Pope Benedict’s weekly General Audiences are a comprehensive introduction to the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), whom the Church loves, venerates, and invokes. The companionship of the saints is a precious grace for us who strain forward, ever falling, and ever seeking to rise (Alma Redemptoris Mater) in this vale of tears (Salve Regina). Dame Julian’s assurance that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” is a compelling invitation to abandon ourselves, without calculating, to the embrace of Divine Love.
The Saints of England
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am still remembering with great joy the journey I made to the United Kingdom last September. England is a land that has given birth to so many illustrious figures who with their testimony and their teaching have embellished the history of the Church. One of these, venerated both by the Catholic Church as well as the Anglican Communion, is the mystic Julian of Norwich, of whom I would like to speak this morning.
Saints in Times of Tribulation
The information we have on her life — not much — is taken primarily from the book in which this kind and pious woman gathered the content of her visions, titled “Revelations of Divine Love.” It is known that she lived from 1342 to about 1430, years of torment both for the Church, lacerated by the schism following the Pope’s return from Avignon to Rome, as well as for the people suffering the consequences of a long war between the kingdom of England and that of France. God, however, even in times of tribulation, does not cease to raise figures such as Julian of Norwich, to call men back to peace, love and joy.
Love is Our Lord’s Meaning
As she herself recounts, in May of 1373, probably on the 13th of that month, she was suddenly stricken by a very serious illness that in three days seemed to bring her to the point of death. When the priest who came to her bedside showed her the crucifix, Julian not only quickly recovered her health, but received 16 revelations that subsequently she reported in writing and commented in her book, “Revelations of Divine Love.” And it was in fact the Lord who, 15 years after these extraordinary events, revealed to her the meaning of those visions. “Do you wish to know what your Lord intended and to know the meaning of this revelation? Know well: Love is what he intended. Who reveals this to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? Out of love … So learn that love is our Lord’s meaning” (Julian of Norwich, Il Libro delle Rivelazioni, Chapter 86, Milan, 1997, p. 320).
The Compassionate Recluse
Inspired by divine love, Julian made a radical choice. Like one of the ancient hermits, she chose to live in a cell, which was near a church dedicated to St. Julian, in the city of Norwich, at the time a very important urban center, near London. Perhaps she took the name Julian precisely from that saint to whom the church was dedicated and next to which she lived for so many years, until her death. We might be surprised and even perplexed by this decision to live as a “recluse,” as this was called in her time. However, she was not alone in making this choice: During those centuries a considerable number of women opted for this kind of life, adopting rules elaborated purposefully for them, such as that composed by St. Aelred of Rievaulx. The anchorites or “recluses” dedicated themselves within their cells to prayer, meditation and study. In this way, they developed a very fine human and religious sensitivity, which made them venerated by the people. Men and women of every age and condition, in need of advice and comfort, sought them devotedly. Hence, it was not an individualistic choice; precisely with this closeness to the Lord, what matured in her also was the capacity to be a counselor to many, to help those who lived in difficulty in this life.
A Mother for Many
We know that Julian also received frequent visitors, as attested in the autobiography of another fervent Christian woman of her time, Margery Kempe, who went to Norwich in 1413 to receive suggestions on her spiritual life. This is why when Julian was alive she was called, as is written on the funeral monument that houses her remains, “Mother Julian.” She became a mother for many.
The women and men who withdraw to live in the company of God, precisely because of this decision, acquire a great sense of compassion for the sorrows and weaknesses of others. As friends of God, they have a wisdom that the world, from which they distance themselves, does not have. And with kindness, they share it with those who knock on their door. I am thinking, hence, with admiration and gratitude, of women’s and men’s cloistered monasteries that, today more than ever, are oases of peace and hope, precious treasures for the whole Church, especially in recalling the primacy of God and the importance of constant and intense prayer for the journey of faith.
Loved by God and Protected by His Providence
It was precisely in the solitude inhabited by God that Julian of Norwich composed the “Revelations of Divine Love,” of which we have two editions, a shorter one this is probably older, and a longer one. This book contains a message of optimism based on the certainty of being loved by God and of being protected by his Providence. In this book we read the following wonderful words: “I saw with absolute certainty … that God, even before creating us loved us, with a love that has never failed, and will never vanish. And in this love he did all his works, and in this love he disposed that all things should be useful for us, and in this love our life lasts for ever … In this love we have our beginning, and we see all this in God without end” (Il libro delle rivelazioni, chapter 86, p. 320).
The Tender Solicitude of God
The subject of divine love returns often in the visions of Julian of Norwich who, with a certain audacity, does not hesitate to compare it also to maternal love. This is one of the most characteristic messages of her mystical theology. Tenderness, solicitude and the gentleness of God’s goodness to us are so great that, to us pilgrims on earth, they evoke the love of a mother for her children. Indeed, at times the biblical prophets also used this language that recalls the tenderness, intensity and totality of the love of God, which manifests itself in creation and in the whole history of salvation and has its culmination in the incarnation of the Son. God, however, always surpasses every human love, as the prophet Isaiah says: “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even if these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15).
Surrender to Divine Love
Julian of Norwich understood the central message for the spiritual life: God is love and only when we open ourselves totally and with total trust to this love and allow it to become the sole guide of existence, is everything transfigured, true peace and true joy are found and one is able to spread this around.
From Evil, God Draws a Greater Good
I would like to stress another point. The Catechism of the Catholic Church takes up the words of Julian of Norwich when it gives the point of view of the Catholic faith on an issue that does not cease to constitute a provocation for all believers (cf. Nos. 304-314). If God is supremely good and wise, why does evil and the suffering of the innocent exist? Saints as well, precisely the saints, ask themselves this question. Enlightened by faith, they give us an answer that opens our heart to trust and hope: In the mysterious designs of Providence, even from evil, God draws a greater good, as Julian of Norwich writes: “I learned by the grace of God that I must remain firmly in the faith, and hence I must firmly and perfectly believe that all will end well” (Il libro delle rivelazioni, chapter 32, p. 173).
God’s Promises Are Greater Than Our Hopes
Yes, dear brothers and sisters, God’s promises are always greater than our hopes. If we entrust to God, to his immense love, the most pure and most profound desires of our heart, we will never be disappointed. “And all will be well,” “everything will be for the good”: This is the final message that Julian of Norwich transmits to us and that I also propose to you today. Thank you.