Julian of Norwich was born at some point in the fourteenth century, probably in the 1340s. She became an anchoress, that is, someone withdrawing into individual consecrated retirement; as an anchoress, she spent almost her entire adult life in a cell in a church, from which she could see Mass, and she would interact with the rest of the world only through a little window, through which, perhaps, pilgrims would give food donations to supplement her little garden and ask her spiritual advice. Indeed, although we know very little about Julian's life, one of the things we do have on record is a pilgrim visiting her for spiritual advice: Margery Kempe visited her and later had it written in her own book about her spiritual life. Julian was a common name in the area, but the advice Kempe records is so thoroughly Julianesque that there is no doubt of its being authentic. Julian is remarkable in a number of ways. The Short Text of her work, Shewings [or Revelations] of Divine Love, may well be the earliest extant text by a woman writing in English. More importantly, however, she is perhaps the greatest theologian writing in English in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (a period which has quite a few theologians writing in English), and has good claim to being one of the most important theologians of any kind the same period, as well as one of the most important who has ever written in English.
Julian's theological career began with a prayer for mortification: she asked God to give her a year of suffering so that she might understand Christ's passion and suffering on the Cross. She became seriously ill, so seriously, in fact, that it was thought she was on her deathbed. Toward the end, beginning 8 May 1373, she had fifteen visions. She had a sudden recovery from her illness 13 May 1373, and she began putting her visions down in the text we know was the Short Text of the Revelations. It is mostly concerned with describing her experience and working out the immediate implications of it for the two questions, What is pain? and What is sin?
Were Julian only known through the Short Text, she would certainly be considered an important and perceptive mystic of the period. But her true claim to importance is the Long Text. After she had written the Short Text, she did not stop thinking about her experiences, but continued to think them through all her life, improving her interpretations of them and working out their implications more thoroughly. As she did so, she began to revise her Short Text, eventually giving us a work almost six times as long. Neither text seemed to have been widely read at the time, but their importance has increasingly been recognized since. The theology Julian develops in these two texts is thoroughly orthodox, but the orthodox themes Julian chooses to expand upon are very different from those that are usually discussed. Perhaps the most famous example is her discussion of the motherhood of Christ. This theme is not original to Julian; parts of it can be found in many theologian-saints prior to her. But it usually shows up as a secondary issue, as a side comment. Nobody ever worked it out as thoroughly and precisely as Julian does in the Revelations. Indeed, her text is still the primary locus for this theological theme; nobody has worked it out more fully and with more precision since. This, as I said, is the most famous example; but Julian's texts are full of instances in which she takes some genuine but minor orthodox theme or image that interacts with her visions in some way and draws out, with extraordinary balance and sobriety, its deepest implications.
What I would like to talk about here is another of Julian's intriguing developments and extensions of prior ideas, her interpretation of the Fall of Man and the doctrine of Original Sin. One of the major puzzles in Julian's original visions was that she kept not seeing sin. To some extent this was intelligible, since sin as such is not a thing at all, but a privation, a lack or a failing to have something, which, says Julian, is known only indirectly by the pain it causes. But Julian's visions went considerably beyond this. One of the major reasons Julian had asked for her year of suffering and her visions in the first place was so that she could better understand good and evil, so as to live a better life. But what Julian kept seeing in her visions suggested that God blamed no one for sin, that no one was guilty. This, she knew on the basis of Church doctrine, couldn't be true in the straightforward way, and thus she pressed this dilemma in prayer (c. 50):
If I take it thus that we be no sinners and not blameworthy, it seemeth as I should err and fail of knowing of this truth; and if it be so that we be sinners and blameworthy,—Good Lord, how may it then be that I cannot see this true thing in Thee, which art my God, my Maker, in whom I desire to see all truths?
In answer to this, she had another vision, the Parable of the Lord and the Servant (c. 51):
I saw two persons in bodily likeness: that is to say, a Lord and a Servant; and therewith God gave me spiritual understanding. The Lord sitteth stately in rest and in peace; the Servant standeth by afore his Lord reverently, ready to do his Lord’s will. The Lord looketh upon his Servant full lovingly and sweetly, and meekly he sendeth him to a certain place to do his will. The Servant not only he goeth, but suddenly he starteth, and runneth in great haste, for love to do his Lord’s will. And anon he falleth into a slade, and taketh full great hurt. And then he groaneth and moaneth and waileth and struggleth, but he neither may rise nor help himself by no manner of way.
It is quite clear from Julian's vision, however, that the Servant did no wrong: the problem was not that the Servant had failed the Lord in any way, but simply that down in the pit he could not see his Lord. He had fallen into the pit solely because he loved the Lord, and even in the pit he was completely blameless, and the Lord did not regard him as having failed at all. And because the Servant fell into the pit in an attempt to faithfully serve the Lord, the Lord considers how to reward him, far more than he would be rewarded if he had not fallen.
For obvious reasons, Julian's initial response to the vision was bafflement, since it seemed to be put forward as an answer, but how it could be such was utterly unclear -- it seemed simply to restate the problem. She did realize at the time, however, that while the fall of the Servant was in some way the Fall of Adam into sin, in the Servant she "saw many diverse properties that might in no manner of way be assigned to single Adam." Just short of twenty years after the vision, she had an internal prompting to pay much more attention to this fact, and to consider more carefully the finer details of her vision. This led her to a newer and more powerful interpretation of it. The Lord, of course, is God. The Servant is Adam. However, he is not some singular Adam, but the whole of the Adam: "that is to say, one man was shewed, that time, and his falling, to make it thereby understood how God beholdeth All-Man and his falling." He is Adam as Everyman. Nor is this some mere allegory, because, as Julian goes on to say, "For in the sight of God all man is one man, and one man is all man." Falling into the pit, All-Man is made feeble and can no longer behold his Lord, and thus suffers pain and lacks comfort. But although the Servant cannot see the Lord, the mercy and love of the Lord for the Servant has a regard for the Servant even in the pit; the merciful regard of God descends into hell with us, and sustains us in our trial. The task the Lord had given to the Servant was to retrieve excellent food for him, and to this end, the Servant had extraordinary labor to perform:
I beheld, thinking what manner of labour it might be that the Servant should do. And then I understood that he should do the greatest labour and hardest travail: that is, he should be a gardener, delve and dyke, toil and sweat, and turn the earth upside-down, and seek the deepness, and water the plants in time. And in this he should continue his travail and make sweet floods to run, and noble and plenteous fruits to spring, which he should bring afore the Lord to serve him therewith to his desire. And he should never turn again till he had prepared this food all ready as he knew that it pleased the Lord. And then he should take this food, with the drink in the food, and bear it full worshipfully afore the Lord. And all this time the Lord should sit in the same place, abiding his Servant whom he sent out.
In context, there is only one way to read the vision, then: the Servant is not just Adam but also the Second Person of the Trinity, who became Adam, "rightful Adam", that is, righteous or just Adam. The fall of Everyman into sin is a fall for the Son of God as well:
When Adam fell, God’s Son fell: because of the rightful oneing which had been made in heaven, God’s Son might not [be disparted] from Adam. (For by Adam I understand All-Man.) Adam fell from life to death, into the deep of this wretched world, and after that into hell: God’s Son fell with Adam, into the deep of the Maiden’s womb, who was the fairest daughter of Adam; and for this end: to excuse Adam from blame in heaven and in earth; and mightily He fetched him out of hell.
If the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, if the Son of God came into this world, He became Adam, for all of us human beings are Adam. We see here why the Fall of Adam is perceived as if it were blameless; for while we individually may sin and be blameworthy, All-Man or Adam, the whole Adam, did not sin and was not blameworthy, because the Son of God Himself was never blameworthy. He too is Adam, and because of it there is not just Adam fallen into sin, there is "rightful Adam", the true Servant who fell with us into the pit of mortality and pain so that All-Man, the corporate man, solidary humanity, might still be just and without blame. He becomes Adam, Head and Body, and we are rescued from the pit by being members of that Body, parts of Christ-as-Adam.
Thus the fall into sin is not the full Fall; the Fall is only complete when the Son of God falls into us, taking on our nature. But given that, the Fall of Adam is not so much a fall into death but a fall into mortality and suffering, and when we are rescued from the pit, we will not stand before God blameworthy, because we will stand before God as All-Man, as Adam, and not just Adam as we might have been, but Adam as we are in Christ.
In the meantime, we Christians are each of us a two-fold Adam, representing as we do both Adam in his fall into death and Adam the Servant who is risen. In a sense, we might say that there are two interpretations of All-Man, and each of us is Everyman in a mystery play, with the two interpretations at war within us (c. 52):
And thus in the Servant was shewed the scathe and blindness of Adam’s falling; and in the Servant was shewed the wisdom and goodness of God’s Son. And in the Lord was shewed the ruth and pity of Adam’s woe, and in the Lord was shewed the high nobility and the endless worship that Mankind is come to by the virtue of the Passion and death of His dearworthy Son. And therefore mightily He joyeth in his falling for the high raising and fulness of bliss that Mankind is come to, overpassing that we should have had if he had not fallen.—And thus to see this overpassing nobleness was mine understanding led into God in the same time that I saw the Servant fall.
Sin does not vanish, in any absolute sense, on this view; but it is by its very nature something that can only be found insofar as it is a particular kind of incompleteness. Considering only now, the story lopped off before the end, we can see the sin in each of us by which All-Man falls into the pit of mortality and suffering; but considering the whole, the never-ending story, even the fall into the pit is just the story, indeed, just part of the story, of rightful Adam doing his Lord's work blamelessly out of love. We see our sin, because we see our failure to be the rightful Adam; but the Son of God fell into the pit with us in order that there might be a rightful Adam, an All-Man alive with justice and love, that we could become. The practical implications of this are clear:
And if we by our blindness and our wretchedness any time fall, we should readily rise, knowing the sweet touching of grace, and with all our will amend us upon the teaching of Holy Church, according as the sin is grievous, and go forthwith to God in love; and neither, on the one side, fall over low, inclining to despair, nor, on the other side, be over-reckless, as if we made no matter of it; but nakedly acknowledge our feebleness, finding that we may not stand a twinkling of an eye but by Keeping of grace, and reverently cleave to God, on Him only trusting.
God has always loved All-Man, and our individual sins are but our individual failures to be All-Man in his love of God, the fracturing of Adam; but All-Man does not at any point stop being the loving Servant of God, because Christ became All-Man with us and keeps the unity of Adam. We have to be careful about precisely how we interpret the claim, but in a sense God forgives because He has made it so that there need be nothing to forgive. Adam has always been faithful, even in falling into the pit, because while we have not been faithful (and this is what makes for the falling into the pit), failing to complete the work of faithfulness, Christ has always been faithful, and Christ is also Adam, and as such it is He who completes the work of All-Man (c. 61):
For one single person may oftentimes be broken, as it seemeth to himself, but the whole Body of Holy Church was never broken, nor never shall be, without end. And therefore a sure thing it is, a good and a gracious, to will meekly and mightily to be fastened and oned to our Mother, Holy Church, that is, Christ Jesus.
There are so many facets to this discussion that it can hardly be covered in a blog post. But it's certainly an interesting discussion. What the story of Adam in the garden really tells us is something that is true of each of us, because Adam is Everyman. We are each of us Adam, and we all find ourselves falling outside of paradise. Our sins are our failures to follow through on our own humanity, failures to complete our task as the Servant of the Lord. Ironically, Adam in us falls through failing completely to be Adam, failing to complete the work of Adam; but Christ succeeds in being Adam, the Servant of God making a garden for His Lord, and thus Adam stands before the Lord complete in justice and faithful in love, and when through Christ all of us stand before God, we do so as the All-Man who fell only into the hardship of death and never into sin, and thus is rewarded for blameless travail. God became Man that Man might be sinless even in the weakness and isolation from God that come from the sins of men. All of this has roots elsewhere in the history of Christian doctrine, but the particular blend is a very Julianesque blend, one developing ideas that are often treated as secondary, so that their full possibilities might be seen.