Readings for the feast of Julian of Norwich, May 8, 2020:
What an interesting time in our society to reflect on the life of an anchorite mystic! My bet is as we were reading the Psalm assigned for this feast,
“The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear?
the Lord is the strength of my life;
of whom then shall I be afraid?”
…we sat and named several fears in our head within a few seconds.
Yet, when we look at the time frame in history of Julian of Norwich’s life, her entire lifespan was a time of great fear and a parade of death. Julian (we don’t know her given name, or for that matter, very much about her, other than what little she shares in her writing) was born in or near Norwich, England in 1342. In her lifetime, the bubonic plague swept through that area not once, but three times. She was six years old the first time it arrived; it killed three-quarters of the people in Norwich and hung around for 3 years. It returned in 1361, when she was nineteen, preceded by the church steeple at Norwich toppling. (Guess what–people thought that was a bad omen, and I suppose, in that case, they were right.) It revisited one final time in 1368, along with a crummy harvest and a cattle plague. Layer on to this, it was also during the time of the Hundred Years War and the fact that the Church hierarchy was not particularly kind to people that trended towards religious thinking that didn’t line up with the status quo. Burning folks at the stake for heresy now and then punctuated all the pestilence and war.
Yet in Julian’s own life, although these were certainly formative experiences (honestly, I can see in that environment why deciding to be an anchorite looks like a perfectly okay choice for living one’s life) it was not “the” formative experience for her. It is her own illness and near death that sparked the first of what would eventually be sixteen visions, or, as she would call them “showings.” Those of us in the medical world find her own descriptions of her illness fascinating in the same way we like to dissect the medical clues from the healing stories of the Gospel. It is very likely Julian could have been one of the few people who would have recovered from botulism in those days. Other candidates are Guillain-Barré syndrome, inflammatory polyneuropathy, diphtheria, pneumonia, or paralysis from a tick-borne illness. (I confess I strongly identify with that last diagnosis as we see a lot of tick-borne illness in rural Missouri.) That said, the survival rate from any of those in those times would have probably been something barely over nil.
Julian’s visions, and the joy she got from them–not fear–became the impetus for her to cloister herself and get about the business of writing them down. It’s extraordinary that in a time in history in which ordinary life was dirty, brutal, and generally chronologically short, and Christianity is way more about sin, Hell-avoidance, penance, and flagellation, that Julian envisions a God whose fundamental DNA is love. Imagine the improbability of being able to envision a God who is never angry with us, who always sees us with the loving lens of a Creator who can always focus on the God-imbued divine spark put inside each of us–how amazing is that? Julian’s summary statement on it all is “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” She even reframes in a way we don’t have to take her word for it, but leaves room for it to be revealed to us: “ All shall be well: and thou shalt see, thyself, that all manner of things shall be well.”
Make no mistake, she is not espousing the 14th century version of “it’s all okay.” “All shall be well,” does not mean “And we all lived happily ever after.” Although we know so little of Julian’s life before these visions, it would be highly improbable that she never experienced massive levels of grief, death, and trauma living in the times she did. She certainly experienced being within a hair’s breadth of her own death in young adulthood. I’m certain living as an anchorite had its own pain and sadness. Yet her own view of her relationship of God and Christ was one of unspeakable joy, and even transcends gender when she refers to Jesus as our true mother.
Fast forward to the present.
We are living through the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the uncertainty associated with possible future waves, and an uncertainty of how long we will live in this strange milieu that, in so many ways, closely mimics a compressed snapshot of the times in which Julian lived–a plague, violent expressions of discord, and a time when, unfortunately, many forms of “status quo Christianity” traumatize and divide along political and social lines.
What is meant to be revealed to us in our cloister, if that’s where we’re finding ourselves these days of sheltering in place and making decisions on whether or not to even venture out? Conversely, it’s important to remember Julian’s visions occured before she chose to live in her cell–when she was out and about and being, you might say…an essential worker. What visions are being revealed to those who may have no choice in the matter, who must be out in the world, whether it’s because of their vocation or economic necessity?
Julian still teaches us today to consider the possibility that all is well when it comes to our relationship with God, even smack dab in the middle of a world that is not okay and doesn’t feel okay. How might that revelation change us if we allow ourselves the vulnerability to be changed?
Image: The Julian of Norwich window at St Augustine’s Church, Scaynes Hill, West Sussex. created by Rosalind Grimshaw in 2002, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Maria Evans splits her week between being a pathologist and laboratory director in Kirksville, MO, and gratefully serving in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri , as the Interim Pastor at Christ Episcopal Church, Rolla, MO.