The first paper I wrote in graduate school didn’t really work as an academic argument. I was trying to claim something about domestic imagery in the writing of Julian of Norwich, but even after months of attempting to formulate a thesis that worked, I just couldn’t wrangle a coherent meaning out of it. It just never coalesced.
However lacking in focus it might have been, it did not prevent me from becoming utterly fascinated with Julian of Norwich and with the anchoritic life she exemplified.
The anchorites (and anchoresses) were a largely medieval phenomenon, cropping up all over Europe from the tenth century and beyond.
Essentially, the people who decided to become anchorites would add a cell (or anchor hold) onto the sides of previously existing churches and would remain in those rooms praying and meditating until their deaths. Usually a small window on the side of the anchor hold was the only place where they could have any contact with the outside world. Often, the communities from which they came would perform a funeral for the person as they laid the final bricks on their cells.
As Europe suffered from plague, famine, and war, Julian of Norwich attached herself to the church of St. Julian in Norwich, England. Many people believe she may have lost all her family in one of the widespread epidemics of plague.
Having experienced, in the grips of her own sickness, a series of startling visions or divine revelations of Christ, she decided to compile these into a single text that she continued to revise for the next forty years. She became the first woman to publish a book in English.
Her theology was noteworthy at the time because she postulated a God who was not only Father but also Mother. She described a God who does not will the destruction of his creation even when that creation has rebelled and sinned, but earnestly desires instead its merciful redemption.
That sounds simple and unoriginal enough, but I wonder how many of truly believe that of God and don’t need to be reminded all the time. I wonder how many of us live as if God really delighted in us and if we could delight, therefore, in ourselves.
I wish I thought more like Julian of Norwich. Every time I read her Revelations of Divine Love, I find myself instructed and uplifted in ways that remain fresh and vital.
Just a couple Sundays ago, our lectionary reading at church was the often-quoted “let him take up his cross and follow me” passage.
This portion of scripture has never been an easy one for me. I have always struggled with a vision of a vengeful God as taker and have, consciously or otherwise, always found myself focusing on instances in the Bible and in the lives of the people around me of heartbreak and loss and abandonment as signs of the callousness of God or of his implacable jealousy for our single-minded love.
I do not claim that this is my systematic theology, but it’s one of those visceral beliefs not so deeply submerged in the realm of my subconscious. Scratch the surface when something painful happens to me or to people I care about, and some part of me feels like my fears become justified.
But Julian’s insistence on the pervasiveness of God’s love and mercy are like cool water to me every time I encounter them.
Her proclamation, “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well,” has been quoted by many authors, including T.S. Eliot. I used to keep several of her quotes scattered around my office and bedroom and kitchen, to remind me of the possibility of a world that was shaped and molded not by a callous God, but by one who loved it all deeply and intimately.
Another of her more popular images is the illustration of the hazelnut—she holds a hazelnut in her hand but sees it as a metaphor for the entire created world. God made it. God loves it. God will keep it.
But the quote that has meant the most to me over the years was this one—I have taken it with me into the varied anchor holds of my life—from the bathroom mirrors and refrigerator doors that have filled my safe and sacred spaces. Of a vision of Christ, she writes, “And these words: You will not be overcome, were said very insistently and strongly, for certainty and strength against every tribulation which may come. He did not say: You will not be troubled, you will not be belaboured, you will not be disquieted; but he said: You will not be overcome. God wants us to pay attention to these words, and always to be strong in faithful trust, in well-being and in woe, for he loves us and delights in us, and so he wishes us to love him and delight in him and trust greatly in him, and all will be well.”
In the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises—the grace or understanding of the first week is towards a profound understanding of God’s mercy and love. That may be the primary movement, but it’s the one to which I keep returning—the one I most need to grasp, over and over and over again.
Julian concludes her book with this thought, “Do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same. But you will never know different, without end.”
Know it well. Love was his meaning. Love. So grounded in love and grounded in the root of our own being, we continue to learn that all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well. Over and over and over again.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.