Julian’s Cell: An Earthy Story of Julian of Norwich

  • Jack Heppner, Author
  • Retired Educator

Julian’s Cell: An Earthy Story of Julian of Norwich (2002), by Ralph Milton – A Book Review

I was first introduced to the world of Christian mystics by James Houston in a course he taught on prayer at Regent College in Vancouver in 1993. I could relate somewhat to the mystics he quoted regularly because I had been raised in a context of pietistic evangelicalism which understood and valued a “personal relationship with Jesus.” What struck me, though, was that the mystics Houston prized so highly had lived long before the pietism, in which I had my spiritual roots, had emerged on the scene.

I also took note that the Christian mystics Houston quoted, including Julian of Norwich, often represented a broader and deeper world of spirituality than I had experienced within a pietistic context. Needless to say, I was intrigued. But as they say, life got in the way of pursuing the writings of Christian mystics at that time. It is only in recent years, in the context of regularly reading Richard Rohr’s daily devotionals, and having more free time on my hands, that my quest to learn more about Christian mysticism has found some momentum.

So when Ruth brought home “Julian’s Cell” from the local MCC Thrift Store, I immediately determined to read it. What is unique about this book is that it is more than a summation of the writings of Julian of Norwich. Instead it is an historical novel, telling Julian’s story which also contains various quotations from her writings, which she refers to as “The Showings.”

Milton acknowledges that some aspects of this novel are fictional, but as all good historical novelists do, he paints a vivid picture of life and dynamics of the times in which Julian’s story takes place. He says that some details of her story are simply not available, but a lot can be inferred from what we do know about the times in which she lived and the various references in her writings to what is happening in her world. So, at least for me, the novel brings to life the story of a remarkable mystic living in the calamitous 14th century in a town called Norwich near England’s eastern shore. And further, it whetted my appetite to read more of Julian’s writings in the future.

After four years of research into various theories and hunches about the life of Julian of Norwich, Milton notes that, “My story of Julian is an amalgam of those many theories, though I have fleshed them out with dialogue and action…Those familiar with her writing will recognize many passages – many phrases and ideas – from her ‘Showings’ in the words I have her speak” (12).

We do know that Julian was born in 1342 and died somewhere around 1414 and that she spent about 40 years as an “anchorite” in a cell attached to Saint Julian’s Church in Norwich. This meant that she never left her cell, spent a lot of time in prayer and meditation, and listened and gave counsel to the thousands of people who came to her window during all those years.

Instead of outlining the story-line of Julian’s life according to this novel, I will instead highlight some of the insights she shares in the context of the story as it unfolds. One can’t help but note that many of her understandings did not line up well with the theology and practice of the Roman Catholic Church of the time, but Julian was bold in sharing what she was learning, nevertheless. And, strangely enough, I find many of her insights speaking into my life in 2020.

  • “God does not take the pain away from us, Mama. God takes ‘us’ away from the pain. That is why death is a gift – even the foul deaths of those we loved so dearly and died so horribly” (135).
  • “Your small friend, Alice, had his sins forgiven even before he finished doing them. God loves us, Alice. You, me, your friend, everybody. And God is just aching to have us know that” (149).
  • “One of the sisters said we have to live with the question before the answer is given” (153).
  • “Thomas, please – the bishop is going to fight other Christians. God calls us to love all creation. If we withdraw our love, if we go and kill others, then we have withdrawn our love from ‘all’ God’s creation” (164).
  • “You and I and everyone else are made of the same stuff that God is made of, and sometimes it is hard to see God except in the eyes of another human being” 177).
  • “Maybe sin has no substance, no reality of its own, but is a parasite that feeds on goodness” (185).
  • “Ah! Now I’ve got it!” Julian whispered. “The gift is meaningless if there is no danger, no struggle, no hardship involved. But humans have a hard time grasping this, so God becomes human. God took on human form in Christ. And in doing this, God showed us a nurturing, mothering side” (187).
  • “I have not said that God is a woman. Nor have I said that God is a man. You see, God isn’t a human being like you and me… Motherliness is part of the nature of God. Jesus cared for us the way a good mother cares for her children” (189).
  • “God doesn’t find our bodies to be vile… After all, our bodies were created by God. How then can God despise our bodies” (199)?
  • “When we die, we enter God’s mystery, Alice. It’s a mystery that has fed us, cared for us, sustained us whenever we went to drink of it” (219).
  • “I know that all shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of thing shall be well” (191).

Anyone interested in learning about and experiencing a deeper spirituality would do well to read this novel. As for me, I plan to get to know Julian better.