Julian of Norwich, The Showings: Uncovering the Face of the Feminine in Revelations of Divine Love

Julian of Norwich, The Showings: Uncovering the Face of the Feminine in Revelations of Divine Love

By Mirabai Starr reviewed by Peter Orvetti
Charlottesville, Va.: Hampton Roads, 2022. 225 pp., paper, $19.

Little is truly known about the fourteenth-century Christian mystic Julian of Norwich—including her name. She is called “Julian” because she lived in permanent seclusion as an anchoress in a cell attached to St. Julian’s Church in the medieval city of Norwich. There are no details about her life before age thirty, and she did not sign her writings. And yet, more than 600 years later, the woman called “Mother Julian” by her devotees is still an influential proselytizer of the Divine Feminine.

As Mirabai Starr writes in her introduction to this book, Julian prayed in her youth to bear witness to the Passion of Christ and also “to endure an illness serious enough to carry her to the brink of death but not beyond.” Coming of age in the era of the Black Plague, the young Julian had seen a lot of death. She “was familiar with suffering,” Starr writes. But she also saw severe illness as a means of transcendence, as seekers today might turn to a sweat lodge or hallucinogens to gaze into the next world without permanently crossing over.

Julian took ill at age thirty, and writes that she “was still young enough to be sad about dying” even though she had prayed for the infirmity. After four nights, she was given the last rites, with all those around her expecting her imminent death. Instead, she lingered for two more days. She writes that on this sixth night, her senses began to fade. She was convinced she was about to die when “suddenly all pain vanished” in an “abrupt transformation” that “was the work of the Divine.”

Over the course of the next day—May 8, 1373—Julian witnessed sixteen “Showings” of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, the conquering of the Devil, the Virgin Mary, a “heavenly banquet,” the unity of the Divine in the Christian Trinity, and more. Upon her recovery, she quickly wrote down what she had experienced, in a text known as the Short Text. Over the next two decades, Julian, living in total monastic seclusion, analyzed and expanded on her notes in a radically optimistic work of theology known as the Long Text.

Julian’s work was influential even in her own time, but the religious wars that befell Britain in the years after her death prevented the publication of the Long Text until nearly three centuries later. Her works remained obscure until 1901, when a manuscript housed in the British Museum was transcribed and published. Julian’s writings are the earliest surviving English texts by a woman.

Julian’s God is a god of pure love, “incapable of wrath.” She rejected the notion of sin, writing that sin “has no substance” and “cannot be detected at all except by the pain it causes.” She called God “the Mother,” whose pure love is meant to inspire us to live righteous lives. “This beautiful word ‘mother’ is so sweet and kind in itself that it cannot be attributed to anyone but God,” writes the woman called Mother herself.

In Julian’s theology—a solid example of the once strong tradition of the Divine Mother in Catholicism, which has its remnants in the modern veneration of Mary—“God the Mother” was herself part of the Trinity, one in being with the Christ. “God chose to become our Mother in all ways,” she writes, performing the duty of service and sacrifice.

Starr, a former instructor in world religions at the University of New Mexico at Taos, does a great service with this simple but elegant new transcription of Julian’s words. The short entries can be read as a devotional or as a prompt to contemplation. They are also a useful guide to the lay seeker on the Christian mystic path.

Peter Orvetti

Peter Orvetti is a political writer and former divinity student residing in Washington, D.C.