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Julian of Norwich: her walls cannot stop her inspiring others

by
05 May 2023

This month sees the 650th anniversary of her ‘shewings’. Sarah Meyrick talks to two authors inspired by her writings

Alamy

Julian of Norwich, reredos panel painted by Ellen Woodward in 1922 for Langham Church in Norfolk

Julian of Norwich, reredos panel painted by Ellen Woodward in 1922 for Langham Church in Norfolk

THE city of Norwich will be hosting a series of events this year to explore and celebrate the legacy of the mystic and anchoress Mother Julian. Retreats, talks, discussions, and services will be held to mark her life throughout 2023, but especially focused around her feast day this month.

The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, puts it this way. “Julian of Norwich’s legacy has made a significant contribution to English spirituality, and she is revered not only in this city and diocese, but across the world,” he writes in the introduction to the festival booklet of “Julian at 650” commemorative events.

“We find deep wells of consolation and hope in her writing, as she seems to have an uncanny knack to speak directly to us, 650 years after her shewings in May 1373. Perhaps that is because we remain a people who are, at our core, afraid. Afraid of conflict, pandemic, illness, ecological crises, and death. . . Julian helps us to knit together our lives so that we live with less dis-ease.”

 

JULIAN had been on Claire Gilbert’s mind for many years — long before she was aware of this year’s anniversary celebrations. Julian was “the bright star in a really dry Oxford theology degree, 30, nearly 40 years ago”, Dr Gilbert says. She wrote her doctoral thesis on Julian, in relation to ecological consciousness.

“But then I got cancer. And she moved from being the subject of my academic study to a companion; a spiritual companion on this long journey of gruelling cancer treatment, because of the way she comes at things. That is to say, she responds porously.”

She continues: “She helped me respond to the cancer: not to battle it, not to deny it, not to wish it wasn’t there, but to walk towards it with lipstick on and brightly coloured clothes.”

Dr Gilbert documented her journey through cancer in another book, Miles to Go Before I Sleep. The book was composed of letters written to friends during treatment. She was brutally frank about the experience.

“I really felt as though I had been given the chance to find my authentic voice. I had never been as honest as I was in those letters, which hadn’t originally been written for publication but just to my friends.

“I wanted to bring the same honesty of voice to Julian, if I could, in homage to her.”

The new book — and her first novel — is I Julian, published last month. She wasn’t confident about the undertaking: “I didn’t know if [Julian would] let me because she doesn’t like talking about herself. She says: ‘Don’t look at me — look at the visions and have a direct experience of the visions yourself.’”

Dr Gilbert acknowledges this hesitancy at the beginning of the book, where she has Julian telling her friend Thomas that she doesn’t want her story broadcast.

“But she let me, if I can put it that way, and the book came quite swiftly in the sense that the words really poured out of me.”

Writing about the visions was like prayer, she says. “I was going into this deep, deep place to allow myself to see, if I could, what she saw — which is what she asks for us to do anyway. So it’s a homage to her and her companionship through difficult times.”

She had fun making a novel out of the source material — Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love — and the “one or two bits of historical information” that exist about her. It meant getting to know the period really well, so that the known historical characters could become believable characters in her story.

What did she learn? “I learned that the 14th century is really not a million miles from the 21st century,” she says. People were facing “the rolling waves of pestilence, poverty, social unrest, the Peasants’ Revolt. There’s the feeling of injustice, and also the way that the Church was behaving, with Wycliffism and Lollardy beginning to rise up, and how it was responding to that.”

She finds echoes in today’s culture wars. “We’re taking positions, and we’re cancelling people. I was really interested to see these resonances, and that helped to bring Julian into our time.”

In the interests of the plot, she introduces extra characters such as the lay Sisters Felicia, Berta, Matilda, and Margaret, who lived in Norwich a century later, and made them parchmenters, because this was a trade open to women of the period — and because she needed a credible way of getting paper to Julian and introducing her to the scholarship that informed her spirituality.

Dr Gilbert has another historical figure, Isabel, becoming Julian’s patron. What about the young visitor, Gavin, who needles Julian so badly, suggesting her vocation is flawed by pride?

Dr Gilbert laughs; there is no historical Gavin. “If you’re a writer, you can have your revenge,” she says. “I did have an encounter like that with someone whom I had absolutely no respect for, who did completely undo me. And it was a heck of a spiritual lesson.”

Pride, she says, is part of Julian’s journey, as it is of her own. “We talk about the first conversion being the enemy of the second. You think you’ve got it, you think you’ve arrived, you think you’ve achieved what you need to achieve and you’re settled — but, if your intent is for God, that’s never going to be the case.”

Hodder & StoughtonClaire Gilbert

There’s another very graphic description based on Dr Gilbert’s personal experience. In one episode, Julian suffers from acute constipation, to the point where she can think of literally nothing else, let alone pray. “I had catastrophic constipation during my cancer treatment in response to the anti-sickness drugs,” Dr Gilbert says — something that readers of Miles to Go Before I Sleep may recall. “It really is what happened to me, exactly as I described there, including this sense at the end that your own soil is mixed with the soil of the earth.”

In the novel, when Julian finally finds release, she concludes that “God is not absent from this unspeakably revolting and relieving action. God does not scorn this work as He does not scorn any work,” and she concludes that her own soil is no different from the soil of the earth (“I am muddied with earth, part of earth, gardened”).

A fellow cancer sufferer — who also drew comfort from Julian — told Dr Gilbert that the words for soil and soul are the same in Middle English. “Isn’t that lovely?”

So, is I Julian informed more by the experience of cancer than of Covid, during which so many lived in isolation? “They were both parts of it, but the cancer was primary, definitely,” she says. Covid had some unexpected bonuses for her, because suddenly she wasn’t the only person worried about her weakened immune system.

“It was as if everybody joined me in this isolation. Everybody was going through the same thing. It was no longer an individual experience — it became a shared experience. And that is very Julian,” she says.

Does the idea of intentional self-isolation make any sense to the modern reader?

“Well, I wanted to convey something which I think is a very modern issue, and possibly an eternal issue for women, which is, a room of your own, to quote Virginia Woolf,” she says. “Time on your own, to be left alone . . . they were always important to Julian, and you see her really not loving the householder’s life at all, and needing time to read and be by herself.

“There was that growing sense of actively wanting solitude and silence, and to be left alone. So I think we might not want to be bricked up in a cell next to a church for the rest of our lives, but [modern women] will recognise that desire as rational.

“It’s even more rational when you think what the options were that were available to women in the 14th century. She didn’t want to be a householder. She didn’t want to join a community. And she thought about [joining a] lay community, and that’s obviously an attractive option, but most of what they did was exhausting to her, and what she really loved to do was to read and study.”

Dr Gilbert hopes that she has succeeded in showing that the focused, isolated life of prayer is full of incident. She’s keen to convey the depth of the spiritual experience. “You’ve got this character in a room who never goes anywhere for decades and decades. But it’s anything but boring.”

There’s an understanding that we need constant external stimulus in order not to be bored, but it’s really not the case, she says. The inner journey is rich, and terrifying and exciting.

And what of her most famous saying: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”?

Julian’s spirituality offers a hard-earned understanding that creation is held by God’s love, Dr Gilbert says. “There is nothing ‘motherhood and apple pie’ about this, because she walks to and through the pain of the crucifixion, and finds the joy on the other side, and this was, again, what she taught me with the cancer. That love is not a word to be used lightly.”

 

IN HER book For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain, Victoria Mackenzie has explored the life of Margery Kempe, a contemporary, in parallel with Julian’s. The book — narrated in alternating sections by the two women — builds up to their meeting in about 1413.

It is Ms Mackenzie’s first novel. She is better known as a poet: she is the winner of the Scottish Book Trust New Writer Award, and the inaugural Emerging Writer Award, from Moniack Mhor (Scotland’s National Writing Centre), and has had writing residencies in Scotland, Finland, and Australia.

The book has been very well received. Among the commendations on the cover is one from Roddy Doyle, who writes: “This is the best first novel I’ve read in years. It is short, yet so full and so vivid: it is amazing.” Reviewers have described it as “extraordinary”, “a pocket epic”, “superlative”, and “striking, elegant”.

What was its genesis? She was drawn to Julian of Norwich as someone she knew of, but not much about. “I don’t remember the first time I came across a reference to her. She’s just always been around, and her phrase ‘All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’

“But it was really her experience as an anchoress that interested me; so I started to do some reading. And it was while I was researching Julian’s life that I came across Margery Kempe for the first time, and was really taken with how different these two voices were, even though they lived at roughly the same time.

“They both had visions of Christ. On the surface, they’ve got a lot in common, but they came across as such incredibly different women. Then I realised that they had met, and as a writer it just seemed such an exciting thing, to imagine what these two women might have said to each other.”

Julian of Norwich presented “quite a blank canvas for me as a writer to fill in”, she says. “So my research for Julian was more general in terms of thinking about what was plausible for a female anchoress. I realised that she probably had to be a woman of means, to be able to pay to be an anchoress. And I decided that it was quite plausible that, given there had been successive waves of the plague in her lifetime, she’d experienced a high level of grief in her life, which is why I decided to give her a family.”

Judie BroadfootVictoria Mackenzie

Margery Kempe, by contrast, gives a lot more of herself away in The Book of Margery Kempe, which she dictated to a scribe when she was in her sixties. (It bears the distinction of being the first autobiography written in English, by a man or woman, just as Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love is the earliest surviving book in English written by a woman.)

“There’s so much more Margery in The Book of Margery Kempe, and so it was much less of a blank canvas,” Ms Mackenzie says. “I knew that she had 14 children. I knew that she was from the merchant class in King’s Lynn [then Bishop’s Lynn]. I knew that she was married to a man called John. I knew that she had worked as an ale wife, and so on.

“So, Margery was actually, in some respects, more difficult to write as an act of imagination, because I had a much tighter structure to work within. And I wanted to to stick to the facts as much as possible, whereas with Julian, I felt I stuck to what was plausible, but within that I have much more scope to imagine.”

The two women are very different in character. Margery is chaotic and noisy: she weeps noisily in public when she thinks of the crucifixion, and shares her visions with everyone she meets. Julian, on the other hand, is much more contained in both personality and circumstances. Does she have a favourite?

She admits she flies the flag for Team Margery. “There’s so much to admire in Julian. She’s a tremendous theologian, and, if I was having a dinner party, I’d probably rather that Julian was there.

“But I have this real soft spot for Margery Kempe. You know, she’s a nightmare. She’s annoying. She’s so ‘extra’, as people say.”

But scratch the surface — the boasting about her connection with Jesus — and you find something else. “It just sounds like the voice of someone who was actually quite insecure, and that was the source of all of the self-aggrandisement,” Ms Mackenzie says.

“I was really drawn to that vulnerability. When I was writing Julian, I felt very much, here’s a woman who’s in control of what she’s saying, who knows how to use language, and her book is full of sophisticated literary techniques. Whereas, with Margery’s voice, I think one of the reasons that she’s not been taken as seriously as Julian is that her narrative voice lacks that kind of authority. She’s all over the place. There’s a sense that she’s not in control of what she’s saying.”

The complexity of Margery is part of her attraction for a writer. “I enjoyed trying to create this boastful voice, but also to nudge the reader towards seeing this other side of her that was vulnerable. With Julian, it’s very much what you see on the page; but, with Margery, it’s more about reading between the lines to get to the real Margery.”

Even allowing for her own exaggeration, Margery was undoubtedly courageous. She stood up to her critics — no slight thing, at a time when claiming direct communication with God could see you burnt at the stake — and travelled widely as a pilgrim to Rome, Assisi, Jerusalem, and Santiago de Compostela.

“She’s so brave; she’s so bold,” Ms Mackenzie says. Initially, she thought she would include these pilgrimages in the novel, “because they’re such great stories and she fills them with so much colour and detail”. But Julian was 30 years older than Margery, and, to avoid losing the sense of dialogue, she decided to draw the narrative to a close with the meeting between the two.

“Margery was absolutely fearless. Even now [her travels] would be a daunting experience. But she was doing it hundreds of years ago.”

It’s easy, she says, to see Julian as the superior character. “I thought it would be really interesting, when they met, for Julian to see something to admire in Margery. So I have tried to hint at that as well — that she admires the way that Margery is prepared to speak up about her visions, whereas Julian kept them much closer. . . I thought it would be interesting for the reader to have someone [in Margery] as admirable as Julian.”

By Margery’s own account, she is incredibly successful at answering her critics, drawing on a considerable body of theological knowledge. Even if we take some of her boasts with a pinch of salt, she certainly travelled widely — and lived to tell the tale at a time of great danger, particularly for a woman on her own. “There’s no getting around that fact that she did risk being arrested and charged with heresy. And, somehow, she always managed to get out of it.”

Julian led a very different, physically restricted life. “I found this idea of the anchoress so interesting, partly because, in our own time, it seems so countercultural to actively choose a life of that kind of privation, that kind of sensory deprivation,” she says. “That kind of restriction goes against everything that most people yearn for in their own lives. So I was really interested to think about why a person would make those choices.

“But then, when I was researching anchorites, one of the things that really struck me was the life of a medieval woman. You would have had so few opportunities to read and think and write.”

Like Dr Gilbert, she reflects that the lives of most medieval women would have been taken up by domestic duties. “Some women became nuns, of course, but I felt like the life of the nun is actually also incredibly busy. So I began to see the life of the anchoress as a really interesting opportunity for women to actually have that kind of time that some men could take for granted: to have time for contemplation and prayer, and possibly obtaining reading materials. Perhaps to write as well. So it was a kind of a paradox of kind of bodily imprisonment, but possibly intellectual freedom.”

Ms Mackenzie doesn’t avoid the physical deprivations of Julian’s existence. She paints her withdrawal from the world as a terrible struggle, especially at the beginning. She wrote the book during the pandemic. How did that inform her writing?

Time felt different, she says. “A lot of people’s experience of time changed, because we weren’t quite so restricted to clock time. We weren’t catching buses and trains. We didn’t have to be at the office at 8.30 a.m. . . I definitely felt that I was paying much more attention to time in terms of the seasons and the natural world, things that were happening in the garden. I tried to put some of that perception of time in Julian’s perception, thinking about smelling the freshly cut hay and the cold winter wind and watching the light changing.”

There was also the worry she attributes to Julian about not being productive. “There was that feeling of panic that you’ve got all this time, and you’re not doing anything, and you can’t make yourself do anything. I think a lot of people felt that they had time on their hands. But also we were so anxious, watching the news and the horror of more and more people becoming infected and dying, and it was such a stressful time,” she says.

“I was channelling some of those emotions for Julian when she initially enters the cell.”

AlamyThe Shrine of St Julian in Norwich

Again in common with Dr Gilbert, Ms Mackenzie was also struck by how contemporary the two women felt. “There’s a 600-year gap between us and them, but, when I started to do my research, I was really taken with how real the medieval world felt to me,” she says.

“Their concerns are not really that different in some ways from our concerns. Things like grief and illness, and motherhood, and — especially for Margery — questions about how we fit into our community. Are liked and valued? How do we live a meaningful life? They’re simply the same.”

What about the spiritual exploration in the novel? Have readers understood this? “I’ve seen quite a few reviews where people say, ‘I’m not religious, but I enjoyed it,’ as if they’ve been surprised by the fact that they could enjoy a book that was so obviously engaged with theological ideas,” she says.

She doesn’t have a religious faith herself. “But I think that Julian’s theology is fascinating, and, even as someone who’s not a Christian, I’ve always been interested in religion. I feel that it’s the bedrock for our ethical and legal systems now, so it’s kind of crazy not to be interested.

“But her theology seems to really chime with a lot of contemporary ideas. . . The emphasis on being loved by God, and God being both a mother and a father. I know that Julian didn’t invent these ideas, but she certainly seems to be someone who’s popularised them to an extent, and they seem very resonant today.”

Ms Mackenzie was keen to move away from the suggestion that the visions of either woman were caused by illness. People have suggested that Margery suffered from postpartum psychosis, and Julian was in the grip of a fever when she experienced her shewings. “When men have had visions, they haven’t been dismissed in the same way. I’ve touched on the medical [aspects], but I was very concerned to take these visions on the women’s own terms, and not dismiss them as if they were just a result of some kind of psychosis.”

A couple of the reviews — including that in the Church Times (Books, 6 April)— have suggested that both books should morph into plays (“Both demand performance.”)

Dr Gilbert loves the idea. “Oh, I think that would be amazing. It would take quite some actress [to play Julian], because it’s because it’s an interior journey.” Ms Mackenzie is just as enthusiastic. “I think it’s because of how distinctive the voices are, and they were just given to me because they’re there in the original books,” she says. “Those voices just come singing out of their own texts.”
 

I Julian by Claire Gilbert is published by Hodder & Stoughton (978-1-399-80752-4);£18.99/Special CT price £15.19.

For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain by Victoria Mackenzie is published by Bloomsbury (978-1-5266-4788-7); £14.99/CT price £13.49.

 

‘It is a time of great unknowing, of trusting’

Claire Gilbert

I am inside my cell and inside myself but I am not withdrawn. I am open. Porous.

My writing is prayer. I do not know what I will write and I cannot let this trouble me, for if I worry the writing ceases. When the time comes to write, however I feel, I sit at my table. Gyb jumps on to his stool beside me and I open my parchment book and sharpen my quill pen and fill it with ink and place the tip of the nib on the page and allow words to emerge.

I do not know what the words will be, and in this time, Thomas, I am aware of a great listening from all those for whom I write and they are vast in number but I do not turn to them or think of them because that stays my hand too. It is as if I have to find my way through to a new place of understanding, not with my mind but with all of me, focused only on my pen, aware of this great company of listeners but finding my way alone with my pen as my guide, and I am so quiet and careful as I watch the words emerge from my pen because I do not know what they will say and they will only say these new seeings if I do not interrupt them with any idea, any idea at all, Thomas, of what they ought to say or for whom they say it.

And as with my writing, so with my private prayer before the image of my beloved brother and mother, Jesu. My unknowing is deeper than it has ever been. No matter how I feel, when the time in the day comes to pray, I wash my face and smooth my clothes and kneel, and slow down my breath, and speak the Pater Noster at a slow pace accompanied by Gyb’s deep purring.

Slowly, prayer — open, deep, quiet prayer — emerges in me and I can bring the names of those for whom I pray into the great warmth of Presence and give them into that comfort and beauty. And when I have prayed their names I fall into silence and sometimes it is a beseeching silence, a longing, an emptiness with nothing to fill it, and sometimes it is full and there is no need for trust or faith or any movement at all because I am not even aware of my own place, there is only God, and all is well.

And my counselling takes the same more deeply unknowing form. When I open the curtain of my cell and the eyes and heart of me to the person seeking me, I know nothing at all and I do not speak. I only listen. Those who come learn that they will not be taught by me but by the movement of God in their own hearts. And that they are safe to speak freely when they are with me.

Even the Bishop’s spies cannot provoke words from me at this time. As the world is cramping itself in distorted fear of persecution, I am learning a new language. It is for all people and I cannot jeopardise the learning with fear that the words will be wrong and my thinking heretical.

I follow the thread of the writing on the page, the stillness in prayer, the words I hear from my visitors, and the invisible barrier stopping my boat opens, just a little, just enough to move through carefully, carefully, and now I am in a narrow river and it is turbulent all around me and the thread I am following is leading me through the turbulence that I feel but do not heed, so closely am I attending to the thread that is guiding me through.

It is a time of great unknowing, of trusting, of care, of deep quiet, open to all that surrounds me: fear of persecution, and grief still at the great loss of the pestilence, and anger at the injustice of those who wield power, and terror at what is yet to come, and I am not separated by a hard membrane any more but porous to it and I know nothing.

Now I can see, Thomas, that by grace my anchorhold is a tiny, steady light in the heart of a great swirling troublous darkness, and it draws people to it who are perhaps strengthened, but I myself know nothing save to follow this thread. Not for myself. For all. 

 

‘The smell of burnt flesh hangs over the city’

Victoria Mackenzie
 

I have always been good at being quiet.
At being still.
Amidst the bustle of this world, it does no harm to have
a woman who watches,
who sees the new leaves unfurl
the clouds build and darken and fall
the dewdrops gathering on the blades of grass
at dusk. 

No one can enter my cell, but many people come to my window on King Street. When I have a visitor I put up a black curtain so my person is kept hidden. My visitors include lords and ladies, merchants and their wives, traders, farmers, weavers, dyers, bakers, coopers and women who sell their bodies.

I give the same counsel to them all, reassuring them of God’s love and asking them to find forgiveness and patience in their hearts for others. For we are all imperfect creatures, in need of these things daily.

From my window I hear many tongues — English, French, Latin, Flemish, Cornish — though laughter and anger sound much the same in any language. I hear dogs barking and horses whinnying, and the sound of traders calling out their wares has become as familiar as birdsong: Hot peascods! Ribs of beef! Hot pies!

From the mouths of pedlars and minstrels much information has reached my ears. I heard about the crowning of the new king, whose mother tongue was English, not French; I heard when there were three popes claiming to be the only true pope; I heard when Henry le Despenser died and the new bishop was consecrated; I heard when the poet Geoffrey Chaucer died.

I also hear much in the way of gossip and speculation. People tell me the stories of their lives, and some days my mind swirls with their words. Whispers of dark deeds and crimes and violence.

Some years ago they started burning heretics nearby. I’m told they’re tied to stakes, with brushwood piled around them so the fire burns vigorously. When the wind blows from the north, I smell charred flesh on the breeze and hear screaming. I picture black petals of skin rising up into the air.

Heretics. That’s what they call people who own a Bible in English; or who believe that men are saved through God’s love; or who feel close to God without need of a priest to intercede for them; or who question whether the buying of pardons is really God’s will. All over the city, houses are searched, people are arrested. The smell of burnt flesh hangs over the city, shaming it.

Go, gentle souls, I whisper over the screams. Depart this world and go to your Lord who loves you.

Sara tells me that weeping relatives sometimes beg for a remnant from among the ashes. The officials refuse, so loved ones come later, in secret, scrabbling for some piece of their departed, some chip of bone they can bury and visit as a grave.

After all these years, I have told no one of my shewings. People come to me because I am an anchoress and live quietly, not because I have heard the voice of God.

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