Julian of Norwich

Sophia Blog May 8, 2019

It is the Feast Day of Julian of Norwich, the 14th century English Mystic who is perhaps best known for her words: “All Shall Be Well”. Wondering which of her teachings, which of her many assurances that we are held in love, I might share with you, I decided instead to tell the story of my first encounter with “Lady Julian.”

It is the winter of 1992, and I am in England at the University of Sussex, pursuing studies in Post-Modernist Fiction. I experience cold like nothing I have ever encountered in Canada, a piercing, bone-biting cold that hangs visibly in the air as “ice fog.” I am grateful for the British custom of heating milk before adding it to coffee. Yet my fellow students seem unaware of the cold as they move about the campus, their long woolen scarves wrapped around their necks, the only addition to their all-weather uniforms of jeans, sweaters, runners.

I am cold inside as well, enduring exile from a place, a work that I loved. My writing tutor, watching the story of what brought me here unfold, suggests: “You should visit the reconstructed cell of Julian in Norwich.”

So on the first Friday in February I am travelling north by train, having left London’s Liverpool Street Station at 11 am. In the fields beside the train tracks, wild daffodils wave, not yet in full bloom.

Two hours later, I emerge from the Norwich Station and, following a map sent from the Julian Guest House, find Thorpe Road, cross the Wensum River, follow Mountergate Street to King Street and enter the narrow Julian Alley.

Suddenly I am in front of a tiny flintstone church, a re-creation, I would discover later, of the centuries-old church that was destroyed by a direct hit in the Second World War.

Reconstructed Church where Julian’s anchorhold was situated

On the outer wall of the church a plaque declares that Dame Julian of Norwich, Mystic, became an anchoress living in a cell attached to the south wall of this church soon after 1373, and here she wrote, “Revelations of Divine Love.”  

I push open the unlocked door, find myself in a small church with seating room for perhaps a hundred people. I walk up the centre aisle, see a low wooden door to the right of the sanctuary, place my thumb on its iron latch, push inwards.

I enter a small room, perhaps only ten feet by fifteen; yet, its high ceiling offers a sense of spaciousness. Through the mullioned windows, weak winter sunlight enters the room, muted by the coloured panes to pale violet and yellow. Beneath the windows, a long wooden bench offers a place to sit while I unpack my camera.

I look towards the small altar to my right, then at the high window that looks into the sanctuary of the church. Beneath this window I see an ancient boulder, a clump of stone that appears old enough to have been part of the original anchorhold. Just above this stone there is a marble monument on which are carved these words: “Thou art enough to me.”

At once, I am no longer seeing but seen. The Lady Julian is at home. I am aware of a kindly, wise, loving presence, a presence so real that I am suddenly pouring forth to her the grief of my exile. I feel heard. Then I sense words within me, words I know to be her response to me: “Let him hold you in the pain.” I know she speaks of Jesus, and this somehow frees me to acknowledge my need to be comforted.

I ask a question. “What of the friend I left, the relationship that I fear may not survive this separation?” Again, her words are as clear as if she had spoken them aloud: “Be right glad and merry, for he loves you and wants you to be happy.”

On that February day, I discover Julian as a friend, an enduring presence of wisdom, of kindness in my life. I believe she longs to be that also for any who turn to her seeking counsel and loving support. Her book, “Revelations of Divine Love”, written over the course of twenty years of reflection to guide us, her kindred spirits, is available in over a dozen editions, translated in recent decades from the Middle English of Chaucer’s time. 

Here is a sample of Julian’s homely advice, garnered from her intimacy with Jesus:

He did not say you would not be tempest-tossed; he did not say you would not be work-weary; he did not say you would not be discomfitted. But he said, “You will not be overcome.”

Julian is a model for us, one who keeps the fire of love alight in her own heart so that when someone steps in from a frigid February day, she has warmth to offer.                                                                

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