Monday, 28 May 2018

Ruth Burrows and Dame Julian of Norwich

On Friday the 25th of May, Philip Harvey gave a paper on the Carmelite spiritual writer Ruth Burrows, as part of this year’s Carmelite Centre Symposium, ‘A Readers’ Festival of Spirituality’. The following is part 3 of the three-part paper.

The Carmel where Ruth Burrows lives with the other nuns is situated in Quidenham, a village in Norfolk, named in Domesday Book. According to legend, Quidenham is the burial place of the great British Celtic Iceni queen Boudica, or Boudicea, who fought the Roman occupation in the first century CE. This reminds us that for some people, modern means the departure of the Romans and the arrival of a basic English language in England.

Quidenham is 35 miles from Walsingham, the object of much medieval pilgrimage and the centre of Marian devotion in England, its shrine destroyed in 1538 during the dissolution of the monasteries. This reminds us that for very many people, modern means everything that happened after the Reformation, a default definition for many people. The restoration of Catholic orders, and raising up of Anglican orders, through the last one hundred plus years reminds us of their absence through the long modern period since the English Reformation. Ruth’s life has been part of that revival.

Quidenham is 24 miles from Norwich. Those of us familiar with Christian spiritual tradition may find it difficult to appreciate that knowledge of that city’s most famous writer is a very modern phenomenon. It is generally accepted that Dame Julian of Norwich is the first woman we know of to write a book in English, the Middle English of the late 14th century. Ruth Burrows through her life has an increasing understanding and love of Dame Julian, which shows itself in her own work. She joins many others of recent times, from the very famous like Thomas Merton, through to the completely anonymous, like you and me, who have come across Julian. I hesitate to make any comparisons between these two great expositors of the love of God; they live in different times and social milieus. Ruth is not an anchoress. Julian does not lead a religious community. The fact that they are virtually neighbours, however, is something we can remark on, and they have in common some profound abiding interests. It is in this context that I now quote a handful of Ruth’s own uses of Julian, treating in this case modern in it’s most catholic meaning: wherever we find ourselves just now in time and space, “the intersection of the timeless with time.”     

In her book ‘Living in Mystery’, Ruth writes that “Faith itself is a mystery.” (LM 31) She asks, “Can God have favourites? A god who gives gifts to some but arbitrarily denies them to others? This is not the Father of Jesus who, in Jesus, gives all there is to give. We would rightly deny our heart’s allegiance to such a god. In Jesus we are sure that all is always love and ordained to love: gifts given, gifts withheld. This too we leave to that Wisdom whose driving energy is to make every single one of us completely happy.”

It is here that she quotes Julian, saying “One hears in the voice of Julian of Norwich the ring of conviction when she says:

“Our soul is so preciously loved of him that is highest, that it passeth the knowledge of all creatures, for there is no creature that is made that may fully know how much, how sweetly and how tenderly that our Maker loveth us.” (LM31-32)

Ruth uses the same saying in her most recent book, ‘Love Unknown’.

“If only we really knew Jesus we would not be so concerned with putting on a good show and of how others see us. Instead of concealing our insecurities, fears, secret failings even from our selves, we would accept the reality that we are, tranquil in the certainty that our Lord looks on us with infinite compassion and love.

“It is so difficult for us to grasp the reality of the Incarnation: the truth that our great God, our holy Creator, has, so we may say, thrown off his robes of grandeur and run out in eagerness to meet us, to be with us where we are. There are promises of this in the Old Testament: ‘I will dwell in your midst,’ ‘Emmanuel’. It is simply too good to be true! It just can’t be true! But it is true. I know no other writer who has so conveyed to us the tender, incredible nearness of our Lord to us as Julian of Norwich: ‘He that is highest and mightiest, noblest and worthiest, is lowest and meekest, homeliest and most courteous.’” Whereat Ruth repeats the saying, though this time maybe it’s her own translation into modern English:

“For our soul is so preciously loved of him that is highest, that it overpasseth the knowing of all creatures: that is to say, there is no creature that is made that may fully know how much, how sweetly and how tenderly our Maker loveth us.” Then Ruth continues:

 “Many other exquisite expressions of the intimate quality of our Lover’s love for us could be cited. The title of her book could justifiably read: ‘Revelations of the Tenderness and Courtesy of Divine Love’. If we would constantly ponder on this nearness – not ask to feel it but to believe it – all our anxieties about our relationship with God would melt away. We would cease to fret because ‘I can’t pray’; ‘prayer doesn’t work for me’, and wail over similar experiences of our helplessness.” (LU 13-14)

Later in ‘Living in Mystery’, during discussion about prayer, Ruth comes back to Julian, saying “Julian of Norwich has a prayer that, I believe, is a perfect expression of a truly Christian understanding of God:

“God, of thy Goodness, give me thyself: for thou art enough to me, and I may nothing ask that is less that may be full worship to thee; and if I ask anything that is less, ever me wanteth, but only in thee have I all.”

Then Ruth offers her reading of this prayer. “Julian is saying in effect: ‘Give thyself to me not because I am looking, not because I have worked hard to do your will and have given up everything for your sake, but simply and solely because you are who you are, the God who is pure self-giving Love.’ What we are asking for is what does God desire with all the energy of his holy Self to give us and it is God who has made us understand that nothing less will ever satisfy our hearts.” (LM 98)

Similarly in ‘Love Unknown’, Ruth writes of that time when Julian was in great illness and contemplated the crucifix, the time that caused her to make her Showings, “It was precisely when she (Julian) was gazing at the suffering, bleeding head of Jesus crowned with thorns that suddenly, the Trinity filled her with utmost joy. ‘And so I understood’, she (Julian) writes, ‘it will be in heaven without end to all those who come there. For the Trinity is God: God is the Trinity; the Trinity is our Maker and Keeper, the Trinity is our everlasting joy and bliss, by our Lord Jesus Christ … for where Jesus appeareth, the blessed Trinity is understood, as to ‘my sight’” (LU 26-27)

This Showing of Julian’s comes in a medieval language of wonder, though it comes too out of an experience of great pain and struggle.  Nearby in this book, Ruth Burrows speaks in a more modern idiom about God in the Trinity.

“I learn three big things from what I understand of the blessed Trinity that are wholly relevant for the way we live. I see that it is a mystery of selflessness, a mutual self-giving: the Father, we are shown, gives all he is and has to the Son; the Son gives all he has and is to the Father. The Father is Father in begetting the Son; the Son is Son in being begotten; the Spirit is the mutual love of both. We are created in God’s image and I understand something of what love means, being ‘out of self’, given to others. I glimpse something of the Servant God whom I must try to be like. I see too something of the
meaning of communion: ‘That they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us.’ (John 17:21)” [LU 31-32]

Ruth says that it is as a people that God calls us to communion with him. She says “we delude ourselves if we think we can be Christians in isolation” and that “while recognizing the supreme necessity of community and the riches to be found therein, we do not deny the difficulties involved if we are to become, not just a group of people coming together, but a communion.” [LU 33]

In conclusion she says that God offers himself in total love to each one of us. She questions those who “think we must first save ourselves, perfect ourselves and then offer ourselves to Love. No! Only Love can save, purify, and cause us to expand and expand to receive more and more. This we learn from Jesus, for, as Julian of Norwich clearly perceived, where Jesus is there is the Trinity.” (LU 39]

Rowan Williams paid Ruth Burrows a high compliment in his introduction to the new edition (2008) of her autobiography by saying: “It is a history that has the effect of providing a definition of faith itself in terms of radical conversion to the perspective of the indwelling Christ.”  In this respect, we see here that Julian is doing the same in her Revelations of Divine Love.

[Conclusion: group reading of the Amen chapter from “Our Father’, (OF 63-64)]


Living in Mystery. London, Sheed & Ward, 1996 [LM]
Love Unknown. London, Continuum, 2011 [LU]
Our Father : meditations on the Lord’s Prayer. London, Darton, Longman & Todd, 1986 [OF]

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