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Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography
by Amy Frykholm
Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010
147 pages
Reviewed by Bud Katter

As spiritual directors, we look back in history to find best practices of walking with others on their spiritual journeys. Perhaps the first English record of a spiritual director offering spiritual guidance is that of Julian of Norwich companioning Margery Kempe from Julian’s anchorhold at Saint Julian’s Church in Norwich, England, UK. Through her book Revelation in Love, Julian has become, in Frykholm’s words, “a teacher of our times” (x). Frykholm’s carefully constructed Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography shows us how Julian lived and offered spiritual companionship; it is a must read for everyone interested in the history of spiritual direction. 

The seven centuries that have passed since Julian of Norwich became the first woman to write in English have not provided any more hard facts about her. Noted medieval historian Carole Hill notes that “women’s history nearly always has to be told through the cracks and fissures; in any given medieval document, women’s activities and lives are concealed.” Frykholm has, however, woven the few known facts into the historical records of daily life in the fourteenth century and created a very detailed story of Julian’s life in Norwich. 

Thus, Julian’s story begins at the age of twelve and continues through May 13, 1373, when she had her visions and almost died. She sought out an Austin friar to be her spiritual director (48) and gradually became her own scribe to record her visions, gathering the required quill pens, ink, and parchment (66). Her books then came forth freely, written first in a short untitled form and then in the more contemplative style, which exists today only in copies (probably made by Benedictine nuns). Frykholm describes the entire enclosure ceremony—how Julian processed from her house to a detached anchorhold on the grounds of the Norwich Cathedral (79).

Julian’s “fame as a good listener and kind counselor spread” (96), and after she had been thirty years in the anchorhold, Margery Kempe came for spiritual direction to discern if the visions Margery had received “contained deceit” (99). Julian silently died (107) and was buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard.
Frykholm’s research has revealed that the first recorded reading of Julian’s A Revelation of Love occurred in 1623 at Cambrai, France, by Augustine Baker, a Benedictine monk. The reading and study of Julian’s own recording of her visions has multiplied manyfold since then—evidenced in the selected bibliography and notes about other results of Frykholm’s extensive research at Norwich.

This biography tells a story of the physical elements surrounding Julian’s life, but even more interesting is the description of the feelings she probably had during her life in promoting love in her spiritual companionship. Spiritual directors who reflect on Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography will translate those feelings into their own lives, deepening the spirituality they bring to their own spiritual direction experiences and those they share with their spiritual directees. 

Bud Katter is a spiritual director and spiritual journaler in Cornelius, North Carolina, USA. He offers spiritual journaling workshops in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area. His service as a Stephen Ministry leader and online crisis counselor has allowed him to spiritually companion and guide many hurting persons.

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