Julian of Norwich’s theology of sin

Sin will be no shame: Julian of Norwich’s theology of sin

Gore, Michael

JULIAN OF NORWICH HAS CAPTURED the modern imagination. Although almost nothing is known concerning her personal life, the book that she wrote almost six hundred years ago has proven to be of immense benefit to swelling numbers of contemporary people. Julian tells us very little about herself. In her book, Revelations of Divine Love, also known simply as Showings, she provides scant information concerning her life prior to the events recounted in her book. She does not even tell us her name. Her anchorhold, or cell, was attached to St. Julian’s church in Norwich, England, and so it is due to her association with that church that she is known as Julian.1 She does tell us that she was about thirty and one-half years old when she received her visions on May 13, 1373. If this is the case, then she must have been born in 1342.

Julian lived as an anchoress, a sort of recluse confined to a small house or single room, often attached to the side of a local church. The term comes from the Greek anachoreo, to retire.2 As an anchoress, she chose to live a life set apart from the world and dedicated to a special vocation of prayer and devotion to God. The surrounding community, and the anchoress herself, considered her as dead to the world. She lived now for the sake of God alone. Her enclosure in the anchorhold required the permission of the local bishop. He performed an elaborate ceremony, including the Last Rites, and concluded by bolting the door from the outside. The anchorhold became Julian’s tomb.

Her Life

Julian’s life as an anchoress would have differed from that of a hermit or recluse. A hermit was more or less free to wander from place to place, while a recluse, on the other hand, spent her or his life completely secluded and separate from the world. Julian, under penalty of excommunication, remained in her cell until she died. But as Grace Jantzen points out in her book Julian of Norwich: Mystic and Theologian, Julian still served a purpose for those in the world outside:

It was, however, taken for granted, that their [anchoresses] prayers would include intercession for the town in which they lived, and that they would be available to offer counsel to those who came to the anchorhold seeking it. They might in one sense be “dead to the world,” but they were not to be useless towards it, and their usefulness entailed clearsighted awareness of its doings.3

Thus, Julian acted as a kind of counselor or spiritual advisor to her local community. Rich and poor alike sought her out for comfort and guidance.

Her life as anchoress would have been governed by some sort of rule, several of which existed. The most popular of these, and the one Julian probably followed, is the Ancrene Riwle. Written early in the thirteenth century, it provided detailed instructions concerning the life an anchoress should live.4 In accordance with the Ancrene Riwle, Julian’s anchorhold consisted of a suite of rooms. Within Julian’s room stood an oratory with a altar. Upon the altar, which was covered with a white cloth as a symbol of chastity, rested a crucifix. Food and clothing were very simple.

Generally, Julian would have eaten two meals a day between Easter and Holy Cross Day (September 14). During the rest of the year, she would have taken only one meal a day. A servant, who occupied one of the rooms, cooked, cleaned, and shopped for Julian. Julian would then have been released from these tasks to devote herself to prayer.

The Ancrene Riwle allowed Julian’s anchorhold three windows. One window looked into the church and through it she followed the service and received the Holy Sacrament. The second opened to the world outside and allowed access to those seeking counsel from Julian. The final window opened into the servant’s quarters, providing a means of communication and companionship. Many anchorholds also had small gardens in which the anchoress walked.

Julian lived in a time of social, political, and religious upheaval. The Black Death swept through Norwich at least three times during Julian’s lifetime. Some reports from the period indicate that half the population of Norwich died.5 The clergy were unable to cope with the large numbers of the dead. Cities such as Norwich suffered greater devastation from the Black Death than did others due to the high concentration of people and unsanitary living conditions. Concurrent with the Black Death was severe disease among cattle and several years of disastrous harvests. Events finally culminated in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. The city of Norwich saw its churches and monasteries looted.

The institution of the church was also in disarray. The Great Schism erupted in 1377, creating two rival popes, one in France and the other in Rome. In England, the preacher John Wyclif condemned the corruption of the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the church. Wyclif s translation of the Scriptures into English earned him the accusation of heresy. Wyclif’s followers, the Lollards, continued stirring up trouble. They believed, as had Wyclif, that religion should be made available to the people and so began to preach in the vernacular. The Lollards also expressed a deep devotion to the human nature of Jesus, a sentiment shared by Julian in her book. In 1397, the bishop of Norwich received permission to execute all Lollards captured. The Lollard’s Pit, where they were burned alive, was only half a mile from Julian’s cell. That, in the midst of such suffering and turmoil, Julian could have written a book of such profound hope and assurance in God’s mercy and goodwill is a testimony to the power and wisdom of her knowledge and insight.

Her Revelations

Julian’s book is an account of sixteen revelations from God she experienced at the age of thirty in “the year of our Lord one thousand three hundred and seventy-three, on the thirteenth day of May. The book has come down to us in two forms. The first is the “Short Text,” generally believed to have been written immediately following the occurrence of the revelations. Julian then spent the next twenty years reflecting and praying upon the visions before writing her final exposition regarding their meaning. This is the “Long Text,” probably written in 1393.7

A week before the revelations occurred, Julian fell ill. Her illness grew worse over the next three days and nights. Those with her feared she would soon die. On the fourth night, Julian’s mother called for a priest and Julian received the Last Rites of the church. For three more days she suffered, her pain ever increasing in intensity. On the morning of the seventh day, her mother again called for the priest. He arrived, bringing with him a crucifix. Setting the crucifix before Julian, he directed her to look upon it. As she gazed upon the crucifix, her visions occurred. In an age far removed from Julian’s time, her book is of increasing importance to people struggling to make sense of themselves and the world in which they live. Julian’s vision of her most “courteous” Lord is positive and holistic, while helping people to face without flinching the sin, evil, and brokenness of men and women. In the midst of a world falling apart, Julian gazed upon a crucifix and received a revelation of timeless significance and wonder.

At the heart of the revelations received by Julian are her insights into the nature of sin. Even sin, Julian sees, serves a purpose in the plan of the Lord. She discerns only part of the fullness of the purpose of sin; the other portion will remain closed until the end of the age. She struggled throughout the course of her visions, attempting to grasp the meaning of what the Lord presented to her. Only in the powerful vision of the parable of the Lord and the servant, however, does she resolve her inner uncertainty and conflict. The parable holds a great spiritual and psychological truth, but first it is necessary to review briefly some of the earlier facets of Julian’s understanding of sin.

Understanding of Sin

Nothing is more reprehensible than sin. As Julian sees it, sin

is so vile and so much to be hated that it can be compared with no pain which is not itself sin. And no more cruel hell than sin was revealed to me, for a loving soul hates no pain but sin; for everything is good except sin, and nothing is evil except sin.8

Brant Pelphrey points out that Julian viewed sin as a lack, or failure, of a person’s basic humanity. Sin is unnatural and harms both ourselves and other human beings. Sin acts as a kind of madness that cripples human nature, leading to anxiety and despair, which Julian identifies as the most significant illnesses brought into the world by sin.9 So the Lord showed her nothing good in sin. Sin causes all the pain and suffering that the human family endures and is the ground of all the sufferings of Christ. Julian, deeply moved by what she saw concerning the nature of sin, ponders, “I often wondered why, through the great prescient wisdom of God, the beginning of sin was not prevented.”10 This is, certainly, the greatest mystery of the human condition. If God is who God is claimed to be, why then was sin allowed? Why did God not foresee the falling away, and if the Fall was foreseen, why then did God allow it to happen? Jesus responds, telling Julian, “Sin is necessary, but all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.”” At the core of Julian’s vision lies this paradox: sin is foul and evil, and yet necessary; and the pain and suffering brought about by sin will all be made right.

In the third revelation, God is revealed as a part of, or having being in, all things. God also shows Julian that everything done by God is well done. All substance, all of finite creation, flows forth out of God; nothing exists apart from God. This astonishes Julian. She wonders what becomes of sin. She sees that God does everything and that everything God does is well done. In all that God does, sin does not appear. From this Julian concludes the following:

But I did not see sin, for I believe that it has no kind of substance, no share in being, nor can it be recognized except by the pain caused by it.”

Grace Jantzen comments that Julian is not saying sin does not exist.13 What Julian indicates is that sin is nothing. Every created thing, everything with substance, flows out from the Divine Creator. God is all goodness and truth. Sin cannot have been created by God, and thus sin has no substance. Julian does not dismiss the importance of sin, nor does she minimize the pain and destruction sin causes. She simply recognizes the status and place of sin in creation when compared to the place and status of God. Jantzen writes,

It is a denial of sin as an ultimate and irremediable fact of the world, a rejection of the notion that sin can never be overcome…. We are made in the divine image, and although that image is distorted, it is never erased.14

Sin, like a parasite, feeds off goodness. Sin would not exist, however, if the goodness it distorts and deforms did not exist. Furthermore, any creature not containing at least some degree of this goodness within it would cease to exist. Through uniting with the Christ, we overcome sin. Pelphrey writes, “We become what we ought to be by the continual working of Christ in ourselves, in the place where sin is.”15 So Julian is able to be optimistic about sin. She mocks the power that sin has over the lives of people:

Wretched sin, what are you? You are nothing. For I saw that God is in everything: I did not see you. And when I saw that God is in everything, I did not see you. And when I saw that God does everything that is done, the greater and the lesser, I did not see you. And when I saw our Lord Jesus Christ seated in our soul so honourably, and love and delight and rule and guard all that he made, I did not see you. And so I am certain that you are nothing.16

Sin Has No Final Shame

Julian then carries this insight even further. Sin is necessary, but for those who love God, sin has no final shame: “And God showed that sin will be no shame, but honour to man….”17 For each sin, according to Julian, there exists a corresponding pain. But suffering endured because of sin results, finally, in a corresponding joy and reward given by God to those who suffer. Sin ultimately loses its power to wound or destroy those who suffer its pain because of the reward given for enduring the suffering. Jantzen explains this in the following manner:

Julian is clear that the rewards will be so great that we will actually be glad we suffered. Just as Jesus rejoiced in his suffering, because it resulted in that which he greatly desired…. All the joys of heaven cannot justify previous pain and suffering unless those joys are in some way a direct result of the suffering, not just compensating rewards, but as intrinsically impossible without the pain.18

Julian uses as an example St. John of Beverly. God allows St. John, regardless of his devotion to God, to fall and suffer extreme pain, but she insists that the joy St. John experiences in heaven would never have been so great had he not fallen into sin in the first place. Our degree of joy is in proportion to our degree of suffering. The wounds effected by sin become badges of honor, as the wounds of Jesus became emblems of his love for us.

But how can this be so? Can it be possible that we sin grievously, over and over again, and yet God will turn this sin into honor and joy? Also, Julian has yet to answer why sin came to be in the first place. She prays to be given a fuller understanding into this enigma. She is then given a new vision: “And then our courteous Lord answered very mysteriously, by revealing a wonderful example of a lord who had a servant….”19

The Parable of the Lord and Servant

The parable does not appear in the Short Text of Julian’s book. Julian states that for almost twenty years following the night on which her revelations occurred, she pondered and searched out the meaning of the parable. Only after the meaning became clear, did she write the Long Text of her book. The parable of the lord and the servant reveals the manner in which sin came to be. It represents Julian’s symbolic understanding of the Fall, as recorded in the third chapter of Genesis.

A lord sits in state, while before him stands a servant, ready and eager to do the lord’s bidding. The lord sends the servant out to perform a task. The servant, rushing forth, intends to carry out his lord’s charge quickly and to the best of his ability, but calamity strikes. The servant, in his eagerness to serve, stumbles into a deep ditch. Injured and unable to escape, he mourns his unexpected circumstance.

Julian writes, “I understood that the servant who stood before [the lord] was shown for Adam … so as to make it understood how God regards all men and their falling.”20 So the servant represents Adam, who is intended to represent humanity. The great tragedy of the servant-Adam’s distress, as Julian saw it, was not the actual fall that had taken place. The servant, due to his falling, can no longer look upon the lord and see that the lord was with him still, aware of the pain he suffered. Jantzen explains:

The lord was very close to him, and full of compassion and consolation, but the servant was unable to turn his face to look at the lord; and instead of drawing hope and consolation… he concentrated on his misery and distress …. 21

Pelphrey indicates that Julian’s interpretation of the Fall contains none of the elements of the Fall as it is traditionally read. The servant-Adam runs with joy and gladness to serve his lord. His enthusiastic desire to serve causes him to fall. His desire to serve is not evil; it is a great good. His actions indicate no wish to disobey the lord. Also lacking is any indication of a moral guilt or any kind of expulsion from the Garden. But he fell, and, because of his falling, he cannot carry out the wishes of his lord. Julian sees the lord to be God. In the lord-God, she could discern no sense of blame. The lordGod looked upon the plight of his servant only with compassion and love.22

The servant’s inability to look upon his lord distorts reality. The servant, blinded to the nearness of the lord, also cannot perceive the lord’s continuing love for him. Equally, the servant no longer recognizes who he is in the sight of the lord. This, in turn, leads to a feeling of alienation and separation on the part of the servant. So, human beings find themselves alienated from their true selves, from other people, from the earth, and finally, most calamitously, from God. The servant’s desire to serve, his basic goodness, remains unchanged. He still bears God’s image and likeness, and that image and likeness is all good and holy. Because of the injury suffered from the fall, however, the servant can no longer recognize his own goodness. He is unable to see God’s love for him, and this interferes with his ability to obey God’s commands-but the lord-God knows the servant’s intentions and harbors him no ill will. Finally, the lord-God feels a sense of responsibility to reward the servant for the pain suffered in his fall. Julian says the servant, because of the fall, will receive “surpassing honour and endless bliss.”23

Julian has not yet finished. Now she sees that the servant is not only Adam, but also Jesus:

When Adam fell, God’s son fell; because of the true union which was made in heaven, God’s son could not be separated from Adam…. God’s son fell with Adam into the valley of the womb of the maiden who was the fairest daughter of Adam.24

It is for this reason that the servant has no blame. Jesus has been united with fallen humanity. Jesus, in his fall from heaven, fell into this place of sin but did no evil. When the lord-God looks upon the servant, God does not see the servant’s blindness and inability to obey. Rather, he beholds the obedience and love of Jesus. Pelphrey explains that “therefore [God] ‘judges’…with his ‘judgement’ of the Son, which is really his love.”25 As Julian expressed it,

For in all this our good Lord showed his own Son and Adam as only one man. The strength and goodness that we have is from Jesus Christ, the weakness and blindness that we have is from Adam, which two were shown in the servant.26

Julian’s Comprehension oF the Foil

Julian’s comprehension of the Fall is profoundly psychological. John Sanford, Episcopal priest and Jungian analyst, points out that the Genesis account of the Fall is essentially a story about wholeness: of how humanity, initially contained in a state of wholeness, fell from that original state-but the fall from wholeness had a purpose. Sanford believes that the traditional interpretation of God’s reaction to the Fall, surprise and shock at Adam and Eve’s deed, misrepresents the facts of the story. He thinks, as did Julian, that the Fall was necessary-sin was necessary-in order for humanity to grow.27

He contends that God intended that the Fall take place. God, ofter all, allowed the serpent to be in the garden, knowing it would tempt Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, and that they would give in to the temptation. Spiritual growth, according to Sanford, can take place only in a world in which true moral choice can occur. Adam and Eve, before the Fall, existed in a kind of unconscious condition, unaware of good and evil. Had the Fall not occurred, they would have remained “blissful moral idiots.” The Genesis account says that, after eating of the fruit, “then, the eyes of both of them were opened” (Gn 3:7). After eating the fruit, they became conscious of moral choice. Julian wrote that the reward given to humanity for suffering sin will be far greater and glorious than if humanity had never sinned at all. Although a painful process, the reward will be far greater because the choices are made consciously. Sanford writes,

Man’s destiny, then, is to undergo his spiritual and psychological evolution; to become what he is truly created to be. Man’s potential development lies far beyond what he was in the Garden of Eden.28

The theological doctrine that Adam and Eve’s Fall in the Garden caused some kind of irreparable breach in the relationship between God and humanity arose in the fourth century. As a doctrine, it saw its fullest explication in the writings of Augustine of Hippo. Before Augustine, the Fall was seen in a different light. Elaine Pagels explains:

That Adam’s sin brought suffering and death upon humankind most Christians.. would have taken for granted. But most… Christians would have also agreed that Adam left each of his offspring free to make his or her own choice of good and evil. The story of Adam, most Christians assumed, was intended to warn everyone who heard it not to misuse that divinely given capacity for free choice.29

Jesus Christ came, then, not to save humanity from some sort of irreparable moral guilt. In Julian’s visions, no original sin exists into which humans are born. Everyone has fallen short of the glory of God, but Julian believed this to be necessary. Sanford states, “Each one of us has had his or her personal fall from Paradise.”30 Everyone falls from Paradise, because in falling it becomes possible to experience the life that allows all humans the chance to be lifted beyond what they could ever have become had Paradise remained humanity’s home.

But humans are blinded, and in their falling are unable to recognize not only their Lord but their own true selves. So Jesus falls with all people, to share their pain. He accepts the blame for the sins they commit in their blindness and acts as a reminder and a guide both to whom the Lord is and what humanity has the potential to become. St. Clement of Alexandria, sharing this concept of Jesus and humanity, wrote, “The Logos of God has become a human being so that you might learn from a human being how a human being may become divine.”31 In a similar vein, St. Irenaeus wrote that “God became a human being in order that human beings might become God.”32

Julian’s revelation is both old and new-new, in the sense that it predated modern psychology and now finds confirmation in some psychologists’ writings; and old, in that it dates back to the earliest writings of the Christian era. Julian’s vision does not portray humanity as broken, vile, and guilty of every evil, while incapable of any good. St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote concerning the soul united to Jesus that

Preeminent among all is the fact that we are free from any necessity, and not in bondage to any power, but have decision in our own power as we please; for virtue is a voluntary thing, subject to no dominion. Whatever is the result of compulsion and force cannot be virtue.33

Julian would have agreed.

Freedom in Christ

Humanity remains free in Christ, free from every imposed restriction, free from compulsion and anyone else’s will. The wondrous reminder that Jesus brought humanity is that all people are part of the Divine Nature and should rejoice, for they participate in Divine Freedom. In this freedom, people will continue to rise and fall, but in this rising and falling they come to know and comprehend love, mercy, and compassion. God expresses compassion for all people and they, in turn, learn to express compassion for all God’s creation and for themselves. As Julian informed us,

And though we may be angry, and the contrariness which is in us be in tribulation, distress and woe, as we fall victims to our blindness and our evil propensities, still we are sure and safe by God’s merciful protection, so that we do not perish. But we are not blessedly safe, possessing our endless joy, until we are in peace and in love, that is to say wholly contented with God and with all his works and with all his judgments, and loving and content with ourselves and with our fellow Christians and with everything which God loves, as is pleasing to love. And God’s goodness does this in us.34

Julian of Norwich, who lived in a time remote and strange to the modern world, has nonetheless become for many modern people a symbol of hope. That hope does exist, that sin and evil can be overcome, is the essence of her message. God remains close to the human community, as close as the pain, suffering, and confusion that all its members experience. Julian, through her visions, demonstrates the concern and closeness of God, pleading with all those who share her faith in God to rest in the assurance that, finally, all shall be well.


1. Brant Pelphrey, Love Was His Meaning: The Theology and Mysticism of Julian of Norwich (Salzburg, Austria: Institut Fur Anglistik Und Americanistik Universitat Salzburg, 1982), p. 9.

2. Pelphrey, Love Was His Meaning, p. 10.

3. Grace M. Jantzen, Julian of Norwich: Mystic and Theologian (New York: Paulist Press, 1988), p. 29.

4. Ibid., p. 30.

5. Michael Mclean, Who Was Julian o Nforwich? A Beginner’s Guide(Norwich, England:

Julian Shrine Publications, 1984), p. 3.

6. Julian of Norwich, Showings, Translated by Edmund Colledge andJames Walsh (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), p. 177.

7. Jantzen, Mystic and Theologian, p. 20.

8. Julian of Norwich, Showings, p. 247.

9. Pelphrey, Love Was His Meaning, pp. 158-161.

10. Julian of Norwich, Showings, p. 224.

11. Ibid., p. 225.

12. Ibid.

13. Jantzen, Mystic and Theologian, p. 181.

14. Ibid.

15. Pelphrey, Love Was His Meaning, p. 157.

16. Julian of Norwich, Showings, p. 166.

17. Ibid., p. 242.

18. Jantzen, Mystic and Theologian, p. 186.

19. Julian of Norwich, Showings, p. 267.

20. Ibid., p. 270.

21. Ibid., p. 268.

22. Pelphrey, Love Was His Meaning, p. 310.

23. Julian of Norwich, Showings, p. 269.

24. Ibid., pp. 274-275.

25. Pelphrey, Love Was His Meaning, p. 311.

26. Julian of Norwich, Showings, p. 275.

27. John A. Sanford, The Man Who Wrestled

With God (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), p. 133.

28. Ibid., p. 118.

29. Elaine Pagels,The Politics of Paradise,” The New York Review, May 12, 1988, p. 32.

30. Sanford, The Man Who Wrestled, p. 118.

31. Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus through the Centuries (New York: Perennial Library, Harper & Row, 1987), p. 68.

32. Matthew Fox, The Comingof the Cosmic Christ (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), p. 109.

33. Pagels, “Politics,” p. 28.

34. Julian of Norwich, Showings, pp. 264-65.

Michael Gore is employed at a continuum of care facility that offers independent living, assisted living, and skilled nursing care. He works in the unit for those residents with memory impairment. He is married and has three children. He has had a lifelong interest in spirituality and writes in his spare time.

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