In the very First Revelation, Christ brings “our lady Saint Mary” to Julian’s understanding. She does not see Mary in the flesh as she does Christ, but “ghostly, in bodily likeness.” This implies that Julian saw Mary appear suddenly and distinctly in her imagination, without any effort on Julian’s part to conjure her. Mary appeared as a young girl, not much older than a child, small and meek and in the position of prayer that she had taken at the time of her conception of the Savior. (It was a common medieval belief that at the annunciation, Mary was fifteen years old.) Julian was granted a glimpse into the beauty of Mary’s soul and the holy awe in which she contemplated God:
Also God showed me in part the wisdom and truth of her soul, wherein I understood the reverent beholding in which she beheld her God, that is, her maker, marveling with great reverence that he would be born of her who was a simple creature of his making. For this was her marveling: that he who was her maker would be born of her who was made. And this wisdom and truth, knowing the greatness of her maker and the littleness of herself that is made, made her say so meekly to Gabriel: “Lo me here, God’s handmaiden.”
In this meditation, Julian is keenly aware that Mary is, like herself, “a simple creature,” uneducated, and without any earthly nobility. Yet Julian understands truly that Mary is more worthy than all other creatures God has made, because she was conceived without sin. All other creatures are therefore below her. And above her is “nothing that is made but the blessed manhood of Christ, as to my sight."
In the Eighth Revelation, during her visionary experiences of Christ’s languishing on the cross, instinctively, Julian identifies with the suffering of Mary. Julian knows from her own experience that when a child suffers, the mother suffers:
For Christ and she were so oned [united] in love that the greatness of her love was the cause of the magnitude of her pain. For in this I saw the essence of natural love, increased by grace, that his creatures have for him, which natural love was most fulsomely shown in his sweet mother, overpassing [all others]. For as much as she loved him more than all others, her pain surpassed all others. For ever the higher, the mightier, the sweeter that the love is, the more sorrow it is to the lover to see that body in pain that he loved. And so all his disciples and all his true lovers suffered pains more than their own bodily dying. For I am seker, by my own feeling, that the least of them loved him so far above themselves that it surpasses all that I can say.
No one who has ever loved and watched the loved one die can fail to identify with Julian’s words. What she describes is so very human, so touching in its expression, so easily understood. Mary loved Christ more than did anyone else on earth. He was her son, flesh of her flesh, love of her life. She was oned with him, both in body and in spirit. Hence, she suffered watching him suffer. And those who stood at the foot of the cross, Christ’s “true lovers,” also suffered more than those who were not there to see him die. Except for the disciple John, and possibly some men among those who “stood at a distance, watching these things” (Lk 23:49), the onlookers specifically recorded by the four evangelists as being present at the crucifixion were all women.
Then in the Eleventh Revelation, Julian is invited by Christ to see Mary:
And with this same expression of mirth and joy, our good lord looked down on the right side, and brought to my mind where our lady stood at the time of his passion, and said: “Wilt thou see her?” And in this sweet word, it was as if he had said: “I know well that thou wouldst see my blessed mother, for after myself she is the highest joy that I might shew thee, and the most pleasure and worship to me. And she is most desired to be seen of all my blessed creatures.”
Julian’s great devotion to Mary is apparent here, as her heart longs to see Christ’s mother at the foot of the cross. And Christ is well aware that Julian, like “all my blessed creatures,” longs to see her. Saint Mary was considered to be the most compassionate and powerful mediatrix between sinful human beings and her son. Julian would have sought her intercession in every crisis or moment of need.
And for the marvelous, high, and special love that he hath for this sweet maiden, his blessed mother, our lady Saint Mary, he showed her highly rejoicing, which is the meaning of this sweet word, as if he had said: “Wilt thou see how much I love her, that thou might rejoice with me in the love that I have in her and she in me?”
Now, in an imaginative vision, Julian sees Mary rejoicing in eternal bliss with her Son, delighting in his love and he in hers. She understands that the words the Lord spoke to her were intended “in love to all mankind that shall be saved, as it were all to one person.” It was as if he had said to Julian and to everyone: “Wilt thou see in her how thou art loved? For thy love I have made her so exalted, so noble, so worthy. And this pleases me, and I want it to please thee.” In the love Christ has for Mary, Julian recognizes how much Christ loves each and every human being. In fact, Christ has made Mary so highly glorified, honored, and worthy in order to be an inspiration for all women and men. He has raised her body into glory to be with his own. He has crowned her queen of heaven and earth. She gives the Lord the greatest worship and pleasure and he wants everyone to take great pleasure in her, too.
Even though Julian did not see Mary in a "bodily sight" (as she saw Christ on the cross), Julian was led to contemplate Mary in “the virtues of her blessed soul—her truth, her wisdom, her charity,” whereby Julian might learn to know herself better and more reverently fear and serve God. Julian is sure that Christ wills it to be known that everyone who “likes” (an even more intimate medieval form of the word “love”) and delights in him must also truly “like” Mary, with all the connotations of delighting in everything about her. Julian realizes that this very “liking,” this most familiar manner of loving, is the purest form of “bodily likeness” that she could possibly have experienced. Julian was deeply touched that Christ had confided to her his own love for Mary as a young maiden, as a suffering mother, and now, as an exalted and noble lady in heaven. In revealing to Julian his great love for Mary, by extension Christ was showing, in yet another way, his great love for Julian. And for each one of us.
Let us rejoice and give thanks, especially during this month of May, that we have in Mary a mother who shares our joys and hopes and who understands all our sufferings and fears . . . a mother who constantly reassures us that her Son has triumphed over sorrow and evil, and that he will make “all things well.” Mary is our own mother who intercedes in heaven and on earth for us at every moment of our lives.
NOTE: Excerpts above and translations from the Middle English are from my book, Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Orbis Books. 2013). Copyright © 2013 by Veronica Mary Rolf