celebrating Julian: TWO

Today, May 13th is Julian’s feast in the Catholic calendar. If you are curious as to why Julian’s Feast in the Anglican calendar is on May 8th, here’s the answer, an illustration of the textual niceties that absorb attention when the focus might better have been on Julian’s glorious writings. As Julian’s original manuscript, written in her own hand, has never been found, we rely on early copies made; the oldest copy of the shorter text that survives was made fifty years after her death. In these earlier copies there is a discrepancy of dates given for her night of visions of the Crucified Christ. The Roman numerals in some manuscripts say May VIII (8) and some say May XIII (13). The Catholic position on this dilemma is that it is more likely a copier might accidently drop the bottom part of the X than that he or she would add to it. Therefore the date must have been XIII.

The happy result of all this is that Julian has two feast days!

Let me take up the tale Ii was sharing last week of my time in Norwich in 1999, offering the play, “Julian” written by James Janda. Following my visit with Julian in her reconstructed anchorhold in the Church of St. Julian, I returned to Felicity, who was organising the stage: “What do you suggest I do about changing into costume?”

“Why don’t you dress in Mother Julian’s cell and emerge from there to begin the play?”

So that is how it was, for the four performances over the two weekends.  At first I had to catch myself in the midst of my lines, distracted by the thought, “It is happening here, in the very place where Julian lived”.

On the night of the third performance there was a difference. The wonder had not ceased, but the lack of reality was replaced by an intense awareness that was joyous.  I felt the role with every aspect of my being, and in the midst of the first act, was so conscious of elation, that I tried to touch its source.  It came to me soon enough.

That afternoon I had been invited to tea in the small apartment of Father Robert Llewellyn, an Anglican priest whose name I had seen liberally sprinkled through every bibliography of works on Julian.  As we shared the last pieces of his ninetieth birthday cake, Father Robert told me of his assignment in 1976, to be a presence in the Julian Cell.

“For the first month, I spoke with no one,” he recalled. “I just went morning and afternoon and sat in her cell, and prayed.”  After a month someone approached with a question, and gradually his work of listening and directing, mostly in aspects of prayer, began to grow. Through Father Robert’s efforts a bookstore/ study room and counselling room were created in a hall belonging to the Anglican convent next door. Now this “Julian Centre” attracts scholars and pilgrims who come to read about Julian, to ask about her teachings, to purchase books and souvenirs.

At the end of our visit, Father Robert asked if we might have fifteen minutes of silent prayer together. There were people he’d promised to pray for, and he suggested that prayers be offered for the performance scheduled for that evening, that it would reach people who would need Julian’s message.

The lightness and joy I felt in the midst of the performance that evening were the fruits of that silent prayer with Father Robert. After the first act, Father Robert pressed my hand to his heart. “Thank you,” he said. “You have given us a gentle Julian. You have made her homely.”  With a smile he added, “I know in America, that is not a good word, but it is here.”

 My life and my work have become intertwined with the wisdom and homely trust of this woman whose teaching is meant for the ordinary days of our lives.  Days like my second last in England in that summer of 1999, when I stood at the airline desk, one half hour before the departure of my flight from Gatwick to Ottawa, and was told the flight was closed. In a moment of near panic, followed by a sense of utter despair, I said, “But what am I to do?  I have nowhere to go.” I was met with closed faces. Then from within me Julian’s words arose: “He did not say `You shall not be tempest – tossed, you shall not be discomfited.’ But He said, `You shall not be overcome.'”

I believed her. I turned my luggage cart around, trying to balance the seven foot container of the tapestry, my luggage with costume and props, my weight of books on Julian. I stood in the middle of Gatwick Airport and cried. Then, having finished with tears, I wheeled the cart outside and found a taxi, a hotel, and the peace to accept this reversal.  I was not overcome.

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