Dead To The World: The One Who Prays

I have been studying and thinking about Julian for the best part of 35 years. I wrote a small booklet on her back in 1999. But she still plays within my mind, calling me to look further, deeper, to  cast aside any assumptions I may have and conclusions I may have drawn…which only reflect the merest hint of the truth of the fullness and freedom of her life within the strictest type of enclosure. It is as if to get to know Julian, I have to immerse myself completely, so that I can hear those young market boys up well before dawn of dawn, as they still do, singing the ancient songs to each other, which echo round the old buildings, as they set up their stalls on the Royal market which began in the 1200’s, and smell the foul stench of the tanners businesses that line King Street just beside her cell, the bustle and noise of life going about its daily business mingling, jostling alongside the prostitutes touting their bodies, using the trickery of dresses too tight, lip and cheek colouring too loud and quick sharp laughter to attract, as they chance to gain quick business and money from the traders or sailors, with their foreign languages and drunken cursing, just in on the morning tide of the Yare…strangers needing comfort, far away from home.

Julian always causes me difficulty. How to portray a woman of such breadth, such expansive vision and compassion, how to describe a pearl within its oyster shell who defied its enclosed restrictions and escaped to roam down the centuries. Her voice, clear as the day she verbalised her revelations and committed them to parchment. She did achieve a certain type of immortality, yet likely had no particular intention to her notoriety. I have to do the impossible it seems, to travel backwards in time, to a world where life was brutal by our modern standards, hell and the devil were real and present and only one salvation existed; that of a priest, confession and last rites for the comfort of the world to come. I need to enter a world full of colour, yet one where my thoughts of freedom was an unknown concept to most, the Church was all, ruled all, and each person born led a regulated life where every action and task had its own authorised time and place and none stepped outside it for fear of excommunication and eternal damnation. I must look at the options available to a woman in those times and make my choices as Julian did, the palette is not broad, there are few real options open to me. To my understanding it is not possible that Julian had not married already and had children. Her language and her whole energy within her words speaks as one who has loved and lost, and so I presuppose in this blog that she has indeed known love, been loved, offered and shared love and now finds herself bereft and alone, yet warm in the memories of what she has had too.

And so I start this blog with a meshing together of the two worlds, hundreds of years apart, and invite the storyteller to weave our worlds together; to ease us in, ever closer to the small poor fire in Julian’s cell one dark winter night….600 years ago.

Fire

In a small cell, an anchoress sits alone, as she has done for years…

Tonight the gales are whipping round the small opening that acts as a threshold between me and the world outside. The wooden shutters are battering against the stone walls of my cell like the devils legions after my soul, tearing with clawed hands to find a way in.  This one room has been my home, my womb for how many years now? Yes, it must be thirty years this coming December. Thirty years since according to the church, I died to the world and entered the living coffin that is the meaning and symbol of the anchorite’s cell. Indeed my own coffin has been here in this room with me since the day I entered, that I may contemplate upon it each day and consider my own mortality, something we all share. Yet it seems such a short time ago that I can scare believe it has been thirty years. I am an old woman now, no longer the young woman with lofty aspiration that renounced the world and its desires and became no-one, without even a name; for the dead have no need of a name. Now I am known by the name of the Church to which my cell is joined, and my birth name is lost in the mists of time and landscapes of my memory alone. I am she with no-name, she who does not really exist.

I did have a name of course, in the before times; my name was Julianna. I can still hear my mother calling me in to eat, from my play amongst the fields of swaying golden corn all around our house and wildflower meadows that grew as high as me when I was young. I remember the wind blowing through the huge oak trees, rustling like my mother’s skirts as she busied herself preparing food and I remember when we all, with sickles cut down the stalks of corn, picked the plums and apples from our trees and stirred the potage on the fire, with bread baking by the fire on stones. They were good honest ways of living and we were happy…in the before times. I remember as a young child sitting at my mother’s knee as she spun her wool and slowly learned how to tease the strands into a long thread without breaking it. I remember her tugging the knots in my long curly hair as she combed it for fleas whilst I sat on the floor at her knees, and I remember it being cut off to the head when I came here dropping to the floor…and me not caring anymore. Now it is long again and matters not, for no human ever looks upon me, other than my two servant girls, for I am the living dead. I shall never know the look of a man’s desire again, that is all in the past.  I am the talisman, the good luck charm set betwixt man and his God…I am the one who prays.

What none of us knew then of course was that the chain of life itself would be broken and destroyed utterly by such a plague as none of us could have imagined. A horror so complete that it felt as if God himself had unleashed the devil from his chains and given him free will to torture, punish and lay waste to all life. The solace of old age, is that the memory of childhood becomes sharper, clearer and comes knocking at one’s door more readily than when the tumultuous storms of living toss one around emotionally as if on stormy seas intent on devouring the body with passion and the soul with its illicit nature of pleasures shared and rejoiced in. Yes, I have known far more passion than I ever confessed to the priests before entering here. I had a husband, and dear cherubim children, three of them, a daughter and two sons…all of whom I buried before the age of five, death stealing them from me along with so many thousands of others within three short days of falling ill along with my husband and father and remaining two sisters and all but one of my brothers. All gone as if they had never been and I stood alone and bereft.  My mother and brother, who survived if survival is the right term, knew of this life of mine that preceded my decision to become an anchorite and kept silent. There are many secrets kept by the people who lived through that time.  It is as if with age, come smoother waters, making easier sailing and the horizons become so vividly clear. For so many years all I could remember was horror, with the smell of death in every breath and grief so overwhelming that I could scarcely breathe for it. But now, I stroke my children’s tousled hair or glimpse my husband, my father, my beautiful sisters and brothers as I sit by the fire in my other state of space and time; so familiar to me, and I know a peace and give thanks for that. I am alone no more and I know that life carries on like that unbroken thread of my mother’s wool. It has been a life blessed by my Lord in so many ways for He, my risen Lord, has always been with me, my constant companion through the darkness.

I eat gratefully the bowl of potage and chunk of bread my woman Alice has passed through to me, drawing my cover tighter around my aching knees, grimacing as my swollen joints in my hands and knees cause dull aching pain that seems to rack my body now. No fire on this earth can warm me enough to ease them. After eating I can rise above this old body again in silent witness of my Beloved Lord and leave this wretched pain behind me, but my pain is as nothing to the dying Lord’s whilst on the cross and I remind myself of this sharply. This eases my mind just in anticipation  that such pain always has release to come after. There is peace in that place, and one day it is promised that it will be eternal for me and I shall know no pain, nor have troubling thoughts or worries. All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

Julian of Norwich, Author, Theologian, Anchoress

In this blog I shall attempt to relay much of my own research and thought about this elusive woman, who as an anchoress lived in her cell attached to St Julian’s Church in Norwich, England for about 60 years. I was born, grew up and had my children within 12 miles of her cell, and visited it often. I took her name as my own middle name. I like her, have belonged to the mystical tradition since childhood. I specialise in medieval social history. In this blog I want to look more deeply at what her work says to me, casting light on it from the mystical point of understanding and also explore more of her possible relationships with contemporaries such as Adam Easton, Thomas Erpingham and the people who surrounded her and came to her window for her help and guidance.
Julian’s life may have been largely solitary, but it was also rich and fulfilled. What made her choose this path of religious dedication? Certainly she could have had a much easier life as a nun in a convent. The anchoresses path was harsh and unremitting, considered dead to the world, perpetually reminded of the fragility of life and their own mortality. Yet through her written work, which miraculously survived, we hear her voice clearly very much alive in all its wisdom, love and breadth, celebrating life and relationship and ordinary everyday experience. She is a fine theologian, the first woman to write a book in English and very much a woman. Julian speaks gently, in a motherly loving and nurturing way to us down through the ages…and draws us into her contemplative solitude to find unexpected revelation and riches undreamt of.

Strictly speaking Julian has never been sainted, yet the people still call her Saint Julian, or Mother Julian. The people’s accolade for a woman they loved and still love today.

Stephanie

Julian