Article: Book Review: Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic
By Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D.
Matthew Fox’s new book, Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic is educational in many ways. Not only is it a revelation about a female Christian mystic whose wisdom should be more widely known, but it is a window into the history of 14th century Europe, and the long-lasting effects the bubonic plague had on society and culture. This book could not be more timely.
Reverend Fox has been an ardent preservationist of the mystic streams of thought within Christianity throughout his long career. He has kept this esoteric philosophy front and center in popular discourse in a way that has served thinkers from all traditions. He wrote the first modern book about Hildegarde von Bingen, the 11th century Benedictine nun who founded her own abbey and infused the work there with the fruits of her visions, her poetry, and her prophesy.
Like Hildegarde’s contributions, Julian of Norwich’s work informed Christian thought in ways which have not always been fully acknowledged or appreciated by the church. Both women’s offerings receive the attention they deserve through Fox’s efforts. In spite of the fact that Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love is the earliest surviving book by a woman ever published, it is not widely read. Yet, her writings about her visionary experience and the ecstatic relationship with the Divine are still as profound, fresh and universal today as when they were written. We are lucky to have Fox point our attention to her reflections on her life and the times of plague through which she lived.
I am struck by the parallels with Buddhist philosophy that emerge in a very Christian way from Julian’s visions and writings. She writes extensively about compassion, which is also at the heart of Buddhist teachings. “Compassion protects, increases our sensitivity, gives life and heals,” she says. Within this context, she exhorts us to engage both the misery and the beauty of life, to resist looking away from either. She finds the middle way in a very Christian manner. For her, hewing close to God is the way through what she calls the via positiva and via negativa. By surrendering to God, she finds the middle way. She resolves other dualities in a similar manner when reconciling the hardships of her times, with a passionate engagement with the divine. “Whether rising or falling, we are always graciously enfolded in one love. In the sight of God, we do not fall and in our sight we do not stand. While both these perspectives are true, as I see it, the way God sees it is the highest truth.”
Fox translates and summarizes Julian’s instructions for dealing with the dark side of a pandemic in a clear and direct way in Seven Lessons for Thriving Spiritually in a Time of Pandemic. In sitting with these insights, I find clarity and purpose — qualities that are often in short supply during times like these. Fox’s distillation of Julian’s thought, her times, and her vision provide us with a context for our own experience. By bringing forward her gifts at this time, he shines a light to help us navigate through the difficult passage we are all experiencing.