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Comforting Words from Julian of Norwich

Comfortable Words for Christ’s Lovers by Julian of Norwich

I’m really delighted to have discovered this shorter form of Julian of Norwich’s Shewings or Revelations of Divine Love. Only a single manuscript of this short form of the text has survived, and it was not published in a modern, printed edition until 1911, and has scarcely been reprinted since then. The Nova & Vetera edition will follow Dundas Harford’s 1911 edition closely, with minimal modern editorial intervention.

The Author

The author of this little book lived from the mid-fourteenth century into the beginning of the fifteenth in the city of Norwich, England. Because of her deep religious devotion, she spent most of her life as an anchoress, i.e., a woman who practiced a solitary and hidden life of devotion in a single room attached to a church (probably St. Julian’s Church). Her real name has been lost to history, as have most details of her life, but today she is known as Julian of Norwich, after the city and the patron saint of the church to which she was attached. She is sometimes called Lady Julian or Dame Julian because this title was customarily given to consecrated women monastics; although she lived a solitary life, not part of a religious community, she receives a similar recognition.

Julian’s intense devotion to Christ led her to pray fervently for a painful illness and death, so that she could share in the sufferings of Jesus on the Cross. At about the age of thirty, she found her desire granted: she suffered a terrible illness that brought her to the brink of death, at which point the priest preparing her for death showed her a crucifix to encourage her as she approached her end. At this point, she experienced the first of a series of intense and vivid experiences in which God revealed to her the meaning and purpose, not only of human suffering but of the very existence of the Created Order and the destiny of every human being. She understood that meaning and purpose to be summed up in a single word: Love.

Not long after her experiences, Julian had her recollection of them written down, to be shared with others so that they might be encouraged and inspired in their own sufferings. This short text is probably the same that will be reproduced here. Many years later, as the fruit of decades of reflection and meditation on her visions, Julian expanded the shorter account into the book now known as her Revelations of Divine Love. This is the book considered the earliest book written in English by a woman — at least, the earliest to survive to our time.

The Book

Nova & Vetera cover design

In 1901, a modern edition of the longer text, which has survived in four manuscripts, was prepared and published by Grace Warrack. The enthusiasm with which it was received by the reading public inspired the Rev. Dundas Harford in 1911 to bring out a corresponding edition of the shorter text, which has survived in a single early exemplar. Both versions update the English of the originals (which today we would call Middle English, difficult for many modern readers to make sense of). However, the intention was not to “translate” Julian into modern English, simply to make her original words understandable with as little editorial intervention as possible. Harford, for instance, was reluctant to “modernize” the original any more than absolutely necessary so or to burden the text with many footnotes so, in the case of words whose meaning has changed significantly over the centuries, he provided a glossary at the back of the book, which readers can consult if they find themselves stuck on a meaning. This glossary is retained in the Nova & Vetera edition.

The Title

The complete title of the Harford edition of the short text was Comfortable words for Christ’s lovers : being the visions and voices vouchsafed to Lady Julian, recluse at Norwich in 1373; the Nova & Vetera edition will be called simply Comfortable Words for Christ’s Lovers. But what are “comfortable words”? In one of Julian’s visions, she saw the blood of Christ’s wounds pour out of the crucifix and flood out onto her sickbed until it seemed it would overflow onto the floor — an image that will make many modern readers very “uncomfortable” indeed.

“Comfort,” in its root meaning (which is how it would have been understood in Julian’s day) means to strengthen. “Comfortable words,” then, are those which strengthen our resolve, encourage us to persevere, assure us that better things are ahead. This is how Julian understood her vision: it was God’s way of showing her that he would strengthen her in time of temptation:

With this sight of His blessed Passion, with the Godhead that I saw in mine understanding, I saw that this was strength enough for me yea, for all creatures living that should be safe against all the fiends of hell, and against all ghostly [i.e., spiritual] enemies.

Chapter 3, Comfortable Words for Christ’s Lovers

The title then, Comfortable Words for Christ’s Lovers, means “words of encouragement in time of trial for all who love Christ.” I’ve decided to retain this version of Harford’s title because it captures the flavor of the book, even while it sounds a bit mysterious — just mysterious enough, I hope, to make people want to learn more.

Editing and design are still ongoing as I write this, but the final cover should closely resemble the sample given above. Here’s a taste of the interior. Please let me know what you think!


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