In the English city of Norwich there are two Gothic cathedrals: one medieval and Anglican, the other neo-Gothic and Catholic. However, if you leave the bustling tourist and shopping center of the city and make your way to the industrial outskirts and snoop down a side street, you will come to the little church of St. Julian, the hermitage home of a saintly soul who belongs to the Anglicans, the Catholics, and the ages.
Julian of Norwich was an anonymous English woman—probably of noble birth—who took up residence in the anchoress’ cell in the church. An anchoress was a well-known, if not common, feature of religious life in the Middle Ages. A woman called to a solitary life, she was not isolated but “anchored” in the world. She followed a set rule of life—living in one small room with three windows: one opening into the church so she could worship and receive the Blessed Sacrament, one opening to the world to receive visitors and counsel people, and one opening onto another room from which her servant would assist her.
There was a rule for anchoresses, so we can trace the patterns of her daily life, but very little is known about the fourteenth-century religious at St. Julian’s church. It is believed that she was born during the time of the Black Death around 1342 and that she died in 1416. Her times were very dire: Not only was Europe only devastated by the plague, but the consequent shortage of labor along with bad harvests and high taxes caused political unrest and economic upheaval, climaxing in the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381. At the same time, the papacy was in exile in Avignon, the religious orders were often corrupt, and the first rumblings of the Protestant revolution were being heard. Just a half-mile from St. Julian’s Church, the followers of John Wycliffe, the Lollards, were being burnt as heretics.
In 1373, it was in the midst of this wasteland of social turmoil that at the age of thirty Julian took up her residence in the little cell in Norwich. She had been living with her mother when she was struck with a terrible illness and within her suffering she received fifteen visions or “showings.” The visions were her personal, mystical encounter with God’s love centering on the cross of Christ. After recovering, she decided to devote her life to prayer and took residence in the vacant anchoress’ cell at St Julian’s Church. While there, she recorded her Revelations of Divine Love and her reflections on her visions, creating the first book to be written in English by a woman.
Julian’s revelations and reflections are remarkable for her time. Countering the contemporary view that suffering was a form of God’s punishment, Julian sees suffering and sin as “behovely”—it is all part of God’s severe mercy. Human sin, she believes, is more often caused by ignorance and naivety than by evil intent, and sin in the end is gathered up by the expansive forgiveness. She is a great optimist and firm believer in the ultimate goodness of God. She does not see wrath in God, but she suggests that wrath is part of the fear in our own hearts which we project onto God. Almost a universalist and certainly an optimist, she teaches in her famous phrase borrowed by T.S. Eliot, that “all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
For those versed in Catholic spirituality, Julian’s quietly joyful trust in God’s goodness points forward to the merciful visions of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and St. Faustina Kowalska. Her utter reliance on the goodness of God (whom she envisions as having the tenderness of a mother) points forward to a similarly sweet and homely warrior of the Spirit, Thérèse of Lisieux. In our own age, threatened by plague, economic uncertainty, barbarism, religious wars and corruption, Julian’s quiet optimism and faith are a sweet tonic which brings re-assurance, hope, and a quiet confidence.
Just more than a hundred years after her death, Julian’s cell was destroyed as part of King Henry VIII’s brutal revolution. St. Julian’s church remained, serving the poor people of the city for another five hundred years. Then in 1942, the church was destroyed in a German air raid. After the war, like most cathedral cities, Norwich had a surfeit of churches, and there was no need to rebuild the little church in the poor part of town.
However it was after the war, mostly through Eliot’s poetry, that Julian’s hopeful visions began to be read more widely. An Anglican vicar named Fr. Paul Raybould decided that St. Julian’s should be rebuilt, and in 1953 a church was built on its foundations in the traditional medieval style, complete with what archeologists guessed was Julian’s cell. Today visitors can visit the church and the reconstructed room of the famous anchoress, which is now a shrine and place of pilgrimage.
Writing from the midst of his own darkness and the grim darkness of the years between two wars, the American in exile, T.S. Eliot, was strengthened and encouraged by this solitary voice from the fourteenth century. Julian of Norwich’s mysticism and ministry remind us that nothing is wasted. An obscure, sick woman immured in a small room in the back streets of a medieval city, by the turnings of providence emerges to provide light and hope in a modern wasteland still shrouded by the same dark forces so obnoxious and obsessive in her day.
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