Friday, May 8, 2009

Julian of Norwich

Today is the Anglican Feast Day for St. Julian of Norwich. Julian lived in the 14th century at a time when the bubonic plague was rampant.

Julian saw illness and suffering in a way that many of the church leaders did not. She came to her insights by way of mystical experiences which she recorded in extensive writings.


Her major work was
Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love. Portions of this work are available, along with interesting commentary, in Karen Armstrong's Visions of God: Four Medieval Mystics and their Writings.

Julian's
Revelations is believed to be the first book written by a woman in the English language. And what a book it was! In this book, Julian describes a dramatic experience which brought her to the brink of death.

Even more surprising, perhaps, is what she learned from this experience: that Creation is fractal.


Well, Julian didn't use the word "fractal," of course, but what she describes is remarkably in accord with the
concept of self-similarity, the property that any part of the system is the same as the whole.

When she was about 30 years old, Julian became deathly ill and it was believed she might die. Her priest was called and Last Rites were administered, after which she fell into a trance and experienced fifteen consecutive visions which she interpreted as "showings" or explanations about the nature of God, Creation, sin, evil and suffering, among other things.


Julian recovered fully from this experience and lived another 40 years, during which time she wrote and taught about what she had seen that night.

She describes God coming to her and showing her how things really are:
"He showed me a tiny thing in the palm of my hand, the size of a hazelnut. I looked at this with the eye of my soul and thought, 'What is this?' And this is the answer that came to me:
It is all that is made."

This small object, the tiny nut, was to Julian an image of the entire created universe. She writes that she was shown this so that she would know that "every single thing owes its existence to the love of God."

Later, she had an even more astounding vision: "I saw God, as it were concentrated in a Point (I mean that I 'saw' it in my mind). In this vision I understood that he is in all things." But the insight went deeper: "I realized that in fact God does everything, however small it is."


This vision of the entire universe as a tiny nut created by God, followed by the realization that God is
in every particle of the universe is a paradox that is easier to understand if we think about it in terms of fractals.

Remember, a fractal is a system in which each part of that system is a copy of the whole. So in a fractal universe, every part of that universe is a copy of the whole. And if every part of the universe contains God, who created the universe, then the whole of the universe is God as well.


These are very heady ideas, but have been discovered over and over by mystics down through the ages. Buddhist sutras and Hindu scriptures have many examples of similar ideas. In later postings I will review some of these.


But today, on Julian's feast day, we celebrate the life of a young woman who had a profound experience of the nature of reality and then devoted the rest of her life to teaching the rest of us all about it.
Hail, Julian!

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