BACK in January, when the coronavirus seemed only a distant prospect, a blur on the edge of our screens, I received an unexpected message from Wuhan. A woman there, self-isolating within that greater isolation, because she had symptoms, had taken comfort in one of my sonnets and wanted to let me know.
As I read her message on social media, the world seemed suddenly smaller, the distant prospects close. I asked which poem it was, and was amazed to learn that it was my sonnet on Julian of Norwich. I was surprised, at first, but then it all made sense. My correspondent, a Christian teaching in the International School in Wuhan, had suddenly found herself, willy-nilly, walled in, and, even within the city walls, further enclosed in her own room, looking out through a window, receiving food through a hatch. What could she do but read and pray?
And, of course, her thoughts turned to Julian; for Julian was a woman who had chosen, and made fruitful, just such enclosure as my correspondent was now enduring. Julian was a woman in a city many times menaced by plague, ill herself, who nevertheless through and in that illness sought a new intimacy with Christ and found his wounds touching and redeeming hers. She was an anchoress who had found again her anchor-hold in God, holding strong and steady amid the tides of panic and blame which turned and shifted around her.
Indeed, she swam against, and helped to turn, a tide of bad theology. In a time when illness was deemed to be a judgement from God and a sign of sin, Julian prayed to be made ill that she might come closer to Christ. In an age that considered outbreaks of infection to be a sign only of wrath and condemnation, she discerned that Christ knows and loves and holds us even and especially when we suffer, and that his meaning, his intent towards us in all things, is only love.
My reader in Wuhan, I’m glad to say, has fully recovered, but it may be that, by now, some of my readers here have also become accidental anchorites or anchoresses, might also take hope and comfort in Julian, and might learn afresh from her.
So, I hope that these words, which I composed years ago in Julian’s little cell in Norwich, and which found their way to Wuhan, might also be useful to some of us now, wherever we might happen to be walled in.
Julian of Norwich
Show me, O anchoress, your anchor-hold
Deep in the love of God, and hold me fast.
Show me again in whose hands we are held,
Speak to me from your window in the past,
Tell me again the tale of Love’s compassion
For all of us who fall onto the mire,
How he is wounded with us, how his passion
Quickens the love that haunted our desire.
Show me again the wonder of at-one-ment
Of Christ-in-us distinct and yet the same,
Who makes, and loves, and keeps us in each moment,
And looks on us with pity, not with blame.
Keep telling me, for all my faith may waver,
Love is his meaning, only love, forever.