Julian of Norwich: In and Out of Space

If you’ve been reading this blog for more than five minutes, you’ll note that I tend not to write about secondary sources. I’m not looking at the best, most up-to-date scholarship on Calvin – I just read his Institutes. That was a conscious decision – I wanted to read the original work for itself, almost as a way of browsing through the history of the faith. Today’s a little different, though. I’ve been reading some of the mystics lately – we looked at Hildegard of Bingen last week – and in parallel, I’ve been reading Carmel Bendon Davis’s Mysticism and Space, a contemporary scholarly work about the treatment of space in some of the major Christian mystical works. I can’t keep the two streams apart any longer, friends: today we’re looking at Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love with a little help from Mysticism and Space.

  • The text: Revelations of Divine Love
  • The author: Julian of Norwich
  • Read it yourself: I’m using the Penguin Classics version, and there’s a Gutenberg over here.

We’ll start with Julian of Norwich. Firstly, common misconception if you’ve never heard of her before – Julian is a woman. She was an English anchorite living in the 14th century. Her religious vision, Revelations of Divine Love, is the earliest known example of a book written in English by a woman. The Revelations actually come in two forms – a shorter and longer text, the shorter being written immediately after her vision, and the longer a sort of revised version, written some decades later. I’ll be quoting from the shorter text for now, but both are focused on the the mystic visions that Julian received while suffering an illness that nearly took her life.

So there are two passages here that I’d like to juxtapose – and again, the idea of juxtaposing these scenes comes from Davis’s Mysticism and Space, which is fantastic. In the first passage, Julian sees the whole of creation as being the size of a nut:

“And in this vision he [God] showed me a little thing, the size of a hazel-nut, lying in the palm of my hand, and to my mind’s eye it was as round as any ball. I looked at it and thought, ‘What can this be?’ And the answer came to me, ‘It is all that is made.'”

Julian elaborates shortly afterwards that this vision stems from her perspective changing. When you recognise the immensity of an eternal God, creation seems tiny by comparison:

“[Creation] is vast and wide, fair and good, but it looked so small to me because I saw it in the presence of Him that is Maker of all things; to a soul that sees the Maker of all, all that is made seems very small.”

In the second passage, Julian describes another vision, where she sees her own soul:

“I saw my soul as large as if it were a kingdom; and from the properties that I saw in it, it seemed to me to be a glorious city. In the center of that city sits our Lord Jesu, true God and true man, glorious, highest Lord; and I saw him dressed imposingly in glory. He sits in the soul, in the very center, in peace and rest, and he rules and protects heaven and earth and all that is.”

There’s a really interesting toying with scale here. All of creation is reduced to the size of a hazelnut, and the soul is expanded to the size of a kingdom, or a city. And, bridging the two, we have God, conceptualized at two different scales. He towers over creation, immense and infinite, and yet He also resides inside our souls, as a king might reside in a palace. He is both the container and the contained. He reigns above all and He lives within us.

So Julian uses these different spatial metaphors to talk about our relationship with God. That’s fine – it’s probably not an unfamiliar set of ideas, right, we’ve probably heard these metaphors used before. But Davis’s point – and this is where it really goes to eleven – is that these metaphors speak to the nature of space, the nature of God, and our own nature as human beings. We are also both containers and contained – we hold God within ourselves, just as we are held within Him, as a part of the creation that He holds in His hands and that is shot through with His presence. And all of this interplay makes sense only with reference to Christ, who exists at the center of everything. Christ is God in the flesh, Creator entered into creation. He is the container existing within that which he contains. To use Julian’s imagery, he resides within us as the king of our souls, which are cities, and he stands over creation as if it were no more than a hazelnut. The sheer scope is dizzying – it sweeps from the personal to the cosmic. And it gives shape and meaning to our nature as human beings. We are both containers and contained because we are made in the image of God, who is best expressed in the person of Christ, the container entered into that which he contains. Our identity as human beings thus flows forth from the Incarnation. We were made in the image of that historical event, which echoes throughout creation from its beginning to its end. We are containers and contained, just as Christ contains all of creation and yet was also contained within it.

In all of this, space emerges as a theologically charged environment. Our embodiedness, our sense of being-in-place becomes a marker or trace of the way in which we are contained within the divine. Space wraps itself around us and through us; it extends beyond us and we move through it. Church architecture becomes a place where the fundamental nature of space is reaffirmed. Different churches have their own codes, their own ways of speaking, but they use spatial metaphors to relay the connections between us, the divine, and the space that we inhabit. In most cathedrals, the cruciform layout speaks to the cross. In Gothic churches, the high windows flood the interior with light, reminding us of the ways in which God gifts us His light. As spatial creatures, contained within God and containing God within ourselves, we manipulate the fabric of that which we are contained within to gesture towards that which contains us. And we enter in, and we worship.

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