“A Renewed Appreciation
of God’s Love for his People”
A Review of
Julian of Norwich:
A Contemplative Biography.
By Amy Frykholm.
Reviewed by Mary Bowling.
Julian of Norwich:
A Contemplative Biography.
Paperback: Paraclete Press, 2010.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
Why a “contemplative biography” instead of just a biography? Maybe just a biography of Julian of Norwich isn’t enough. For one thing, so little of the actual person is known that to make a biography based only on the facts we have about Julian’s life would be a very short book indeed. It would also, if it contained only facts about this woman‘s life, be somewhat of a lie in itself. Julian never intended her writing to be about herself or to point back to her in any way. She didn’t seek fame or recognition — quite the opposite. She spent the last many years of her life secluded in an anchorage essentially dead to the world.
So why then any biography at all, if she was an unknown, and such a recluse as to be dead to the world? That we know almost nothing about her, is certainly as she wished, but we do know one thing. She received a series of revelations from God which she, despite many limitations, managed to write down in words and which became the first book written in the English language by a woman. It was a notable accomplishment, but not one that she sought.
All other areas of Julian’s life are more speculative, and so Amy Frykholm must use some deduction from Julian’s writings as well as general knowledge of life in the area during the Late Middle Ages to reconstruct a probable life for Julian. Frykholm assumes that Julian was neither of very high nor very low birth, that she did not go into a religious vocation early in life, but instead married and became a mother. She takes us on walks down the streets of Norwich with Julian. She takes us into the church, and into Julian’s home, explaining the sights, sounds, and smells, and explaining how Julian might have interpreted her surroundings. In this respect, it could be subtitled “An Assumed Biography.”
The real key of this biography, however, is the “contemplative.” Frykholm, it seems, has been extremely careful in making not the character nor person of Julian of Norwich the central idea in her book, but taking the ideas that drove Julian, and making them the drivers for her own book. The theme of Julian’s Revelations is love. They were asked for, were received, and recorded out of love. From the sixth chapter of her Revelation of Divine Love: “That is to say, there is no creature made that can know how much and how sweetly and how tenderly our Maker loveth us. Therefore we may, with his grace and his help, stand in ghostly beholding with everlasting marvelling in this high, overpassing, immeasurable love that our Lord hath toward us, of his goodness.”
The love that Julian speaks of can be understood as the gift of God, but also not understood apart from the many trials that she underwent. Beyond the “three gifts of God’s grace” that she asked for, and received (“The first was to have a mind of the Passion; the second was bodily sickness; the third was to have God’s gift, three wounds.”), Julian would have spent much of her life surrounded by immense suffering. She lived through two outbreaks of plague as well as famine and a severe reduction in the population of her hometown which may have left her childless and a widow. At any rate, the Pestilence was all around her, and would have colored her understanding of how God works in the world. Beyond the ubiquitousness of disease and death, a central theme of the medieval church was judgment, with Satan, Purgatory, and Hell being players in the everyday life of the people of the day. And so in life or in death, pain was never far away.
It is wonderful and remarkable, then, that Julian’s message for her “even Christians” is a message of love and comfort. In the showings she received, sin, so central in the thinking of her time, was defeated and was nothing at all. It is also remarkable that it should have been written at all, or shared. Julian said of herself that she was “a simple unlearned creature” as would have been normal for a woman of the time. It is unclear how she came by enough education to understand some of the ideas she writes about. Other obstacles for Julian would have been the prevailing belief that women should not be too learned, as well as English being an outlawed language for religious use.
In some ways, Frykholm’s biography mirrors Julian’s own writings. It is written very simply so as to be accessible to any who would wish to read it. It also continually looks at the everyday events of the story through the lens not only of the Church at the time, but through Julian’s visions of the Love of Christ. We are able to see some of the conflicts Julian might have seen between the operations of the Church and her revealed understanding of God. We are able to see some of Julian’s questions, and the answers she received to those questions. So the effect of this book, as Julian would have wanted, was a renewed appreciation of God’s love for his people. The secondary effect, maybe as Frykholm would have wanted; I went straight to the library after reading her book and borrowed a copy of The Revelations of Divine Love of Julian of Norwich.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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