Return to Norwich

In 1999 I returned to Norwich. In the seven years since I’d been here, I’d changed. With the reverse logic of the lover, I’d thought that Norwich would’ve remained the same. With a sense of betrayal, I looked on large car parks, half-demolished industrial buildings, a new four-storey shopping mall that towered over the old Castle. My favourite pub, “The Murderer’s Cafe”, was gone. Altered roadways blotted out the clarity of the city map I held in my head.

Yet the Church of St. Julian had not altered. I walked towards the tiny flintstone building, rebuilt after the bombing of the original twelfth century structure in June, 1942. As I made my way along Julian’s Alley, my attention was caught by a notice attached to the arched front door of the Church. I drew nearer. I was reading my own name. Soon the whole notice became legible, announcing four performances I’d come to Norwich to offer: a 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’d made the arrangements for the event, explained the plans for lighting. Together we examined the props: the bed, a trunk, the stool, the 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’d remembered it, as I’d seen it in memory many times over the past years. I sat down on the bench that was built against the far wall under windows that in Julian’s time would have opened onto the street. Now they 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.”

 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’d 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.

 I returned to Felicity after a few moments with a question, “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’s 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. In the midst of the first act, I was so conscious of elation, that I tried to touch its source.  It came to me soon enough.

That afternoon I’d been invited to tea in the small apartment of Father Robert Llewellyn, an Anglican priest whose name I’d seen liberally sprinkled through bibliographies 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 advising, 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 that evening’s performance were the fruit of that silent prayer with Father Robert After the first act, he 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 loving trust and homely wisdom 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, “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, the weight of new 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.

2 thoughts on “Return to Norwich”

  1. Thanks Anne for this beautiful reflection on your “return to Norwich” Reading it with all the details of your experience helped me visualize and appreciate it even more than listening to you telling me about it. Of course I also hear your voice as I read it.

    Like

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