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The First English Female Writer and Mystic

Depiction at St Julian’s Church, Norwich.

Hope in the Midst of Evil

650 years ago on what would become Fatima Day on May 13, 1373, a very serious illness suddenly struck a thirty-year-old woman, “a simple creature, unletterde [sic]” in her own word, who would have aroused the question: “Did Catholic England ever contribute to the Church a more precious treasure than these Revelations of Mother Juliana [of Norwich].”[1]

Julian, who lived from 1342 until about 1430, ended up dying in those days. But suddenly, after the priest at her bedside showed her the Crucified One, Julian stopped suffering and had sixteen visions which then subsequently, choosing the life of an anchoress, she wrote down and commented on — as the first English woman writer — in her book, Revelations of Divine Love. They are “one of the most remarkable books of the Middle Ages. […] It contains visions and passages of such beauty as to rival the revelations of the Blessed Angela of Foligno.”[2]

Leaving aside the details, it can be said briefly that the first ten revelations refer to the Passion of Christ, the tenth belongs to the history of the devotion of the Sacred Heart,  the eleventh concerns the Virgin Mary, the twelfth God the creator, the fourteenth God master and sovereign, and the sixteenth God the Redeemer. The book ends with the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity

Speaking of this English mystic, Pope Benedict XVI recalled the Julian of Norwich’s words, cited by the Catechism of the Catholic Church in n. 313, in response to that question that even the Saints asked themselves: “If God is supremely good and wise, why do evil and the suffering of innocent exist? […]. Illumined by faith — continued the Holy Father —

they give an answer that opens our hearts to trust and hope: in the mysterious designs of Providence, God can draw a greater good even from evil, as Julian of Norwich wrote: ‘Here I was taught by the grace of God that I should steadfastly hold me in the Faith… and that… I should take my stand on and earnestly believe in… that all manner of thing shall be well.’ Yes, dear brothers and sisters, God’s promises are ever greater than our expectations. If we present to God, to his immense love, the purest and deepest desires of our heart, we shall never be disappointed. ‘And all will be well,’ ‘all manner of things shall be well.’[3]

Setting Her to Music

William Mathias († 1992) is one of the most important Welsh composers of his generation, with an essentially tonal style, influenced by composers such Bartók († 1945), Hindemith († 1963), Stravinskij († 1971), and Tippett († 1949). Author of orchestral music (including 3 symphonies and 12 concertos), chamber music and the opera The Servants, Op. 81, Mathias didn’t neglect liturgical music and received many commissions. As early as July 29, 1981, the day of the wedding of the Princes of Galles, Charles of England and Diana Spencer (for which he had written Let the People Praise Thee, O God, op. 87), there was a fruitful collaboration between Mathias and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. When the Friends of the Cathedral commissioned a piece from him, to be sung on June 30, 1987, in the presence of their patroness, the Queen Mother, Mathias conveniently chose a text from chapter 11 of Juliana of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, which includes the last few sentences of this distinguished English figure mentioned by Benedict XVI, which are also the motto of the Friends of the Cathedral.

The result was a quiet, reflective piece, with slowly changing harmonies: As Truly as God is Our Father, for choir and organ.

With a certain daring, the text says:

As truly as God is our Father, so just as truly is he our Mother. / In our Father, God Almighty, we have our being; / In our merciful Mother we are remade and restored. / Our fragmented lives are knit together. / And by giving and yielding ourselves, through grace, / To the Holy Spirit we are made whole. / It is I, the strength and goodness of Fatherhood. / It is I, the wisdom of Motherhood. / It is I, the light and grace of holy love. / It is I, the Trinity. / I am the sovereign goodness in all things. / It is I who teach you to love. / It is I who teach you to desire. / It is I who am the reward of all true desiring. / All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. Amen.

May “Dame Julian,” as is engraved on her funeral monument, and Mathias’ music teach us to find joy and to strive for true peace, despite the evils of our time.


[1] F. W. FABER, All for Jesus, London 1876, p. 162.

[2] J. B. DALGAIRNS, An Essay on the Spiritual Life of Medieval England, in W. HILTON, The Scale of Perfection, London 1901, pp. XVII-XVIII.

[3] BENEDICT XVI, General Audience, December 1, 2010.

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