van der Weyden
depicts Jesus' corpse in his mother's arms, a look of agony still etched upon his gaunt and bloodi ed
face. Later that century and early the next, Matthias Grünewald (himself influenced by the writings
of St. Bridget of Sweden) shows "Christ's body . . . torn and lacerated, every nerve taut as it is
stretched on the wood. Even the wood is strained and bends under its appalling weight" (96).
From the astonished joy of early Christianity, to this. What happened?
From the evidence of writers such as Julian, we must conclude that femininity and the body
could no longer simply be ignored. One could not, they well knew from actual spiritual practice,
simply choose to transcend the body. The world is not so easy to cast off. And, to be sure, some
people seem to have noticed that this soul-imprisoning corpse we walk around in does, occasionally,
have its good points. Whether or not it is true that women in general are closer to the body than
men, certainly these women mystics seemed to feel compelled to engage the body spiritually, which
wasn't easy in a medieval Catholic culture. And so Julian's spiritual life was quite a struggle.
Margaret Miles reminds us that though Julian "found metaphors of divine love in a mother's
continuous, intimate, and tender care for her infant, and in a tiny child's trusting dependence on its
mother," at the same time she "did not affirm human mothering, but contrasted human and divine
mothers" (Miles 192). Julian was trying to achieve union with God according to the body-averse
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teachings of her Church, the teachings she herself knew and held dear, but yet her own imaginat ion
insisted upon the primacy of mothering, which even as metaphor pitches us deeply into biological
space. The vessel that Julian tried to fill was that of orthodox patriarchal Catholicism, but she filled
that vessel with a powerful feminized mystical brew that could not help but challenge the orthodoxy.
Divine or otherwise, mothers bear us into life, not away from it.
We may find it strange that someone so devoted to the idea of divine love would also have
such a desire for pain. But her writings on Christ's suffering shed light on the entire medieval pain-
death complex. For Julian is clear, when explaining her wish to share in Christ's sufferings, that it is
not the suffering itself that she desires. "But despite all my true faith I desired a bodi ly sight,
through which I might have more knowledge of our Lord and saviour's bodily pains, and of the
compassion of our Lady and of all his true lovers . . . for I would have been one of them and have suffered
with them [italics mine]" (Julian 126). When her visions begin, she explains, "I wished that his pains
would be my pains. . . . I desired to suffer with him, living in my mortal body . . . . And at this,
suddenly I saw the red blood trickling down from under the crown, all hot, flowing freely and
copiously, a living stream, just as it seemed to me that it was at the time when the crown of thorns
was thrust down upon his blessed head" (129). This is not a love of gore for its own sake; rather, it
is gore in the service of intimacy. She wants to be closer not only to Christ, but also to Mary and the
other "lovers of Christ" who were present at his death.
This insistence upon the physical foundation of intimacy makes the later theological leap to
Christ-as-Mother much less shocking. In fact, it seems almost an inevitable progression of the
original Incarnation theme.
We can look back now and see this link between God, the soul, the body, and the mother, as
a clear bridge between the medieval world and what is sometimes referred to as the Renaissance.
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Though the term may be deemed obsolete upon by some young academic movers and shakers in
search of fame and tenure, it is useful for our purposes. The association with birth reminds us of
the brief celebration of the feminine that glimmered as the medieval period passsed into the next,
whatever you want to name it. Images such as Botticelli's Birth of Venus, radiant and joyous and
fleshly in a completely blood-and-agony-free way, show us the spiritual materialism, or material
spirituality, that might have been, a perfect blend of masculine and feminine. As we know, this
didn't last long. The spiritual celebration of the body led to another violent patriarchal repression
thereof, followed by the cynical materialistic exploitation thereof. The anger and dread towards the
body and the feminine, which lurk throughout Julian's writings like a shadow-presence, could not
themselves be transcended so easily. Her time turned out to be not so different from ours, after all.
Karen Armstrong posits that mysticism is a way for individuals to reinterpret orthodox
religion so as to discover its meaning for themselves; "it discovers a new richness that was there in
embryo waiting to be developed" (Armstrong xxiii). "In the West, where many people have lost the
will to create a faith for themselves and where many have fallen into despair, Julian's imaginative
approach to religion shows a possible way forward" (178). Though people disagree as to what
exactly religious symbols really point to, it seems that humans have a need to point at something
with them, to use them to engage the world. They satisfy a need that secular discourse does not.
As medieval Christians discovered of the body, religion cannot simply be cast away because one
chooses to do so. It seems to be built in to the psyche. We can use the symbols, or we can be used
by them. Julian attempted the former. Her writings are still poweful underneath their layers of
cultural difference. Whatever was in her is in us, if differently. Beneath our modern dress, we are
the same breed of animal: homo mysticus.

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Works Cited
Armstrong, Karen. Visions of God: Four Medieval Mystics and Their Writings. New York: Bantam, 1994.
De Borchgrave, Helen. A Journey Into Christian Art. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.
Julian of Norwich. Showings. Trans. Edmund Colledge and James Walsh. New York: Paulist Press,
1978.
Loverance, Rowena. Christian Art. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2007.
MacQuarrie, John. Two Worlds Are Ours: An Introduction to Christian Mysticism. Minneapolis: Fortress
Press, 2005.
Miles, Margaret R. The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.
Sogyal Rinpoche. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

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