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What do pandemics change? Confidence despite suffering in the era of the Black Death

What do pandemics change? Confidence despite suffering in the era of the Black Death

In the second guest blog of our series, Karen Kilby considers the reflections of Julian of Norwich.

Julian of Norwich is one of the most fascinating and enigmatic intellectual figures of the medieval period. We know next to nothing about her. We don’t even truly know what she was called: she lived the life of an anchorite in a room attached to the parish church of St Julian in the town of Norwich, and is remembered by the church’s name rather than her own. And yet unknown as she is, she is able to speak very directly to us, effortlessly establishing an intimate relationship across six centuries and more. Julian is hard to categorise: while she has often been packaged as a ‘female mystic’—she writes of her experiences, a series of visions she had when apparently on her deathbed around the age of 30—it has become increasingly clear that she draws on a profound knowledge of the intellectual traditions of Christianity, and is herself one of its greatest theologians. She crosses over and confuses all our categories.

I wasn’t much drawn to Julian until the needs of teaching forced me to read her, once a year, alongside my students. She had always seemed to me too nice, too easy; from the bits and pieces I heard quoted by her devotees, I thought she represented an overly sacharine, escapist version of Christianity. ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’- and Jesus is our mother: a sort of greeting-card version of liberal Christianity, with a few feminist proof texts thrown in for good measure. That was my not-very-well-informed impression, before I began to engage a little more seriously with her Revelations of Divine Love.

Julian was the first woman to write in English—or to put it more precisely, her Revelations is the earliest text we have in English that we know to have been written by a woman. She was born in 1343, and lived, we think, until 1416. This makes her a very slightly younger contemporary of Chaucer, born in 1340. And it means she lived during the period of the Black Death. The pandemic, which killed off somewhere between a third and a half the population of England, was at its peak when Julian was six, with a major secondary outbreak in her late teens.

Interestingly, whereas my first reaction to Julian, based on those most frequently quoted passages, was that it was all just too sweet, my students, who read the Revelations from the beginning, had the opposite reaction. There was for them too much gore, too much suffering, and they often gave up after a few chapters. Not only does Julian tell us some rather gruesome aspects of her vision of the suffering of Christ (‘the fair skin was very deeply broken… sharply slashed all over the dear body; the hot blood ran out so abundantly that no skin or wound could be seen, it seemed to be all blood’), but we learn that some years before these visions she had prayed to experience mortal illness, an illness so severe as to make her think she would die from it, and had also asked God for an awareness of the passion of Christ so intimate and intense that she could feel every bit as terrible about it as those who were there at the time. She wished she could have been there alongside Mary Magdalene and others, experiencing the bodily suffering of Jesus—she longed ‘to be one with them and to suffer with him’. The views of my students were neatly captured by one who had been a psychiatric nurse: ’nowadays she would be sectioned’.

I became fascinated by the pattern of dark and light in Julian’s text, by the way suffering seemed both close to the centre of her awareness, and, ultimately almost incidental to it. She presumes suffering is a major part of this life of ours—and not just what we might call innocent suffering, but above all the suffering which wrongdoing, which our entanglement in sin itself, entailed. And she struggles with it, intellectually, over the decades she spends enclosed in her room in Norwich, wrestling with her experience and its theological implications. It is clear from the Revelations that Julian is convinced God could have prevented it all—God could in particular have prevented sin, and all the misery it brings - and yet didn’t. Why not? Her text circles around the question, but it arrives at no answer.

Against the backdrop of the Black Death on the one hand, and against the background of Julian’s serious, ultimately unsuccessful intellectual struggle, I now find the elements of light in her thought somehow moving rather than sickly sweet. She sometimes depicts God as a remarkably humble and accessible medieval lord: he reigns in heaven as a courteous host, presiding over a feast while filling it with ‘joy and delight, himself gladdening and comforting his beloved friends … with a marvellous melody of endless love in his own fair, blessed face.’ She rejects the idea that God’s mercy involves a relenting in his anger towards the sinner, because she finds no anger in God, but only in human beings: ‘Though we feel vengeful, quarrelsome and contentious, yet we are all mercifully enclosed in the kindness of God and his gentleness’.* The notes of joy and hope, the extraordinary confidence that at the heart of reality there is a God in whom is no hint of anger or blame, but only this endlessly generous, kindly and courteous love—all this is actually more than a little shocking, coming as it does from the era of the Black Death, and from a mind suffering under its inability to deal with sin and solve the problem of evil.

I would not want to suggest that we need darkness to enjoy light, that suffering and death and misery are good because they allow us to savour life, health and happiness. That kind of a calculus, though one hears it often enough, seems deeply repellant. But there is still a particular significance about moments of light emerging from the darkness. The world we live in has an ample supply of the dark, of suffering and death and all that is wrong. Those whose confidence in the good, whose joy and hope, does not seem an evasion of this darkness but something arising in the midst of their struggle with it –these are the ones, I think we all sense, who are worth listening to.

You can read the other blogs in the 'What do pandemics change?' series here.


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*Quotes in this blog from Julian’s Revelations are taken from the Penguin Classics translation by Elizabeth Spearing. In the order in which they appear in the blog, they come from chapters 27, 2, 2, 16, 14 and 49 of the Long Text.

Image: Evelyn Simak and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Karen Kilby

Karen Kilby

Karen Kilby is the Bede Professor of Catholic Theology at the University of Durham. She studied Mathematics and Theology at Yale and Cambridge, and has also worked at the Universities of Nottingham, Birmingham and St Andrews. She has published books on Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar, and her God, Evil and the Limits of Theology is forthcoming this September with Bloomsbury.

Posted 22 July 2020

Coronavirus, History, What do pandemics change?

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