Category Archives: Julian of Norwich

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.

celebrating julian

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.

Image of Julian by Jane Joyner

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.

Jumping Sideways/ Leaping for Joy

I have been reading reports that the number of people who left the Catholic Church in recent years is more than 29 million. I expect the numbers in the other established churches reflect the same trend. Mary Malone has a poem that speaks to that. 

Her poem is called,  “Jumping Sideways”

The numbers of lapsed, I read, are leaping ahead;

Year by year, “those who have fallen away” grow in numbers.

Churchmen – always the men—bewail the faithless ones.

Crisis time has come:

“If only,” they say, “they knew what they are missing.”

Perhaps, I think, they didn’t lapse.

Perhaps, like me, they just jumped sideways.

Perhaps the cornered, much-defined God of celibate men

no longer suffices for opening hearts and minds,

for questioning spirits and love-drained souls.

Suppose we asked the women:

“What think you of God?

What God breaks and heals your woman’s heart?

What woman-faced God

peers into depths of woman-being

and awakens echoes of integrity,

echoes of prayer that ring with truth?”

What if, I wondered,

what if women trod the forgotten paths?

What if the old, old voices

were raised again,

voices raised to a new face of God

by an old race of women?

What if the Woman-God of Woman-Christians mattered?

What if we proclaimed again:

 

The Woman-Spirit God of Hildegarde

and her Lady-Wisdom God,

who breathed God-knowledge into the sisters at Bingen?

The Mother God of Julian,

who is courteous and homely and knows no anger?

julian-of-norwich-icon-by-patrick-comerford

The God who is Lady-Love,

beloved of Marguerite (Porete)

who led her on beyond the human-divine divide?

The laughing God of Hadewijch,

whose laughter makes no appearance

in all the tomes of learned men?

 

The dancing God of Mechtilde,

who laughed and leapt

and invited all to follow?

The sweet-smelling God of Gertrude,

whose perfume penetrated every corner of life?

The friendly God of Catherine,

who made friendship the core of a well—lived life?

The poor God of Clare,

who wished for nothing but to share this poverty?

The heartbroken God of Christina,

who healed the scars of cruelty?

The strong-voiced woman God of Hrotsvit,

who urged her to move

beyond the ancient silencing of women?

And the fierce God of Perpetua,

who looked into the face of violent death

and recognized a life beyond life?

And the human-divine face of Catherine’s God,

who mirrored her Self to herself

in the mystery of shared human-divine life?

This is not falling away.

This is leaping for joy.

“Jumping Sideways” comes from Mary Malone’s book: Praying with the Women Mystics (Columba Press, Ireland, 2006)

To order: books@novalis.ca

 

 

How would you answer Mary Malone’s questions:

“What think you of God? What God breaks and heals your woman’s heart? “

Mystics, the Universe and Sophia

As we awaken to the presence of Sophia in our lives, we are coming to know her as creative partner of the Love at the heart of our universe. In the Book of Proverbs, Wisdom/ Sophia speaks:

The Lord created Me at the beginning of His work, the first of His ancient acts.
I was established ages ago, at the beginning of the beginning, before the earth…
When He established the heavens, I was already there.
When he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
When He made firm the skies above,
When he established the fountains feeding the seas below…
I was beside Him, the master builder.
I was His daily delight, rejoicing before Him always.
Rejoicing in His inhabited world, and delighting in the human race.
(Proverbs 8: 22-31)

For the next several weeks, we take on the magnificent task of exploring the new story of the evolutionary universe, seeking within it a new way of knowing the Love at its deep heart. Mystics, like Julian of Norwich, Teilhard de Chardin, and Hildegard of Bingen were so in tune with the sacred centre of themselves that they intuited things about life in the universe that are only now being affirmed scientifically.

Julian of Norwich, fourteenth century English mystic, writes that God showed her:
in my mind’s eye…something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, and I perceived that it was as round as any ball. I looked at it and thought “what can this be?” And I was given this general answer: It is everything which is made. I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that it was so little that it could suddenly fall into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God. (Showings, Colledge and Walsh p. 130)

Look now at the photo that has become a major icon in our lifetime:

earth from Apollo 17

(earth from Apollo 17)

Seven hundred years after Julian saw the earth as something small…as round as any ball in the palm of her hand, the U.S. Astronaut James Irwin wrote:

The Earth reminded us of a Christmas tree ornament hanging in the blackness of space. As we got farther and farther away it diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. (p. 158 The Hand of God)

If you have ever had, in a moment of deep prayer, in an out-of-body or near-death experience, a knowing beyond that available through your senses, you, like Julian, have had a mystical experience. Mystics fascinate philosophers, psychologists and scientists especially now when perceptions by mystics and physicists about the universe are coming into startling coherence.

Who or what is mystic? Theologian Margaret Brennan offers a response that opens the door where we all might enter with grace:

Mystics are people who come in touch with the sacred source of who they really are and are able to realize and experience that in their lives. When we have come in touch with the deep centre of ourselves/our lives we realize that we are more than what we seem to be, that there’s something deeper in ourselves than meets the eye.

Evelyn Underhill, early 20th c. English scholar and mystic, gives this descriptor:

Mysticism…is the direct intuition or experience of God; and a mystic is a person who has, to a greater or less degree, such a direct experience – one whose religion and life are centred, not merely on an accepted belief or practice, but on that which (s)he regards as first-hand personal knowledge.

In Awakening Universe, Emerging Personhood, 2002, Mary Conrow Coelho speaks of the relevance of mystics for us today:

The contemplative tradition certainly provokes many questions about the nature of matter, the identity of the person, the meaning of the word God.
It once seemed impossible to understand and accept the contemplative’s claims, given Western assumptions about matter and God. But now this has changed. Within the new story of the evolutionary universe and the new cosmology and new physics by which it is informed, the contemplative tradition finds a central place.

When the 20th c. Physicist David Bohm said that we are “frozen light” did he know that in the 12th century, Hildegard had proclaimed that “every creature has a radiance”?

The mystics intuited the interconnection of all of life long, long before physicists in our time made the same discovery. Hildegard of Bingen wrote: Everything that is in heaven, on the earth and under the earth is penetrated with connectedness…with relatedness.

W.T. Stace, a contemporary scholar of mysticism writes: The whole multiplicity of things which comprise the universe are identical with one another and therefore constitute only one thing, a pure unity. The Unity, the One…is the central experience and the central concept of all mysticism, of whichever type.

He quotes the medieval Dominican Mystic Meister Eckhart:

All that a (person) has here externally in multiplicity is intrinsically One. Here all blades of grass, wood and stone, all things are One. This is the deepest depth.

20th century mystic Thomas Merton experienced this oneness with life: One only ceases to be absurd when, realizing that everything is absurd when seen in isolation from everything else, meaning and value are sought only in wholeness. The solitary must return to the heart of life and oneness, losing himself, not in the illusion but simply in the root reality, plunging through the center of his own nothingness and coming out in the all, which is the void, and which is, if you like, the Love of God. (Journals, June 20, 1966)

As we journey together into the insights now available to us about our universe, we shall also be deepening our understanding of ourselves, for we are beings who live in the universe and the universe lives in us.

The Wooing of Etain: Part Two

We have just heard the first part of the Storyteller’s new tale, “The Wooing of Etain”. She has left us alone to reflect on the story as it ha unfolded thus far, to see how it might relate to our own lives.

The ancient times of Ireland, the seldom seen Faery people, children of the Goddess Danu, their dwelling places under the mounds, the power of magic that both creates and destroys… these elements of the story may seem very far removed from our lives.

Yet the Storyteller chose this tale because it speaks of desire and longing. Midir had so long yearned for Etain that when his foster son offered compensation for an injury, Midir knew at once his heart’s deepest desire.

This is the first thing I learned from the Storyteller: to know and to trust the deepest longings of my heart. This was not easy for me. Like most women, I had been taught to consider the desires of others, but not my own. I had been taught to distrust desire, to fear my own body where desire dwells.

Yet, in my time with the Storyteller, I have come to reverence desire as the opening to the sacred. I have learned to distinguish a surface desire that may be only a fill-in for what I truly want from the deeper longing which is the desire of
the Holy in and for me.
And what of you? What are the deepest longings of your heart? If someone were to offer you as compensation what you most desire, would you know at once, as Midir did, what to ask for?
Julian of Norwich, that great 14th century English mystic and teacher of wisdom,
tells us what God taught her:

I am the ground of your prayers.
First, it is my will that you have what you desire.
Later, I cause you to want it.
Later on, I cause you to pray for it and you do so.
How then can you not have what you desire? 

In my time with the Storyteller, I have come to understand that allurement is at the heart of the universe. The great physicists who have been called the mystics of our time, tell us that the whole universe is drawn by allurement: the moon is allured to the earth, held in its orbit; the ocean tides are drawn by the moon; the earth and the planets of our solar system are held in allurement as they move around the sun, even as the immense universe spins in wonder, in a great dance of desire and longing.

In the tale of Midir and Etain, we see that our desires are fulfilled at a cost: the great labours that Angus undertook to gain Etain for Midir, the price paid for her in gold and silver.

But what of Etain? Her desire was awakened by a long look, for the Story tells that “Etain looked into Midir’s eyes and that night she became his bride”. Her longing for Midir is satisfied for their wedding follows that very night.

Though this story is new to me, I have heard enough stories to know that this joy may not last very long…

The Storyteller is with us now and continues her tale:

Midir and Etain stayed together in the Brugh with Angus for a year and a day, sporting and playing chess for precious stones, drinking the choice wines and listening to the music of Angus’ three half-brothers, the sons of Boann, his mother, who were called “the Fair and Melodious Three”. Their names were Goltraiges, Gentraiges and Suantraiges, and the harps on which they played were of gold, and silver, and white bronze, with figures of serpents and birds and hounds wrought upon them. When Goltraiges played the Music of Weeping, twelve warriors of the household died of sadness, but when Gentraiges played the Music of Smiling, the Brugh was full of gladness and laughter, and when Suantraiges played the Music of Sleeping, there were gentleness and peace in the House, and in all Ireland the women whose time was upon them gave easy birth, and no animal was fierce in all the land. And so the days and the nights of the year passed, and sweet was the intimacy of Midir and Etain, and fond their espousal.

When the time came for them to return to Bri Leith, Angus, embracing them, said to Midir: “Take care, Midir, of Etain, for your wife awaits you at Bri Leith, and Fuamnach is a dreadful and a cunning woman.”

The warning of Angus was timely, for when the lovers returned, Fuamnach came out to meet them. With cleverness, she put them at their ease. She talked to Midir of his House and household, of his lands and herds, and of his people, but later, when Etain was in her chamber alone, combing her hair and waiting for Midir, Fuamnach came to her and struck her, as she sat, with a rod of scarlet quicken-tree. Etain, on the instant, became a shining pool of water in the centre of the room.

In triumph, Fuamnach went to Midir and told him what she had done, and moreover, swore that she would harm Etain for as long as she lived, and in whatever form she might be. Then she left Bri Leith and returned to the House of her foster-father, the wizard Bresal . Midir, without solace, and lonely, left his House to wander over the far lands of his kingdom.

Meanwhile the crystal pool that was Etain dried, rolled itself together and became a small worm, and because Etain was lovely and full of joy, the worm turned into a beautiful purple fly, of wondrous size.
“(S)weeter than pipes and horns was the sound of her voice, and the hum of her wings. Her eyes would shine like precious stones in the darkness, and the fragrance and bloom of her would turn away hunger and thirst from anyone around whom she would go, and the spray that fell from her wings would cure all sickness.”

She longed for Midir, and when she had tried her wings and gathered strength, she flew to the far reaches of Bri Leith, and when she came to him, Midir knew that the lovely purple fly was Etain. Everywhere he went, she attended him, and while she was there he took no other woman, and the sight of her nourished him, and the sweet sound of her humming would send him to sleep, and Midir would neither eat nor drink, nor dance, nor play the chess game, nor hear any other music, if he could not hear the music of her voice, and the sound of her wings, and he could not see her and smell the fragrance of her.

(to be continued….)