An Explorer's Guide to Julian of Norwich

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Veronica Mary Rolf
Explorer's Guides
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic Press
    , June
     2018.
     170 pages.
     $18.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780830850884.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In our time of growing anxiety over political strife, war, natural disaster, and fragmenting societies, Veronica Mary Rolf sees a resonance with the spiritual challenges faced by Julian of Norwich, who lived through plague, papal schism, the Hundred Year's War, and peasant revolts. The hope, faith, and courage that Julian evinces in her long and short text of “shewings” have been a source of strength for Rolf, who now seeks to make Julian available in this way to a wider audience.

Rolf's desire is to guide the lay reader through Julian's world, which begins in “Part One: Getting to Know Julian of Norwich.” Rolf presents various aspects about Julian's context, including what it would mean to be an even christian, the likely family scenario in which Julian lived, details about the challenges of living during a plague (down to the three forms of plague and their symptoms), and even the dimensions and architecture of Julian's anchorite cell. Rolf wants the prayerful reading of Julian's text to be vivified by Julian's historical reality. Rolf moves on to navigate the key components of Julian's text in “Part Two: Exploring the Revelations of Divine Love.” She exhibits large chunks of her translation of Julian's revelations and draws out key themes for the reader. Here, critical and historical reflection are  combined with direct spiritual guidance for the reader. Rolf then gives the reader deeper reflection upon Julian's spiritual and theological themes before finishing by offering a template for a spiritual retreat based on Julian’s texts.

This book is introductory, intended for the newcomer to Julian, and for those seeking growth in the life of faith through dialogue with a distant but relevant woman. However, this book is no mere sentimentality or trite “spiritual” writing, which one might be wary of in reading an introductory-level “explorers” guide; rather, this is Veronica Mary Rolf's short version of her longer scholarly work, condensed and simplified to guide the lay reader. The readership of this text will benefit from a confidence in Rolf's several years of study in preparation for her first book, Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Orbis Books, 2013). Overall, Rolf does a nice job of giving a basic and helpful level of detail, with pointers for those looking for deeper research. For instance, she explores the work of three contemporary scholars to defend the plausibility of her thesis that Julian was of little social status, living as a married lay woman with children before her time as an anchoress, rather than a Benedictine nun or an aristocrat woman.

Rolf brings the reader into some of the more complex components of Julian's theological reflection. Julian's claim that “sin is no deed” can be taken in several ways; indeed, the 21st-century reader is likely to hear Julian to be ignoring the reality of sin, or to be dismissing its power and effect in our world. Rolf keeps one ear to the reader and one ear to Julian by providing a basic introduction to Augustine's concept of “privation.” (Here again, Rolf points the reader to sections of her larger, scholarly reading of Julian.) The role of anthropomorphism in divine revelation is another place where the reader of an introductory “explorer's guide” might be tripped up. Julian's resolution of the role of God's “wroth” could be easily misunderstood apart from the brief introduction to anthropomorphism provided by Rolf.

The critical theological reader or historian might wonder if Julian comes imported too easily into our time in this explorer's guide. Is the 14th-century woman speaking as directly to the spiritual needs of our time as Rolf purports her to be? For instance, does Rolf's depiction of Julian's understanding of the relation and importance of “bodily” and “intellectual” visions draw the proper distance between our understanding of these things? Similarly, does the pervasive influence of William James's Varieties of Religious Experience cause us to read into Julian an understanding of “mystical experience” that would be foreign or excessive to a 14th-century anchorite? Though Rolf does engage the relation between “mystical” experience, “mystical theology,” and church doctrine, I found her reading of Julian's relation to the church falling somewhat short by not fully appreciating the complexity of this relationship. The reader seeking to fully understand Julian will want to explore this aspect further.

Nevertheless, for what Rolf has set out to do, namely, to guide the reader through the important elements of Julian's world and thought to bring to life this classic text for the lay reader, she has succeeded. The reader desiring to navigate Julian's text for the first time, to seek God's presence through it, and to engage the challenges and biggest questions of a life of faith will find in Rolf a knowledgeable, personable, inspiring, and faithful guide.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brian Dant is a graduate student in Theological Studies at Regent College.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Veronica Mary Rolf is an Independent Scholar of medieval studies, educated at Columbia University; an academic lecturer; a professional playwright; and a master teacher of dramatic arts in New York, London, Buenos Aires, and Berkeley. She is the author of the award-winning Julian's Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich.

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