We are now in the second year of the global pandemic in which millions have died, including more than 500,000 in my own country. Vaccines are beginning to roll out, which will permit greater mobility for many of us who have self-isolated. Last summer, however, I knew a long, lonely winter awaited us in Chicago. That’s why my husband, Paul, and I erected a 12-foot by 12-foot clear plastic dome-shaped tent in our backyard. The “bubble” was equipped with a small portable heater and became my personal sanctuary for most of the winter. Inside, I played guitar, read books, observed the natural world around me, and wrote in a bubble-centric journal. Sometimes our cat, Filemon, would join me.
The last thing I read while in the bubble was a book about Julian of Norwich, who lived through the Black Death of the Middle Ages. Julian is not an “official” saint of the Catholic Church. But, she is pretty close, and her story is timely.
Who Was Julian?
The woman known variously as Julian, Juliana, Dame Julian, or Mother Julian was born in Norwich, England, in 1343. Very little of her life is documented, and we can’t even be sure of her real name. What we do know is that she spent her entire life in Norwich, survived at least two devastating pandemics, and at some point became an anchorite at Saint Julian’s Church.
Anchorites were holy women and men who shut themselves away from the world to pray in solitude, enclosing themselves in “cells” that were either attached to or on the grounds of a host church. While anchorages were generally one-room structures, they might also have a separate room for a servant, who took care of the anchorite’s practical needs, such as providing meals. Some believe Julian had a cat living with her, too, as cats were suggested companions in the rules governing anchoritic life.
A cell always had at least one window through which the anchorite would counsel and pray with members of the community who came seeking advice about daily matters.
Julian’s anchorage was not attached to the church building, so once a day she would have walked across the yard to listen to Mass from a small opening in a wall. But, much of her time was spent in an unusual activity for a woman of her time: writing.
On May 13, 1373, Julian was in the grips of a near-death illness, and in the process of receiving the Last Rites, when she reportedly went into a state of spiritual ecstasy. We know this because of her writings, in which she recorded the shewings, or visions that God showed her.
In the visions, 30-year-old Julian saw a different kind of deity than the one who formed the basis of 14th-Century Catholic teaching. The Church focused on sin’s harmful effects and a God who sat in harsh judgment of people. The shewings, on the other hand, revealed to Julian that sin had no power, because God was compassionate and loving.
In fact, Julian’s God seemed to delight in serving humanity. She described a banquet in which God sat not at the head of the table, but instead “moved throughout his household, filling it full of joy and mirth, in order to endlessly cheer and comfort his dearworthy friends most plainly and most graciously….” Julian wrote that humanity and the Divine were “oned together in love.”
Perhaps Julian sought out solitude as an anchorite specifically to have the time needed to record a thorough accounting of the shewings. She first completed a short manuscript, then, at age 50, produced a more in-depth work. Revelations of Divine Love was the first book written in English by a woman.
It is not known how Julian’s texts made their way out of the anchorage. Her theology was radical for the time — even heretical — so it was a physical risk even to write down her ideas.
Julian died in her 70s sometime after 1416, the year when another author, Margery Kempe, sought out the anchorite’s spiritual counsel at her cell.
No original versions of Revelations of Divine Love have survived the ages. The Benedictine and Bridgittine nuns preserved Julian’s work, but the Protestant Reformation required them to hide it for many years. The first published copy of Revelations still in existence today was edited by a Benedictine monk in 1670.
Julian’s ideas have inspired people across centuries. A number of beloved quotes from her book are well known in modern times, even appearing on everyday items like coffee mugs and tee shirts. Her most famous words, reflecting the loving comfort of her God, are: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
My Song for Julian
It’s also possible that Julian chose to self-isolate as an anchorite to escape the Black Death. When she was just six years old, the plague decimated 75 percent of the Norwich population. Then, as a young adult, a second plague killed infants and young children. One theory of Julian’s life is that, prior to becoming an anchorite, she might have been a mother who lost her children in the second scourge.
During our current pandemic, I have not been one of the many people who have lost close friends and loved ones. But, we all have experienced some measure of loss. So, while sitting in my bubble this past winter, I drew comparisons between my sanctuary and Julian’s anchorage. Julian and I both chose to withdraw from the world in our small “cells.” And, we both found an incredible measure of peace and joy in that solitude.
Eventually, I was forced to abandon my bubble. It collapsed under the weight of one too many Chicago snowstorms. Still, I’ve come to realize that, in a way, I’m Never Coming Out. ∗
Tagged: Anchorite, Dame Julian, Julian of Norwich, Mother Julian