Julian of Norwich captured my imagination early on. Born in 1342, she chose to live alone in a cell attached to St. Julian’s Church in Norwich, England and her only companion was a cat. She was a theologian and a mystic, known for her written work, Revelations of Divine Love. Despite her seclusion from the world, she provided counsel to the many visitors who came to seek her wisdom in a time of plague.
Many have studied her, and I do not happen to be one of them. Still, her solitary lifestyle intrigued me immediately. In my early adulthood, I became a person of a deeply felt faith. On top of this, I was, and still am, an introverted person and a cat-lover. The story of her life alone with her cat, attached to a church, and connected to the world through hosting (at her window) numerous persons who needed love and compassion, sounded to my young self like an amazing way to live.
It is not easy to follow in her footsteps today; however, there are parts of her story that live on in my fantasies. I live in a small house, yet continue to dream of living in a smaller, “tiny” house. I am attracted by little homes, even little “rooms” in nature such as the rooms created under weeping willow branches. I also love the idea of being attached to a bigger, sturdier place like the church. My faith took me to seminary, then to ordination, and then to hospital chaplaincy. It also took me to other places—to a love of animals and earth and to the written word. Julian of Norwich and I do seem to have a few things in common after all.
My faith took me to seminary, then to ordination, and then to hospital chaplaincy.
But truthfully, I hadn’t thought of her for years until I cleaned out some drawers in my home on a recent afternoon. On a piece of white computer paper, I found the following quote attributed to Julian of Norwich:
No one listens, they tell me,
And so I listen…
And I tell them
What they have just told me,
And I sit in silence
Listening to them,
Letting them grieve.
It stopped me for a moment. As a grief counselor for a large hospice, I accompany people after they have lost a beloved family member. I do daily what Julian of Norwich writes about above so clearly and honestly. I sit in silence. I listen. My life has become much more like Julian’s than I realized.
It is a miracle to me whenever I recognize the length and breadth of humanity’s story. It’s not only that we’ve roamed this earth for so long, but that we were always human while doing it. In the quote above, the people coming to talk to Julian of Norwich were saying the very same things the people coming to talk to me today are saying, almost 700 years later. The grieving still can’t find compassionate ears to hear them. They still lose friends as soon as the going gets rough. They still have loved ones who tell them they need to get over it, or to please stop the weeping because it just makes everyone uncomfortable. They still feel alone and find themselves searching for who may have the strength and grace to minister to their hearts tenderly and for as long as it takes.
The people coming to talk to Julian of Norwich were saying the very same things the people coming to talk to me today are saying, almost 700 years later.
Grieving can be excruciating and can seem never-ending. Let’s be honest, loving someone who is grieving can be damn hard too. But when I read the quote from Julian of Norwich – especially the last line, “letting them grieve” – it makes my whole body sigh with relief. Grieving hurts, but not being allowed to grieve can kill, if not the body, then the soul. The only thing that gives relief is to be able (and be allowed) to do it.
While the inner essence of human beings remains the same over time, I can see how our societies have the capacity to evolve. And I have long looked at my cats, at the trees, at all creatures in nature in wonderment, at how they are what they were meant to be. There is no contorting of the self to try to be “acceptable” in the eyes of others. We were meant to be, as we are, tall or short, thin or thick, curly red hair or straight black hair, quick to weep, quick to laugh, or quick to stand up to injustice, quiet and insightful or an outgoing friend to all. It is just as it should be. Let us grieve, let us rejoice, let us love, let us take a stand, with our whole selves and always honoring the selves of others.