The Wendy Tree at Galilee Retreat Centre, Arnprior, Canada
The winter had been long, dark, frigid, lifeless. As I drove to the Galilee Retreat Centre on that morning in late February, 2002, the fog that veiled the frozen Ottawa River on my left and the road ahead of me slowly lifted, revealing trees on either side in their winter nakedness. Suddenly I was aware of beauty: each delicate twig was encased in ice, a crystal carapace that caught the rays of the morning sun, sparkling like cut glass, throwing joy through the air, across the soft roseate sky. Inside, I felt a surge of joy as my inner winter melted, as new, previously unimagined possibilities for travel, for poetry, for a fuller life danced within me.
I reached Galilee in a state of expectant joy. But what awaited me there was word of the overnight death of our beloved co-worker, Wendy McNamara. Her husband and two young adult sons, all of us who loved her, had walked the journey with her for over two years of cancer treatment, certain she would recover. She must get well. Any other outcome was unthinkable.
Yet the unthinkable is what happened.
Wendy had called her husband the previous morning from the hospital where she was having routine tests. She was crying, upset, so unlike our brave Wendy! “The coffee here is awful!” she told Mike. “Come, and bring me some Tim Horton’s coffee.” So he did, and spent the day with her. That night, Wendy died.
I moved through the days that followed in a state of blank incomprehension. I felt betrayed by my own trust that she would recover. I felt, as Tennyson wrote, that “someone had blunder’d”. There was no time to grieve as I was preparing to offer the Julian play to some two hundred women in Ottawa. All my time and energy was needed to rehearse. Moving through the familiar lines of James Janda’s script, I was stopped short by the words Jesus spoke to Julian:
I lead all to the end I ordained it to be from without beginning, by the same Might, Wisdom, and Love whereby I made it. How should anything be amiss?
Suddenly, I got it! This was not an error, not a blunder; rather, it was part of the guiding love that began with Wendy’s conception, and accompanied her through life to her death. The grief, the loss would not be assuaged by this, but the sense of betrayal was obliterated.
James Janda told me that the quotations he used from Julian’s writing in his script came from a 1927 edition of Revelations of Divine Love by Dom Roger Huddleston (London: Burns, Oates and Washbourne). He had found the book in the New York Public Library. Later, as I read newer translations of Julian’s writings, I realized I had misinterpreted the word “end”. It was not, as I had thought on that February day, a reference to death (for death is not an end of our love relationships. It means something more like “purpose”.
Brendan Doyle in Meditations with Julian of Norwich writes the passage this way:
I lead everything
Toward the purpose I ordained it to
from without beginning,
By the same Power, Wisdom and Love
by which I created it.
How could anything be amiss? (p.39)
Marion Glasscoe’s almost-Middle English translation reads this way:
I lede althing to the end I ordeynd it to fro withoute beginning
be the same might, wisdam and love that I made it.
How should anything be amysse? (Chapter Eleven, p. 19)
What is so heartening here is the assurance of guidance towards our purpose, for many of us today the Holy Grail. We set forth on countless quests, seeking teachers, guides, seminars, webinars, books, programs, asking, asking, asking always: “Why am I here? What is my purpose in life?”
Even our poets put that question to us. Mary Oliver writes: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Rilke reminds us that … all living things in nature must unfold in their particular way and become themselves at any cost and despite all opposition.
Julian teaches us that the Love that embraces us also guides us towards that purpose. We need to find, in the midst of our searching outside ourselves, time each day for some quiet listening to the inner voice, the Beloved of our Soul. In sacred space, in stillness, we ask, “What is the purpose to which you are guiding me?”
We might in that quiet time also look, as Jean Houston teaches, at the recurring patterns, the fractals, to which our life returns in each new endeavour. Is it healing? writing? leadership? exploring new ideas? creating community? guiding youth? conflict resolution? peace-making? cross-cultural reconciliation? Our purpose may be written in our own footsteps across the sands of our lives.
For Julian, the recurring fractal was teaching. It is what led her to devote twenty years to write for us her Revelations of Divine Love, finding ever fresh ways to express what had been revealed to her in her night of visions, continuing to reflect, to deepen her understanding so she could teach us to trust in love. Seated at her window, which opened out to one of the busiest streets in Norwich, she was listener and teacher to those who came to her for guidance.
In my friend Wendy, I see now a similar fractal of teaching about the Love in which we are held. Wendy had at times been invited to give the homily at St. Joseph’s Parish in Ottawa. In her last talk, she had spoken with her unique infusion of gentle courage and power: “There is NOTHING you can do that will make God love you more than you are now loved!” She said that was the one message she wanted to leave with us for always.
I shall never forget her words. I know now that she was guided to fulfill the purpose ordained for her from without beginning. I believe the joy that surged through me after her death was a parting gift.
How should anything be amysse?