Monday, September 26, 2011

Julian of Norwich

Denys Turner's 'The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism' is one of those works that transform your understanding of its subject matter by making the familiar productively strange.

He convincingly demonstrates that the category of 'mystical experience' as a discrete psychological happening, that is so wonderfully drawn by William James and adopted by much subsequent exploration, would have been alien to the medieval mind. For them mysticism was not a privileged set of experiences (over against other kinds of 'normal' experience) but a way of being towards the totality of reality: a transformation of the way of navigating all experience.

Mysticism is not a discrete form of theology relating to our interior, private spaces but a fully fledged way of approaching the totality of our understanding: public and private.

It is deep pleasure, therefore, that I discovered in Blackwells' bookshop. whilst browsing, that he has written a book on Julian of Norwich and one that sees her not as an explorer of 'spirituality' (though she is that) but as a fully fledged theologian grappling with a whole spectrum of ways of appropriating the truth.

I bought it forthwith!

I have always found that 'clutch' of disparate English mystical writers: Julian, Walter Hilton and the author of the Cloud of Unknowing deeply engaging. It is the blend of robust thought and modesty that is attractive: the lack of system (or alternatively complex categorized imagery). They are not, to be parochial about it, Spanish! Neither St Teresa of Avila nor St John of the Cross undoubted depth has ever charmed. I am probably inherently shallow (but if so I share my predicament with Thomas Merton who likewise declared a preference for the homeliness of the English fourteenth century mystics)!

I especially like the way in which they champion orthodoxy and then proceed to thoroughly undermine any straightforward understanding of it. Julian disguises her radical nature under protestations, skilfully deployed, of being a 'mere' woman.

Meanwhile, Hilton takes regular side-swipes at assorted 'heretics' whilst telling us that it is not what we hold true that essentially matters but the way in which our truth is held. Even if a certain statement is true if we use it to belittle or batter a brother, it becomes false. Any truth worthy of the title can only be wielded in love!


  1. This is too much. You seem to be in some sort of brilliant writing zone these days. This is so good. Perhaps I am just as shallow and hence like the way you describe and defend we anglo-shallows over against the depths of the Spanish. OMG as texters say. How could you dare say such things? You risk re-opening centuries of mystical warfare among the nations, the national characters, the old empires. The championing of orthodoxy with the immediate undermining of it--there again you demonstrate the immense appeal of the shallow. But if Merton is noisy shallow then Lax is the superior quiet shallow, or as he puts it so well in one poem, how one simply draws a straight line over and over until it beocmes a circle.

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  3. That is a beautiful image of Lax's!

    At times, I find myself wishing they were Irish or Belgian or something as it is a mite embarrassing, tainting my preference for this particular group with the characteristic 'English'!

    Yet they are precisely this in the way they disguise their depths of erudition and understanding in simple, almost apologetic forms.

    And you can imagine dropping by Julian's anchorage for a cup of tea and a slice of toast, her cat purring in your lap, in homely comfortableness. Going out for a pint with St John of the Cross???

    I love that phrasing of Walter Hilton's about the way you hold truth being an integral part of truth: any fundamentalism is dissolved in the necessity for love of neighbour.


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