Dame Julian and self-isolation – some lessons from the 14th century

Dame Julian and self-isolation – some lessons from the 14th century

Despite having her writings, we actually know surprisingly little about Dame Julian,https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_of_Norwich the anchorite whose hermitage in Norwich remains a site for pilgrims to this day. We don’t even know her original name; she took the name of the saint whose church she became anchorite of. The church and the cell were bombed during the war but later rebuilt, stone by stone, and the place retains an atmosphere of calm and contemplation; the visitor centre next to it offers refreshments, access to their library and a lovely little gift selection. If you go, they also allow you to park next to the church if you ask for one of their parking permits that will ward off the eagle-eyed traffic wardens.

The 14th century was an especially turbulent one, taking in the Black Death (which reached Britain in 1348, ripping through populations weakened by 2 generations of malnutrition), wars, pogroms, The Peasants’ Revolt, social upheavals and religious movements galore. Dame Julian(born around 1342) saw the effects of the plague first hand, both the initial wave and the later wave that had a reduced effect. When she was around 30, during an illness that was almost fatal, she had a series of visions that are the basis for her writings, and which led to her becoming an anchorite after her recovery. While we know nothing for certain about her origins, education or life before the visions, given that she was 30 at the time, many have speculated that the likelihood was that she was or had been married, and may have had children. The surmise also goes that the illness she survived may have wiped out husband and children. Whatever the truth of this, the life she led after this cataclysmic illness and the visions was entirely different from what she must have led before it.

An anchorite was a hermit who pledged to stay in a single location, often walled in and supplied with the essentials of life via a small window. When a person became an anchorite, the service for the dead was performed, and they were then sealed in. However, they usually led productive lives, often making clothes for the poor and acting (via the window) as a counsellor to troubled souls. One of Julian’s visitors was the mystic Margery Kempe https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margery_Kempe who wrote of her visit to dame Julian. http://juliancentre.org/news/margery-kempe-who-met-julian-is-remembered-in-the-anglican-church-on-9th-november.html

One of the most famous of Julian’s sayings was “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” Sometimes people use this as a means of shutting up others who are worrying about what’s going on around them. Right now, there’s a lot of reasons to worry. Covid-19 is not the Black Death, but it’s a frighteningly infectious and potentially lethal virus, and there’s a lot of misinformation about it. Julian would have witnessed not just the Black Death but many other epidemics or pandemics that roared through the populace; mechanisms by which any disease spread were little understood then and it’s hard to imagine the terrible fear most people would have experienced. For many it may have felt like a judgement from an angry god. Even today, there are so-called Christians who are preaching that this pandemic is God’s judgement on a sinful human race; some who see this as stage in the end of the world prophecies that are supposedly laid out in the Book of Revelation. To that I say: utter tosh.

When the door closed behind Julian and she was sealed inside her cell, I wonder what she would have felt. Her faith, both in a good, kind, loving God rather than the hideous vengeful god usually depicted by the medieval church, would have kept her at peace, and her faith in the benefactors and supporters who ensured that she would be kept supplied with the necessaries of life meant that the usual worries and cares would be gone. She could focus on what she was there for: to pray, to work, to support others from her window, and also to write about her visions.

In my previous post I wrote about how pressured many of us feel by having so many reminders of what others (like Shakespeare) have accomplished in their time in quarantine. There’s a massive collective angst and anxiety that fills the air and reaches all of us who are sensitive to it, and many who otherwise would not be. It’s extremely hard to be creative when the world around us is filled with such turmoil and uncertainty and fear. It’s even harder when well-meaning people exhort us not to waste such an opportunity for extra time we didn’t know we had.

As well as the collective grief and fear and worry, there’s personal concerns that almost everyone is affected by; worries about money, jobs, family, the future. After losing my father six months ago, I had had a sense of relief that at least I didn’t have to worry about him getting the virus. The worry for my mother was short-lived, and replaced instead with immense shock and sadness when she passed away suddenly a few days ago.

I wonder how much of the collective grief that Dame Julian bore and prayed with in that little cell in Norwich, how many folks she comforted with her words of a loving God who cared for his children as a mother might. I would love to sit an hour in her cell now, and pour out my soul there, but I cannot. It may be many months before I can go anywhere that is deemed non-essential. But I can sit quietly in my home, and hold like hazel nuts the cares and sorrows of others, just as she did.

Lost books, L-space, libraries and the odour of bananas

Lost books, L-space, libraries and the odour of bananas

Lost books, L-space, libraries and the odour of bananas

I have a recurring dream of a lost book that I have somehow found. It’s a beautiful book, filled with marvels, hand-written in quirky calligraphy as if by someone who has seen how calligraphy looks but has never been taught how to do it “properly” (bit like me, actually). It has drawings in it that remind you of illuminated manuscripts, and some which are entirely different. It has some resemblance to Jung’s famous Red Book, but the writing is in English and the drawings are not the same. Each time the book pops up in dreams, I wonder whose book it is, whether it exists in our ordinary reality or whether it is something that may one day exist or has once existed and exists no more.

A few nights ago on British TV, there was a programme on BBC4 on the lost manuscript of Julian of Norwich. I’ve long been a fan of Julian and her work (see my blog post here) and I watched with great interest. The programme itself was a tad irritating (largely because the presenter made too many assertions that simply don’t bear closer scrutiny), though it did have some great sequences filmed in and around Norwich, which is one of my favourite cities in Europe (and only about 25 miles away), but it revealed some facts about Julian’s book I hadn’t known before. The manuscript itself was suppressed and hidden, going underground (so to speak), because its contents were liable to be seen as potentially heretical and certainly revolutionary (a loving God who was seen as our Mother and who cared for each and every human and written by, shock, horror, a woman? Gosh.). Its route to the mainstream was a strange one; copies of it were held in various monastic libraries, like that of Walsingham Abbey, but it’s unclear how many and how widespread they were. At the time of the Dissolution of the monasteries, many of their libraries were confiscated and countless bookish treasures destroyed. The Revelations of Divine Love disappears, only to have a copy resurface amid the books taken to France with nine young Englishwomen setting out to found a new Benedictine Order in the early part of the seventeenth century. The book was copied by the nuns and perhaps dispersed until the French Revolution intervened, and such orders attacked and destroyed. When their Carmelite sisters were sent to the guillotine, the English sisters expected to follow, but the terror came to an end, and they were allowed to return to England (taking with them relics of their martyred Carmelite sisters, and whatever other things they’d saved). The order still exists, in God’s own county, at the abbey they founded on their return, Stanbrook Abbey. But they didn’t have Julian’s book, either copies or the original.

Fast forward to the early part of the twentieth century and the era of the suffragettes, and a determined Scottish woman comes to the British library in search of a copy of Julian’s book, aiming to find the original or as close to that as possible, to make a new translation of the original. Mis-shelved under witchcraft and magic, and mis-titled in the catalogue, a copy made by those English nuns turns up, no one knows how, and is the closest to the original fourteenth century text that anyone knows of.

The book has dipped in and out of biblio-history, escaping the bonfires of fanatics and the vagaries of time itself, championed largely by women, and emerging time and again when women need it. At the end of the programme, a professor of medieval literature says that it’s eminently possible that the original manuscript itself might one day just turn up somewhere; he comments that rare books do this all the time.

Books are fragile things, subject to the forces of time and the forces of nature, and yet they endure. If you have read Umberto Eco’s brilliant book, The Name of the Rose, or Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, the idea of a lost book, hidden and suppressed yet passed on secretly and lurking on the shelves of libraries or even bookshops, is a seductive, romantic (in its truest sense) and obsessive notion. If you have read the Discworld novels by the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett, you will be familiar with the concept of L-space: the theory that the sheer weight of books creates a kind of kink in the space-time continuum, whereby all libraries are connected and all librarians are mystical custodians of L-space. The librarian of the Unseen University, whose name has long been forgotten, is an orang-utan (the result of a spell cast but since the shape proved to be more congenial to his job, the Librarian resisted all offers to restore him to his original human form).Wandering the darker recesses of old and rambling libraries, where a poorly-plotted route through the dusty stacks on a winter evening when the night falls hard and cold outside and the interior is cosy and warm, if fuggy, can result in getting lost in areas one didn’t know existed, and one can not only believe in L-space but it becomes the only thing that makes any sense of how books can disappear for centuries, and reappear in unexpected and improbable places, hardly aged, but bearing the faint traces of the odour of bananas.

When Do We Get To Do The Hazelnuts? A Review of Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich.

 

When Do We Get To Do The Hazelnuts? A review of Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich  

The above photo was taken no more than thirty paces from one of the most remarkable sites of pilgrimage in the whole of the British Isles. The Julian Shrine, the site of the cell where Dame Julian of Norwich lived out her life as an anchoress, and wrote Revelations of Divine Love, is situated in an area of Norwich that was formerly known as the red-light district. Due to the advent of mobile phones, the girls no longer wander up and down, but there are plenty of unsavoury characters around, as well as a good deal of graffiti.

And yet, the small church of St Julian and the reconstructed shrine attached to it shine with a light that is not visible to the naked untrained eye. The retreat house where I spent a few days last month is a haven of peace and home-like tranquillity. The church was bombed more or less flat during the last war and the cell itself was destroyed during the Reformation, so that if you want to be pedantic about it, nothing is as it was. But what is? The essence and the atmosphere have remained.

We know little about Julian (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_of_Norwich) herself, not even her original name, other than that she was born around 1342 and died some time between 1416 and 1430, and at the age of thirty and a half years suffered a life threatening illness. Indeed, her family thought her to be dying and she received the last rites. But during this serious illness, she was shown visions that changed her utterly, and her miraculous recovery led her to chose a life of contemplation and devotion to prayer. She wrote two versions of her visionary experience: the short form, written in the immediate aftermath and a longer, more complete version some twenty years later, having spent those years in prayer and meditation to try and understand what she had been shown.

The resulting books have been considered spiritual classics ever since, studied and loved and returned to by generation after generation of seekers. She was the first woman(that we know of) to write a book in English and since the advent of the printing press her works have never been out of print. The chances are that she never knew in her life time how successful her works would become; she may never have even seen her book except as her own handwritten version. There is some uncertainty to whether she did in fact perform the act of writing it or whether like Margery Kemp(a mystic contemporary to Mother Julian, and whom she met to give counsel to) she dictated to a scribe since Julian claimed to be illiterate. However, scholars believe that by this she means she did not read and write fluently in Latin. The vernacular was not considered worthy of any great works.

The time that Julian lived in were troubled, though I can think of few times in English history that have not been so, and life was hard for most people. Wars raged, and a great deal of uncertainty about the future meant that many worried constantly about how life would be. Not so very different from today, in fact. I could draw parallels with events of the moment but I will not. Suffice it to say that while Julian lived, the world was not so very different from how it is now, technology notwithstanding.

Her words have brought great comfort to many souls who are troubled by life and their place in it:

Because of our good Lord’s tender love to all those who shall be saved, he quickly comforts them, saying, ‘The cause of all this pain is sin. But all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ These words were said so kindly and without a hint of blame to me or to any who shall be saved. So how unjust it would be for me to blame God for allowing my sin when he does not blame me for falling into it. In these words I saw the deep, high mystery of God which he will show to us in heaven. Then we shall understand why he allowed sin to be. And in knowing this we shall have endless joy in God.The saints in heaven turn their will away from everything except what God would have them know… And this should be our will, too

 

I can hear you ask, what about the hazelnuts?

Well, I wish to end with one of the strangest examples of synchronicity I have seen in a long time. On my first morning of retreat, I headed out to find some lunch, and took a short cut down St Julian’s Alley, to come out at the Dragon Hall, a vestige of medieval Norwich that the bombs failed to flatten but before I got more than thirty paces from the church, I saw the graffiti and was so struck by it that I had to take a picture. You see, part of Julian’s vision involved a small thing like a hazelnut:

“In this vision he showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, and it
was round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and
thought “What may this be?” And it was generally answered thus: “It is all that is
made.” I marvelled how it might last, for it seemed it might suddenly have
sunk into nothing because of its littleness. And I was answered in my
understanding: “It lasts and ever shall, because God loves it.”
— Julian of Norwich

 

For me, this last piece of coincidence brings great comfort. To find idly scribbled words that unconsciously reflect one of the most treasured books of Christian literature on a half ruined building not many yards away from the source of those original words is to me a sign that we cannot know where our words will go and what they will do. Dame Julian can never have known in her lifetime the power her words would have and how long they would endure: endure beyond her own flesh, the established church of her time, beyond the stones of the cell and those of the church she worshipped at.

This brings me hope that truth and beauty and goodness have the power to endure beyond the troubles of their times and continue to affect people long after their creators have passed away and their names and true identities are lost in the mists of time.

 

The Texture of Silence

 

The texture of silence

 

Silence has texture.

You don’t realise how different those textures are until you stop to listen.

There’s the broken glass, bleeding edge texture of the awkward silence that falls in the ringing aftermath of a fight. You can feel the sharp fractured edges as the shattered peace falls to the ground like glass bird-scarers in an old fashioned kitchen garden.

Then there’s the hungry salivating silence of expectation, that bated breath hush, like the dying tones of the dinner gong where only vibrations and eagerness remain.

And finally there’s the silence you find in holy places, where worlds meet and touch and even overlap. You walk in and are struck by the depth of the quiet, self conscious suddenly of the creak of a door or arthritic knees, yet any sound you make rapidly vanishes, absorbed into the deep silence as a stone dropped into an underground lake. The ripples spread out to infinity and are lost, and the silence returns. It has the texture of the finest velvet, rich and soft as forest moss. When you let yourself be still, you can hear the silence over the roar of traffic or the bustle of a busy kitchen, like a kind of celestial white noise.

When you find a place where this sort of silence prevails, cherish it. Hold it in your heart, explore that texture in your mind till you understand that beyond all the sounds of the world, from the discordant roar of aircraft, the inanity of human chatter to the melody of springtime birds and the wind in the wheat, this silence is the song of the spirit that plays on whether we choose to hear it or not.