In these days of 'lock down', 'social distancing' and 'restricted travel', even those of us who enjoy limited freedom can feel trapped, anxious and bored. The poet Seamus Heaney once wrote about boundaries and borders:
Nowadays when I think of that child rooted to the spot… I see a little version of the god the Romans called Terminus, the god of boundaries. The Romans kept an image of Terminus in a temple… and the interesting thing is that the roof above the place where the image sat was open to the sky, as if to say that a god of the boundaries and borders of the earth needed to have access to the boundless.
A practical and inspiring woman who managed to do this was Dame Julian. Julian lived her long life, from 1343 until her death about 75 years later, in the English city of Norwich and much of this was spent 'locked down' in an anchorhold. Her times were as troubled as our own, if not more so. During her lifetime, her city suffered the devastating effects of the pandemic known as the plague or 'black death' from 1348–1350. The political unrest of 'the peasants’ revolt' against unfair taxes and unfree labour erupted in 1381. Not far from her anchorhold was the famous Lollards Pit where those suspected of heresy or treason were burned at the stake in a nearby quarry. To add to this, the Church was going through the confusion and uncertainty caused by the 'three popes’ schism' from 1378 to1417.
Still, Julian kept her faith, her humour, her humanity and her hope. She wrote the first book known to be written by an English woman: Revelations of Divine Love.
Nothing is known for certain about Julian's actual name, family or education. Many scholars believe that Julian may have been married and that she lost her husband, and perhaps other relatives, to some of the tragic events of her time. Her language is always homely, full of every day images, such as mothers, clothes, washing, fish scales...
Julian freely chose to spend her days in a lifelong 'lock down' as an anchorite so as to be more available to God in solitude and silence, and to the people who came to her for counsel. The 'cell' the anchorites lived in (called an anchorhold) was usually a small house attached to the wall of the church. There was often a garden or yard where anchorites could work and get fresh air. The ceremony which marked their entrance into the enclosure was a funeral rite!
In Julian’s house, there was one window in the church wall though which she could follow Mass and other offices - a kind of 'streaming'! Another window opened onto the street outside. People came there for guidance, to pour out their troubles or ask for her prayers. A third window connected her to a room where a woman responsible for shopping and other needs came. At regular times, Julian communicated through these three windows. Julian also loved nature and is often depicted in art as having had a cat! She can inspire us in our trying, changing times.
Julian chose these 'shut in' conditions to create a space where she could pray and especially reflect on the revelations she received when she was 33 years old. Julian spent many years alone prayerfully pondering on the mystery of suffering and sin. She wondered why our loving God permits such things. She had to battle, she tells us, with doubt, boredom, self-centredness, laziness and pain. She tried to keep her heart open to the suffering world and to persevere in her search for God. She wrote many beautiful, consoling things from her own prayer experience: 'our life is a marvellous mixture of well-being and woe', 'there is no blame in God', 'God’s meaning is always love', 'we are enfolded in love', ‘there is a Force of Love moving through the universe'.
She is remembered for the 'hazel nut', a tiny thing she once saw in her hand. She was told: 'This is all that is… it exists and always will exist because I love it.'
Perhaps she is best loved for recording for us, in spite of her 'lockdown' and the tragic times in which she lived, the Lord’s promise to her:
'All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well and you will see for yourself that all shall be well.'
A good commentary on Julian and her writings is Julian of Norwich by Grace Jantzen, SPCK, 2000.
Sr Georgina Clarson IJS, Brno, Czech Republic firstname.lastname@example.org