On May 8th Anglican Christians honour Julian of Norwich; five days later Catholics do the same. For my part I celebrate Julian on both days, for my gratitude to her cannot be expressed too often.
In these stressful, grief-filled days of COVID, it’s Julian to whom many now turn for hope and courage, for she lived through three outbreaks of the Black Plague which reduced the population of England by one half.
In the wonderful manuscript which she left us, Revelations of Divine Love, Julian shares with us the tender passionate love she experienced in a near-death experience, a night of visions of the Crucified Jesus. Of Julian herself we know almost nothing, not even her name. She took the name “Julian” when she became an anchoress in the Church of Saints Julian and Edward in Norwich England in the late years of the 14th century.
On a cold wet February day in 1992, I first visited Julian’s reconstructed cell in Norwich. I was on sabbatical in England, studying writing at the University of Sussex. I had a writing tutor from Magdalene College at Oxford, Geoff Hemstead, who was a gift of wisdom and encouragement in my fledging work. At his suggestion that I should learn about Julian, I searched the University’s library where I found a 1901 edition of Julian’s “Revelations”. Editor Grace Warrack wrote in her introduction:
From the first we find Julian holding her diverse threads of nature, mercy and grace for the fabric of love she is weaving…
But at the time, I still did not know her. Geoff began to urge me to visit Norwich, and it was only to quiet his insistence that I wrote to the Julian Centre and booked a room for that February weekend. After a two-hour train journey from London, I was walking through the streets of Norwich, map in hand, seeking the Church and Visitors’ Centre. Along King Street, turning right at Julian’s Alley, I found the tiny, perfect flint-stone church, a 1950’s reconstruction after the original was destroyed by a World War Two bombing. A plaque was set into the outer wall: 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”.
The Church of St. Julian in Norwich , England
The Church was open. I went inside, walked up the centre aisle, saw a low wooden door to the right, with a sign welcoming visitors to the reconstructed anchorhold. I pressed the iron latch with my thumb and entered, thinking I’d take a few photos and leave.
I was stopped in my tracks. There was a presence in the room that I had to acknowledge. I sat down and began to tell this kindly wise woman about the pain that had brought me to England. She heard, and responded with words that sustained me for the rest of my sabbatical and guided me home. Julian has been my friend ever since.
That night in the guest house, I found a small book with a one-woman play about Julian. I copied down the publisher’s information. After I returned to Canada, I ordered the play, paying the royalty as an incentive to prepare to perform it.
In 1999, I returned to Norwich. This time, as I made my way along Julian’s Alley towards the church, my attention was caught by a notice attached to the arched front door. As I drew nearer to read, my eyes focused on something so unexpected that it sent a shock of amazement through my being. I was reading my own name. As I came closer, the whole notice was legible: it was the announcement of the four performances I had come to Norwich to offer, the one-woman play on the life and writings of Julian, written by James Janda.
The interior of the church had been adapted for the event. The altar, with its reredos (which had survived the bombing), stood just behind a built – up stage area, adding some three feet to the height of the floor, to allow the audience seated in the church pews a clearer view. Felicity Maton, secretary to the Friends of Julian, who had made the arrangements for the event, explained the plans for lighting. Together we examined the props: bed, trunk, stool and writing desk.
“Excuse me for a moment,” I said to Felicity. “I need to greet someone.”
I walked to the arched doorway at the right of the sanctuary, pushed my thumb down on the iron latch. The door to Julian’s reconstructed cell swung inwards.
Inside, all was as I had remembered it, as I had seen it in memory many times over the past years. I sat down on the bench that was built against the far wall, under the windows that in Julian’s time would have opened onto the street, but now looked out to the green grass and trees of the Church yard, edged with a gigantic bush of red roses.
I let my eyes rest on the marble slab that contained an image of the crucified Jesus. It bore the words that on my first visit had transfixed me, “Thou art enough to me.” This time, my eyes lighted on the other words carved into the marble, “Lo, how I loved thee.”
Reconstructed Anchorhold of Julian of Norwich
Yes. How you loved me, I repeated silently to the One who had brought me here, who had brought me on a far longer journey from emptiness to fullness over the past years, from the state of being without a ministry or a place to live, to the eruption in my life of a ministry so full and satisfying that I could hardly take it in.
On that earlier visit I had prayed to Julian, “Please, find me a work like yours, where I can speak to others of God’s love.” Now, in the palpable presence of Julian’s spirit, I thanked this goodly woman who had changed my life.