Julian of Norwich: seen and unseen

Denys Turner's 'The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism' is a tour de force of interpretation, a challenging read that bears continuous fruit; and, places medieval mysticism in a context that properly allows it to speak out of its place across time in a way that, they, medieval mystics, would recognise. It makes people both stranger than they appear to modern eyes and more fruitful and challenging as a result.

So it was with expectation that I turned to his recent book on Julian of Norwich as theologian; that remarkable spiritual writer, the first women in the English vernacular to be so.

It is characteristically lucid and clear, and with much that is interesting to commend it, most especially his discussion of Julian's theology as a narrative of how the world is, just so and, more personally, on how thinking of ourselves as divided into parts, rather than woven out of competing desires, is usually unhelpful.

He defends Julian admirably from possible heterodoxies - indeed were she to be accused of heresy, Turner would have made a sterling advocate for her defence.

But the missing piece, the piece that would have granted an interesting text vitality, would have been an exploration of what this admirable clarification and defence is for. Julian is laid out as a skilled and compelling medieval theologian but that is not why she is read today. She is read as a compelling spiritual writer. What if anything is the connection between the two? And why should we read Julian as a compelling modern theologian? If we should?

There is no bridge (except of one's own speculation), not even a suggestive postscript. It is a disappointment.

One reason for reading her, I think, is one that Turner rather dismisses - she makes theology out of the contemplative regard for her visions. A contemplative regard that is both deeply felt and thought through (over probably twenty years between her short and long texts). The status of those visions Turner does not discuss except to say that modern theologians rarely have visions or dream dreams. It is a dismissive remark (and, as it happens, only partly true, possibly the greatest theologian of the last century, Hans urs von Balthasar, work was grounded in that of a visionary: Adrienne Von Speyer). Maybe we should pause to regret such a diminishment.

Vision matters, and the disciplined cultivation of vision is a neglected art within the Christian fold, leaving the field open to the unmediated paths of dry theological speculation or emotion charged fantasy.

Julian is an icon of the disciplined and felt imagination and as such an icon invaluable.


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