I debated whether to take the train to Norwich that day. I might not have gone.
I was in England on sabbatical from my high-demand position as dean at a large Episcopal Cathedral congregation in the U.S. My trip allowed me to talk with church leaders working in a cultural climate even more secularized than mine (months before Covid-19 arrived to shut down such travel). I thought my counterparts in England would have insight about sharing Christ’s good news during Western Christianity’s seeming cultural eclipse. (They did.)
I wanted to take in historical sites, too, digging in the soil of the English roots of my Episcopal heritage. Cambridge, which was my base for several days, had lots of charms—quaint streets, real bookstores, choral Evensongs, remarkable conversations, and a coffee shop with the best oat milk latte I’ve ever had.
But Norwich had also caught my attention—the city of Saint Julian, the medieval spiritual figure, the first woman who can be identified as writing in the English language. Her site was only an hour-and-a-half from my Cambridge base. Still, taking the train there and back would take the better part of a day, especially if I added the obligatory tourist visit to majestic Norwich Cathedral nearby.
Long ago, I read Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love (including her oft-quoted line, “all shall be well … and all manner of things shall be well”). Nice enough. And while over the years I dipped into her dense writing (remembering the vision she had of a hazelnut, representing the universe, small enough to be held in a hand, coming with God’s assurance that God held all things), I wouldn’t say she was one of my desert-island authors.
Besides, one of my seminary profs had downplayed her significance. I think he had fallen prey to seeing her as something of a smiley spiritual lightweight. Perhaps a Brit equivalent of St. Francis of the birdbath: Julian of the dreamy denial of harsh realities. Someone attractive to pop culture sensibilities but not deep.
But a conversation with former Archbishop Rowan Williams in his Cambridge study at Magdalene College persuaded me that the trip to Norwich would be worthwhile. His bemused smile over what my prof had said disabused me of any facile dismissal of this wise saint. He assured me of his admiration for Dame Julian. Could my quest to understand how the church can speak to the culture find guidance from a spiritual figure anchored in history and ancient wisdom?
Getting on the train began to feed my anticipation. Once there, the chapel was simple, rebuilt and patterned after the small quarters of her cell (the original walls no longer standing). But I felt a sense of silent awe. I was alert to more than the simple shrine’s furniture—an altar, crucifixes, a votive candle, a stone lintel piece into which had been chiseled “Here Dwelt Mother Julian.” I had a subtle sense of communion with someone who had centuries ago inhabited the space, who had delighted with overflowing joy to meet God there, even amid a harrowing plague and political chaos.
Could my quest to understand how the church can speak to the culture find guidance from a spiritual figure anchored in history and ancient wisdom?
Three other pilgrim-tourists were there, praying, sitting, watching in silence. We noted one another in wordless nods, but I’m not sure any of us spoke, except a married couple, in a moment of conversation in the language of murmurs, quieted for the sake of the others. There was a lovely dimness, seemingly of centuries. We were held in the quiet reverence.
At the Julian Centre’s adjacent library and religious gift shop, I found some treasures – a couple of books I would take back with me. And then conversation with the dear volunteers who kept the store and offered me tea and, inside a tiny ceramic cup, a single—well, why not?—hazelnut.
I did take the fifteen-minute walk to the imposing, impressive Cathedral Norwich is also known for. But it’s Julian’s cell I best remember. Especially in what would unfold mere months later, when I realized how Julian was not only pleasant, but prescient, someone whose hope forged in her hard times could carry over to ours, to mine.
I had, from the beginning, I think, some awareness of the immensities she faced from the plague-devastated society of fourteenth-century England. While we know precious little about Julian herself, scholars suppose that she was six years old when the first plague hit and forty-five years old during the last. She herself may have contracted the “pestilence.” Certainly, her visions, her “showings,” speak of her near-fatal bout with disease.
But it is hard to imagine the horrors of the Black Death, even against the backdrop of our virus-ravaged homes and hospitals and public spaces. Norwich, a center of trade and river-port commerce, played host to shipborne flea-ridden black rats infested with bubonic, pneumonic, and sepsis microbes. At least half of England’s population died in wave after wave of disease crashing into the byways and hearths and churches.
It is hard to imagine the horrors of the Black Death, even against the backdrop of our virus-ravaged homes and hospitals and public spaces.
Julian was an eyewitness to such suffering. In one vision she “saw a body lying on the earth, a body which looked dismal and ugly, without shape and form, as if it were a swollen, heaving mass of stinking mire.” No breezy platitudes here! But throughout the succession of images–gritty, graphic, painfully sensory, beautifully radiant with God’s love—a calm hope pervades.
While I write about the Trinity for an emerging book, Julian’s winsome talk of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit more and more rivets my attention. Who talks in such enraptured, erupting delight as this: “The Trinity suddenly filled my heart full of the utmost joy. … The Trinity is our maker, the Trinity is our protector, the Trinity is our everlasting lover, the Trinity is our unending joy and bliss, through our Lord Jesus Christ and in our Lord Jesus Christ”?
Few have spoken more eloquently of not only the fatherly caring of God, but also the motherly keeping of Christ, as Julian keys off of Jesus’s own maternal longings in the Gospels when gazing on Jerusalem, “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” There’s pathos and hope in such imagery.
I see Julian as an inspiration for our own times of turmoil and anxiety and loss. Our lockdowns and distancing and harrowing loss of life has made me even more drawn to this candidate for pandemic sainthood, has made me all the more glad I went to Norwich. My trek to an old saint’s stomping grounds that sunny morning grounded me in hope when it was my turn to face a virulent global catastrophe.
Our lockdowns and distancing and harrowing loss of life has made me all the more glad I went to Norwich.
Whenever we live, wherever we go, every age makes sense of its sufferings and deprivations. Even in dark times, “our faith,” writes Julian, “is a light, coming naturally from our endless day, which is our father, God; and in this light our mother, Christ, and our good Lord, the Holy Spirit, lead us in this passing life.”
Passing this life may be, short and even reluctant our pilgrim treks, too, but also shot through with another dimension, thanks to saints who endure hardship and help lead the way to our own forging of hope.