Revisiting Julian of Norwich

      Wondering what theme might offer us both inspiration and courage in this time of intense suffering and daily uncertainty on our planet, I suddenly found the answer. Who better to guide us than Julian of Norwich whose life in England in the fourteenth century in many ways mirrors ours in the twenty-first? Yet her writings affirm the tender love in which we are held, with assurance that, finally, “all shall be well.”

In the wonderful manuscript she left us, Revelations of Divine Love, Julian’s desire was to share the tender passionate love she experienced in a near-death experience, a night of visions of the Crucified Jesus.

Of Julian herself we know nothing at all, 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.

 And yet, I have come to know Julian by heart. I begin this reflection on Julian by writing of my own encounter with this beloved woman.

 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. My writing tutor, who had come from Magdalene College at Oxford, Geoff Hemstead, was a gift of wisdom and encouragement in my fledgling work.

 At his suggestion that I should learn about Julian, I searched the University’s library where I found a 1901 edition of 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…

 That’s Julian. In a hazelnut shell.

Caption: In the corners of this painting of Julian by Jane Joyner, notice that each of the four elements is present, reminding us that we are not alone in the challenges we face, nor is the earth alone, for Love is present everywhere, transforming darkness into light, despair into hope, death into life.

 Geoff began to urge me to visit Norwich. To quiet his insistence, I wrote to the Julian Centre, booking a room for the next February weekend. After a two-hour train journey from London, I walked through the streets of Norwich, map in hand, to seek 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 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. She has been my friend ever since.

That night in the guest house, I found a small book with a one-woman play about Julian. written by the Jesuit priest James Janda. I copied down the information. After I returned to Canada, I ordered the play. As an incentive, I paid in advance the required royalty for the first performance of the play. Over the next three decades of my life I would offer this play some eighty times in Canada, the US, England and Ireland.

On our troubled, ailing, agonized planet with our twenty-first century awareness of the sufferings and sorrows of its inhabitants, it is easy to imagine earlier centuries as alluringly quiet and peaceful. If we picture Julian’ s century like that, we may dismiss her optimism, her profound trust in the Love that contains us, as naïve.

Julian’s time was far from idyllic. She lived through three outbreaks of black plague that reduced the population of England by one-half; in her time the pre-Reformation Church was in schism, with two popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon! And into the windows of her anchorhold  wafted smoke from the fires burning heretics in her city of Norwich.

 Julian’s original manuscript has never been found, though there are later copies in the British Library and in the Paris Bibliotheque, the earliest dating from the late fifteenth century, some fifty years after her death. Her writings were forgotten, buried in the debris of a troubled historical time, amidst the destruction of the monasteries where such manuscripts would have been preserved. It was only in the twentieth century that her writings came to be widely known.

 One of the earliest references to Julian’s words is in TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, in the final passage of “Little Gidding”:

Quick now, here, now, always –

And the fire and the rose are one.

A condition of complete simplicity

(Costing not less than everything)

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flame are infolded

Into the crown of knotted fire

Thomas Merton brought Julian into 20th century awareness in these impassioned words: Julian is without doubt one of the most wonderful of all Christian voices. She gets greater and greater in my eyes as I grow older, and whereas in the old days I used to be crazy about St. John of the Cross, I would not exchange him now for Julian if you gave me the world and the Indies and all the Spanish mystics rolled up in one bundle. (Seeds of Destruction)

Theologian Margaret Brennan says of Julian: It takes a kind of raw faith to believe in God’s goodness and love in a time of societal collapse.

We need Julian’s “raw faith” now as never before on our planet.   

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