A Curious Saint
Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography
June 1, 2010
220 pp., $19.99
Not long ago, I was talking with a friend about why we teach the Christian classics. "It's like getting to sit down with our grandparents in the faith," I said. "When we're young, we think we're too busy to listen to Granny. But when she dies, we wish we'd taken the time to learn from her wisdom." My friend agreed. "But you do have to admit," she said, "a lot of what the saints wrote is pretty weird."
In Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography (Paraclete Press), Amy Frykholm doesn't ignore the tension between the saint we love and the odd character who worries us. Indeed, she makes this the entry point into her project. We are eager for affirmation, delighted by the all-embracing love of this medieval saint's most famous line, quoted in T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets: "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." But when we actually sit down to read Julian, she can seem pretty weird.
Consider this statement of her desires in A.D. 1373: "I wanted to have every kind of pain, bodily and spiritual, which I should have if I died, every fear and temptation from devils, and every other kind of pain except the departure of the spirit." Reading a line like this, I can't help think that if Julian were a member of my church, I would encourage her to see a counselor.
"For contemporary readers," Frykholm notes, "Julian's declaration that at a young age she 'desired a bodily sickness' coupled with her depictions of Christ bleeding on the cross are off-putting and impenetrable." Why does this woman whose counsel sounds gentle and wise seem so obsessed with suffering? Yet this is the same woman whose expansive vision of God's mercy we find so appealing.
My guess is that Frykholm does not flee from the apparent contradictions of Julian's faith because she has faced these tensions herself. A daughter of the church, Frykholm had her doubts about the assumptions of the evangelical world of her childhood. But Frykholm is not one to cut and run. For her, doubt seems always to seek understanding. (As a graduate student in literature, this disaffected evangelical wrote her dissertation on the Left Behind novels.) Here is an author willing to contemplate the messiness between what we say about God and what we do and say in real life. The result in Julian of Norwich is a sympathetic and realistic portrayal of a saint who, as it turns out, is both holy (that is, set apart) and as complicated as you and me.
Maybe the most imposing challenge for any biographer of Julian is that we know next to nothing about her actual life. The historical record is not merely thin; it's practically nonexistent. We have a few bequests in her honor on record at St. Julian's parish and a single account of a contemporary receiving counsel from the aged anchoress (a type of hermit devoted to contemplative prayer and living in a cell attached to a church). But other than that, all we have is the text Julian wrote—Revelations, as it is most often rendered. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has said that Julian's short book "may well be the most important work of Christian reflection in the English language." That its author was practically overlooked by the record keepers of her day tells us something about both their assumptions and her determination.
Given the absence of hard facts, the temptation in telling Julian's story could be to chronicle her message rather than her life. But Frykholm seems to intuit that this would be a betrayal of who Julian was. Frykholm opts, instead, to imagine Julian's life through eleven "windows"—events we know of either because Julian mentions them in her text or because they happened during the time she lived in Norwich, England. Through these windows, Frykholm helps us see the church that Julian would have known, smell the stench of the streets she walked, and feel the loss from a plague that killed most of Norwich in A.D.1349. Her "contemplative biography" is thus more imaginative nonfiction than year-by-year chronicle. Better said, it reads with the energy of a novel and the insight of a spiritual classic.