Books For Understanding the Wisdom and Theology of Julian of Norwich

It’s no secret to anyone who reads this blog that I consider Julian of Norwich to be one of, if not simply the, greatest of western Christian mystics.

I’m not alone in this assessment. Consider what Thomas Merton once wrote, in one of his legendary Cold War Letters:

Julian is without doubt one of the most wonderful of all Christian voices. She gets greater and greater in my eyes as I get older and whereas in the old days I used to be crazy about St. John of the Cross, I would not exchange him now for Julian if you gave me the world… I think that Julian of Norwich is with Newman the greatest English theologian.

I love this passage of Merton’s for many reasons, not the least of which is that he calls Julian a theologian. It’s a reminder that, at least within Christian thinking, a proper name for mysticism is actually mystical theology. Mysticism is not just an experience of God, it is a language of God (theology = “God-talk”) grounded in the Divine Mystery. To be a mystic, at least within the Christian tradition, is to be a theologian as well.

Because we often associate theology with academic discourse, and mysticism with monastic or devotional discourse, it’s easy to assume that mysticism and theology are two different things, perhaps even mutually exclusive. The great mystics of the past would not have recognized such a division — it’s a problem of how we see things in our day.

Back to Merton — and Julian. I’m reading a book right now on Julian’s theology of grace, and the author mentions the work of scholars, especially over the last thirty years, who have made the case that Julian needs to be recognized not just as a mystic, but also as a theologian. Many of the books she quotes by these Julian scholars are titles that I have found very helpful in my own study of Julian. Julian, like any other great mystical theologian, ought to be studied as a theologian in order to appreciate her voice as a mystic.

I thought it might be helpful for anyone who loves Julian to look at the following books, to guide you in understanding and appreciating not only her towering wisdom as a spiritual guide, but also the nuanced theology that this mediæval visionary expressed in her writing. Julian offers us strikingly bold and original ways of thinking about God, about humanity, and about theological topics such as salvation, grace, mercy, and contrition. Learning to see the faith journey through the eyes of Julian can make the experience of following Christ in our own day more rewarding and beautiful.

So check out the following books. The first list  gives you a selection of editions of Julian’s own writing, both in middle English and contemporary English translations — because there’s no substitute for getting to know Julian’s own voice. The second list is for getting to know Julian spiritually — a few introductory books about her, as well as a few spiritual commentaries and even a couple of novels and a play about her. The final list invites you deeper — into the world of Julian’s theology. Learn about Julian, and consider what her wisdom has to say to your life, to your adventure of responding to God’s love.

I. Getting to Know Julian of Norwich in Her Own Words

  1. Translations of Julian — like any translated text, there’s no one perfect version. Read different translations to get a more rounded feel for Julian’s voice — and better yet, also read her in her original Middle English.
    1. The Showings of Julian of Norwich — translated by Mirabai Starr
    2. Revelation of Love — translated by John Skinner
    3. Revelations of Divine Love — translated by Elizabeth Spearing
    4. Revelations of Divine Love — translated by Barry Windeatt
    5. Revelations of Divine Love — translated by Halcyon Backhouse and Rhona Pipe
    6.  Revelations of Divine Love (Paraclete Essentials) — translated by Fr. John-Julian, OJN
    7. The Revelation of Divine Love in Sixteen Showings — translated by M. L. del Mastro
    8. All Shall Be Well: A Modern Language Version of the Revelation of Julian of Norwich — translated by Ellyn Sanna
  2. Editions of Julian in Middle English — it’s not as hard as you might think it is. Julian is meant to be read slowly and prayerfully, so taking the time to encounter her in her own voice and truly make her words come alive.
    1. The Showings of Julian of Norwich — edited by Georgia Ronan Crampton
    2. The Writings of Julian of Norwich — edited by Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins
    3. Julian of Norwich: A Revelation of Love — edited by Marion Glasscoe
    4. A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich — edited by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh

II. Exploring the Spiritual Wisdom of Julian of Norwich

  1. Elizabeth Ruth Obbard, Introducing Julian: Woman of Norwich — Here’s a great book for meeting Julian for the first time. A basic overview of Julian’s life is followed by an assortment of well-chosen excerpts from Julian’s writings.
  2. Veronica Mary Rolf, An Explorer’s Guide to Julian of Norwich — Rolf is the author of an in-depth study of Julian (listed below), but this book is a wonderful beginner’s guide to the life, times, and writings of this mediæval spiritual guide.
  3. Sheila Upjohn, In Search of Julian of Norwich — This “spiritual detective story” by a journalist who lived not far from Julian’s shrine is an exploration of both Julian and the world she lived in: fourteenth century Norwich.
  4. Robert Fruehwirth, The Drawing of this Love: Growing in Faith with Julian of Norwich — an accessible exploration of Julian’s ideas and teachings in terms of her experience, her questions, and her counsel.
  5. Robert Llewelyn, With Pity Not With Blame: Contemplative Praying with Julian of Norwich and the Cloud of Unknowing — Llewelyn was for many years the chaplain at the Julian shrine; this accessible introduction to her writings is based on a number of retreat conferences he gave over the years.
  6. Kenneth Leech and Sr. Benedicta Ward, Julian Reconsidered — A small pamphlet offering some thoughts on how to understand Julian and her relevance for today, from two of England’s most respected 20th century spiritual writers.
  7. Veronica Mary Rolf, Julian’s Gospel — This 670-page tome may look intimidating, but it is an accessible, thought-provoking reconstruction of Julian’s life — exploring how this “unlettered” woman became so theologically sophisticated.
  8. Ambrose Tinsley, A Neighbour — Kind & Known: The Spirituality of Julian of Norwich — A devotional invitation to Julian from a Benedictine monk, who introduces us to Julian’s ideas thematically, linking her words to verses from scripture.
  9. J. Janda: Julian: A Play Based on the Life of Julian of Norwich — This one-woman play invites into Julian’s world, including her encounter with Margery Kempe. This was my introduction to Julian (I saw this play at the National Cathedral in 1984!)
  10. Mary Little, Julian’s Cat: An Imaginary History of a Cat of Destinity— We don’t know if Julian had a cat, but her rule of life permitted it. Evelyn Underhill adored cats, so why not Julian? A whimsical look at Julian through feline eyes.
  11. Amy Frykholm, Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography — a speculative glimpse into Julian’s world as she might have experienced it. Insightful and spiritual, this reads like a novel and can help make Julian come alive for you.
  12. Robert Waldron, Lady at the Window: The Lost Journal of Julian of Norwich — another bit of speculative fiction: imagine if Julian had left behind a journal of her final holy week. This novella offer a glimpse of what she might have said.

III. Exploring the Theology of Julian of Norwich

    1. Grace M. Jantzen, Julian of Norwich: Mystic and Theologian — This study by an acclaimed feminist philosopher of religion seeks both to understand Julian’s theology and consider how it remains relevant to seekers in our time.
    2. Joan M. Nuth, Wisdom’s Daughter: the Theology of Julian of Norwich — In approaching Julian of a theologian rather than just as a mystic, Nuth offers a systematic study of Julian’s thought, including the Biblical foundation of her work.
    3. Brant Pelphrey, Lo, How I Love Thee! Divine Love in Julian of Norwich — Julian’s theology, like her spirituality, is grounded in love. This detailed exploration of Julian’s theology of love opens up the heart of her message.
    4. Margaret A. Palliser, Christ, Our Mother of Mercy: Divine Mercy and Compassion in the Theology of the Showings of Julian of Norwich — Another key theme of Julian’s writings — mercy — is the focus of this study.
    5. Denise N. Baker, Julian of Norwich’s Showings: From Vision to Book — A study of Julian’s theology in her historical context as a mediæval woman, considering topics such as motherhood, theodicy and the doctrine of original sin.
    6. Christopher Abbot, Julian of Norwich: Autobiography and Theology — Theology does not exist in a vacuum; this book considers issues related to Julian as an autobiographical writer with no “official” authority or license to teach.
    7. Federick C. Bauerschmidt, Julian of Norwich and the Mystical Body Politic of Christ — A look at Julian’s theology in the light of her understanding of community and of the incarnation: the two sides of “the body of Christ.”
    8. Kerrie Hide, Gifted Origins to Graced Fulfillment: The Soteriology of Julian of Norwich — A study of Julian’s theology of salvation, situating her words in their historical context and considering their implications for our day.
    9. Denys Turner, Julian of Norwich, Theologian — Turner, himself a respected theologian, argues that Julian’s contribution to theology deserves to be seen on a par with that of her male contemporaries like Bernard and Aquinas.
    10. Philip Sheldrake, Julian of Norwich: “In God’s Sight” Her Theology in Context — A recent work which offers both a study of Julian in her mediæval context but also a detailed analysis of the key themes in her writing.
    11. Amy Laura Hall, Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich — A slender volume that explores Julian’s thought by unpacking one of her signature ideas: that of scorning the devil.
    12. Julia A. Lamm, God’s Kinde Love: Julian of Norwich’s Vernacular Theology of Grace — A detailed study of Julian’s understanding of grace, showing how she presents an alternative view to the prevailing ideas of her time.

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