January 26, 2021

Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich

I was seeking Julian, the first woman to write a book in English. She had lived in Norwich, England, seven hundred years ago. She is known as Julian of Norwich, her first name taken from the local church Saint Julian’s where she lived, as an anchoress, in a small room adjoining the church. One shuttered window in the common wall facing the sanctuary allowed her to participate in the mass and another window opened up to the outside world. There is no mention of her in any religious order.

An anchoress or anchorite was one of the earliest forms of Christian monastic living, quite widespread during the Middle Ages.  Withdrawing from secular society the person led a prayer-orientated ascetic life. Julian was reputed to be wise and she often gave spiritual advice and counsel to her visitors through the outside window.

Norwich is situated in an interesting area for bird photography and my husband, when he heard my plans, decided to accompany me. We divided up the week so we were bird watching on the Norfolk Broads one day and then on the other I followed my quest.

I was seeking a spiritual space of my own, not one imposed on me by generations of men, and I felt Julian could help me. Over my lifetime, as a woman, I had gained much in the legal, social and economic areas, but what I felt about the soul had little connection to what I encountered. What my body knew was not connected to any religious dogma, nor my intuition and consciousness to objective reasoning. My wisdom, gained from a lifetime of seeking, seemed to have little reality in the outside world. Julian offered me a powerful feminine image from her book The Revelations of Divine Love. “God all wisdom is our loving Mother.” The Church could easily have condemned this as blasphemy, but her book is considered a spiritual classic, unparalleled in English religious literature.

After Markus and I arrived in Norwich I set off for a short walk around our hotel. The district was called Tombland because hundreds of plague victims were buried there. I wondered if Julian, before she entered her retreat, could have lost children in the plague? Julian’s long life spanned parts of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. At that time the Black Death struck rich and poor alike. In Norwich, bad harvests followed quickly one upon another, and hunger and desperation invaded the town and surrounding countryside.

Those centuries saw England in the age of chivalry. Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales and the Hundred Years War dragged on against France. A husband was easily lost in such long term fighting.  Norwich, a walled city of consequences, was then famous for its wool and weaving. While visiting the open market, I stopped at a stall where a woman was selling hand-knitted articles.

“What a beautiful jacket,” I said. “You’re an artist.”

The woman smiled. “My family’s been in this business for centuries, right here in this market.”

“Would you know anything about Julian of Norwich then? She lived in a cell next to Saint Julian’s Church in medieval times. I’m trying to find out about her.”

“You know, we’ve been connected to this area for as long as my family remembers and the Middle Ages was tough for everyone. In Northern Europe many women developed passionate individual forms of religion at that time.”

“But she wrote a book, in fact she was the first woman to write one in English.”

“Maybe…but I don’t have time for that stuff. Look at the competition I’ve got.” She pointed in the direction of a couple of stands where brilliant silks and cottons, surveyed by their Indian or Pakistani owners, were laid out in rainbow order to attract buyers.

I left her stall, jostled by the crowds. Why, for the first time in English history, had a woman of no special importance or education written a book in Norwich? Shouldn’t she have been running a market stall or her husband’s house? Twenty or thirty years after finishing her manuscript, Julian composed a longer version of the same book. She had probably learnt to read and write to accomplish these tasks because most women were illiterate then.

Early the next morning, the enchantment of spotting a barn owl undulating across a freshly ploughed field dispelled my peevishness. On the Norfolk marshes searching for waders, I watched a purple sandpiper dance about on a rock, pecking at mossy seaweed, while the bitter North Sea waves splashed the rock’s surface. I knew the bird made a scrap of a nest on bare ground. Its alarm call was loud rapid laughing, “pehehehehehe…” This dumpy creature seemed to defy reason, but it lived fully as nature ordained.

On Sunday, while listening to the cathedral choir’s hymn singing during a traditional Palm Sunday service, I realized I wanted Norwich to be as noble and pure as the voices that lifted me up into spiritual bliss or as nature blossomed in the spring sunshine. If Julian had had such an extraordinary drive to write, then I had hoped to find a place of inspiration; not this town that had the dubious record of being the first European town where a case of blood accusation resulted in a massacre of Jews. While Julian lived the town’s council also condemned people to be burnt at the stake because they questioned the Catholic Church. The smell of their burning flesh and their cries of fear and agony probably drifted into Julian’s cell.

I sat in the cathedral pew, but my mind wandered. I left the horrors of history and thought about the fenlands, flattened below a vast expanse of sky. I daydreamed about the daffodils swaying, inaudible in movement, along the winding riversides, and visited the hedgerows aglow with hawthorn flowers.  High up on the cathedral steeple a pair of peregrine falcons were nesting. I had seen one, with closed wings, make a spectacular swoop on a hapless sparrow. For all its violent selection of life and death, nature restored me whenever I got too close to human cruelty.

When the Dean stood up to deliver his sermon my attention returned to the solemn cathedral service. The Dean spoke of our habit to exclude the narrative of the other, even to cultivate conflicting narratives. It was the week of sudden uprisings against tyrants throughout the Arab world and the devastating earthquake, tsunami and atomic alert in Japan. “We still think we can run the world better than God,” the Dean said.

A vision of the barn owl appeared, flying ghost-like towards me, and then I remembered the ancient misogynous fable that women had no souls. I thought many women believed they could run the world better than men. I’m not sure they put God in the equation.

I left the cathedral and wandered over to the newly reconstructed St. Julian’s Church, only a few blocks away. During the Reformation the outside cell had been demolished. During W.W. II the church received a direct hit and was badly damaged. Nothing physical, except for a couple of manuscript copies of her book, was left of Julian’s life.

I sat alone in the rebuilt cell with my feet up on a bench and recalled the stories, both about Julian’s time and mine. They were similar in many ways. I thought about the terrifying dysfunctional force out there in the world seeking to ensnare and entangle. Julian had written, “and all shall be well,” a strange remark considering her knowledge of human beings, but indicative of her obsessive faith. As a woman who had spent most of her life living as a foreigner, I knew there were always several points of view. Rejection was as familiar as misunderstanding.

My body felt soft and fragile against the wooden bench. My mind continued to twist and turn. I did not possess Julian’s visions but I had a mysterious need to write which was part of my spirituality. Creativity was essential to my life. Julian, who understood the purpose of her life, wrote, “God is love.” Julian found her truth in that mystical being called God. She needed to share their relationship to the point that all the rest seemed unimportant. Writing was essential to Julian too and maybe our reasons were not so different. But if Julian meditated, prayed and wrote, she also knew how to listen, not only to God but also to her neighbors. I would remember that about her.

For those interested in bird watching in Norfolk I recommend Stuart White, head of The Bird ID Company and a man with a profound love of his countryside and a great understanding not only of birds but of human beings. www.birdtour.co.uk






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