Julian of Norwich (1343 - about 1416) caught my attention 20 years ago as I was training to become a spiritual director. She became a heroine, as I read about her and learned to appreciate her ways of relating to God’s love. “God is our clothing, that wraps, clasps and encloses us so as to never leave us.” This quote nearly leaves me breathless. Julian lived at a time of heightened fear through plagues, wars, famine and peasant uprisings.
As we moved into lockdown here in NZ a month ago, I wondered what the mystics and particularly Julian offered me from her experience of God and prayer during her isolation throughout the Black Plagues. What parallels would I find?
In late medieval Europe many women withdrew from society to live walled in, alone in a room attached to a church. They were called Anchorites. Julian, and other anchorites, lived a life of prayer; particularly praying on behalf of others. Their lives of isolation empowered them to express their love for Jesus. From there they encouraged and supported other followers of Jesus, through their prayers and through their counsel. Many became the ‘wise women’ of the townships. There was freedom for these women to live a life of individual contemplation.
Often these women lived in the centre of a community with their cells facing busy roads where passers by might stop to chat and ask advise. Probably Julian was glad to hear and also provide others with local gossip! The anchorites were there not just for there own benefit but for the sake of others. They were there to ‘feel compassion’ and ‘gather to their hearts all those who are ill or wretched’.
During their isolation Julian speaks of her own vulnerability - but suggests seeing that as a strength and that suffering and difficulties will not defeat her… Christ did not say, ‘You will not be perturbed, you shall not be troubled, you shall not be distressed,’ but he said, ‘You will not be overcome.’
As I've lived these past nearly six weeks in isolation, what have I noticed? I’ve not been shopping or out in our car all of this time. Others have shopped for us (as for Julian). I’ve walked in the neighbourhood most days and had many zoom conversations with friends, colleagues and directees.
I’ve lived more internally and been recognising my vulnerability and losses. But I’ve also lived with a heightened awareness of God. I’ve found myself more frequently coming to my ‘prayer cell’ and sitting in the love of Jesus - his love, mercy and grace toward me; his love, mercy and grace toward the world at times overwhelmed with fear and grievous pain and loss. Often no words, but noticing the gaze of God - wounded pain in that gaze. My prayer intentions for others, for the world has increased; gathering to my heart all those who are ill or wretched.
Perhaps I’m recognised as the ‘wise woman’. Like Julian, I too have women stopping by (on zoom) for counsel. Indeed more have come during this time of ‘plague’, wanting to make sense of the times. Women who live and work in the role of overseas mission. We gossip and we sit in silence together and wait, often in our pain, to notice God who is our clothing, coming and wrapping us, clasping us and enclosing us in a way that we know She’ll never leave us.
This is not a chosen isolation like Julians, but it is certainly a time of inward withdrawing; withdrawing into the deep pain and compassion of God. I do get perturbed, and troubled and distressed, but I will not be overcome.