The fourteenth-century mystic Julian of Norwich has taught me many things about hope, faith, and divine love. Recently she’s also taught me the value of words. I was reading Julian’s work, the Revelations of Divine Love, when I came across this sentence: “Prayer ones the soul to God.” This passage awakened my inner grammar queen. The last time I checked, “ones” wasn’t a verb.
Evidently Julian didn’t read the same grammar books that I did. Examples of oneing infuse her work, such as:
In our making God knit us and oned us to himself . . .
And the conclusion of this idea:
By the virtue of the same precious oneing, we love our Maker and seek God . . .
Julian’s oneing would not have sounded as jarring to her audience as it does to us. “To one” was a Middle English word meaning to unite or to join. But words change. If used today, oneing would constitute an egregious case of verbing — the act of turning a noun into a verb. You’ve probably seen many examples of this. Adulting is hard. Or, It’s time to introvert!
I think this is why some translators of Julian’s work don’t use her original wording: they’re concerned that she’s breaking today’s grammar rules. These translators often change the word “oned” to “united.” So, Julian’s phrase “prayer ones the soul to God” becomes “prayer unites the soul to God.”
But I much prefer Julian’s strange little verb. How much lovelier oneing is than uniting! The unfamiliarity of this word makes me pause, reread, and really grapple with its meaning. Uniting implies a joining of forces, but oneing suggests a knitting together that can never be undone, a union so seamless that you can no longer distinguish its individual parts.
Oneing implies more than intimacy. In the works of Julian of Norwich and other medieval mystics, it describes union with God himself. It encapsulates the mystery of our creation and our very being. Oneing is divine, in every sense of the word.
Not all examples of nouns-cum-verbs are as poetic as oneing. But Julian’s treatise has made me look at words differently, especially the trend of verbing. I haven’t always appreciated this trend. But thanks to Julian, I’m looking at it with new eyes. I’m ready to be surprised and disrupted, ready to see something new and possibly divine in the way we use words and break the rules. I’ve been bejulianed.
Perhaps we could all stand to be bejulianed. In an age of increasing verbiage and decreasing attention spans, we need language that disrupts; we need words that teach us about ourselves and the world instead of words that fly under our radar. In fact, it’s a thrill to discover that the English language can still trip us up. So when you see a strange word, perhaps even an example of verbing, pause, reread, think, and imagine. Above all, ask yourself this question: have I been oned with the divine today?
A version of this post originally appeared in the journal Upwrite.