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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 ...

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August 2010

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