The pandemic swept through Europe with terrifying speed, leaving in its wake a staggering death toll and severe economic dislocation.
The disease was the Black Death. The time was the Middle Ages. But the description may strike a familiar chord for readers today.
As the world reels from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, churches are seeking new ways of engaging in worship and ministry. Anglicans across the worldwide communion have suspended public worship to prevent the spread of the virus. The call for individuals to self-isolate poses challenges for many Christians cut off from the normal life of their church.
These conditions go a long way to explain a resurgence of interest in Julian (or Juliana) of Norwich, an English anchoress and mystic who lived from 1343 to sometime after 1416—and who spent much of her life in seclusion. As an anchoress, Julian lived in a sealed room attached to St. Julian’s Church in the city of Norwich, where she sought to devote herself entirely to prayer and union with God.
In March, the BBC published an article featuring an interview with historian Janina Ramirez, in self-isolation at the time due to coronavirus symptoms. Of Julian, Ramirez said, “I have never felt she was more relevant.” Priests and bishops in Norwich also spoke of renewed interest in the writings of Julian.
A tumultuous period
During her lifetime, Julian experienced the first (1348-50) and second (1361-62) waves of the Black Death in England, which historians estimate to have killed 40-60% and 20% of the population, respectively. Resulting turmoil from the plague was a major cause of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, which ended with suppression of the rebels by King Richard II.
Little is known about Julian’s real name or background. Her decision to become an anchoress followed a severe illness when she was 30 years old, characterized by a high fever, difficulty breathing and the sense of being paralyzed. But it was while fighting this illness that Julian began to experience the first of her many visions.
Fr. Brendan Pelphrey, a retired Greek Orthodox priest and scholar who has devoted much of his career to studying Julian’s life and theology, describes Julian’s first vision, which took place as a priest was approaching her bed.
“The priest brings a cross to her,” Pelphrey says. “The cross begins to glow. She sees Christ standing right in front of her, is quite startled, and then a voice at one point says to her, ‘Look up to heaven. Don’t look at the cross, but look up to heaven.’”
As Pelphrey explains, Julian interpreted this voice as a temptation and not the voice of Christ: “She was looking directly at the suffering Christ, but was being tempted to look away from his suffering.” Instead, Julian looked down to the crucifix as the priest told her to.
Where her eyes had been fixed upward “towards heaven” prior to her visions, now she held her gaze on the cross each time she experienced one. By fixing her eyes on the cross, Pelphrey says, Julian perceived that “glory comes through suffering, in particular the suffering of Christ, and not in spite of it.”
Julian would continue to experience religious visions or “shewings” throughout her life, writing detailed accounts of each. These descriptions were eventually compiled into Revelations of Divine Love, the earliest surviving English-language book written by a woman.
Different schools of thought
The Rev. Monique Stone, rector of Julian of Norwich Anglican Church in Ottawa, recently attended a three-day retreat on the writings of Julian at the Trinity Retreat Center in Connecticut. She describes Julian as “a theologian for our time, 500 years ago.”
“She’s very intriguing right now,” Stone says. “Before the whole COVID thing, there [had] been increased interest in who she is.
“I think people are really uncovering how much of a forward thinker she was on the femaleness of God, the Trinity…. At the same time, in her writings, she’s very careful, because I think she went against a lot of [contemporary Roman Catholic] church doctrine. That’s certainly what some theologians talk about.”
In his own scholarly work, Pelphrey—who calls Julian “not only the greatest of the English mystics, but certainly among the greatest of English theologians of all time”—draws similar conclusions.
In 1976, Pelphrey wrote Lo, How I Love Thee!: Divine Love in Julian of Norwich as his dissertation at the University of Edinburgh. A current description of the book on Amazon calls it “the first published study of Julian’s theology and mysticism” and “the original study which helped give rise to ‘Juliana’ as we know it today.”
The scholar later wrote a second book, Christ Our Mother, which laid out many of the same ideas in a shorter and simpler format. The title comes in part from Julian’s interpretation of her vision during her paralyzing illness, in which she saw Jesus on the cross surrounded by light.
The Friends of Julian of Norwich, a spiritual community in Norwich dedicated to the mystic, noted in a description of a talk by Pelphrey on the subject: “Here [Julian] learned that God is not an angry judge; but, like a mother, has joyfully given us birth through the pain of the cross.” Julian herself wrote in Revelations of Divine Love: “As truly as God is our Father, so truly God is our Mother; and that shewed He in all.”
Pelphrey says that there were two major schools of thought on Julian in the period during and after the publication of Lo, How I Love Thee!, both of which he believes to be incorrect. The first, favoured especially among Roman Catholic scholars, held that Julian was a Platonist who borrowed most of her ideas from earlier mystics such as Pseudo-Dionysius—all of whom were men.
“I had set out to show that in fact, [Julian] not only didn’t borrow, she’s quite original, although not heretical,” Pelphrey says. “But at the same time…she was not saying things they thought she was saying.”
He levelled the same criticism at the second school of thought, which grew in popularity in the 1980s and ’90s. Scholars in this tradition viewed Julian as a kind of “feminist theologian, because of the image of Christ as Mother,” Pelphrey says.
“Again, I think that was completely mistaken. You can’t make a 20th-century feminist…out of a 14th-century mystic. You just can’t. And they weren’t paying much attention to what she actually wrote.”
‘Let your suffering become redemptive suffering’
In Pelphrey’s own interpretation, despite Julian’s profound respect for the Roman Catholic church, her theology reflects Eastern Orthodox traditions more than it does Western forms of Christianity. That straddling of two traditions informs Pelphrey’s own faith journey: a Lutheran pastor at the time he wrote Lo, How I Love Thee!, it was only later that he converted to the Greek Orthodox Church.
Julian’s view of God, Pelphrey says, duplicates the theology of the Byzantine Greek monk Gregory Palamas, though he is “quite sure” Julian did not know of Palamas or his writings. Specifically, Julian holds that God is present in everything that exists: all that was made is good, and therefore nothing God made is evil.
In answering the question “Where does evil come from?”, Julian again takes what Pelphrey views as an Eastern perspective, popularized by mystics and theologians such as Gregory of Nyssa, that “evil does not have positive existence…evil in a sense doesn’t exist.”
Evil, in this interpretation, is similar to a virus.
“A virus isn’t alive, but it still infects,” Pelphrey says. Julian views evil as “a malevolent non-being, and what it does is take away your own existence. It brings you into nothingness.”
Countering evil is love, which Julian views as the inner relationship of the persons of the Holy Trinity. Where many Western theologians might view the Trinity as a mere afterthought, Pelphrey says, Julian was “heavily trinitarian” and believed that all three parts of the Trinity were involved in creation, incarnation and salvation.
Pelphrey compares questions about how God could allow the suffering wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic to debates throughout Christian history about the problem of evil. In Julian’s view, God is not remote from humanity, but experiences all the suffering of his creation.
“God suffers in your suffering…. You think of neo-Platonic mysticism, which says God is beyond any emotion or feeling. [Julian] says no…. God suffers with and in us…. God did it quintessentially on the cross itself, where all the pain [of humanity was] taken on.”
How, then, to cope with the suffering caused by COVID-19? In the struggle against the pandemic, Pelphrey believes this medieval English mystic can help Christians deepen their relationship with God.
“Julian’s advice, I think, is very timely right now: Turn your suffering into his. Let yourself experience a bit of the cross. Let your suffering become redemptive suffering.”
“Think of people who’ve gone into intensive care and are cheering up the nurses,” he adds. “I have actually seen people like that…. They let their illness be Christ’s suffering in them, and then because they’ve allowed that to happen, their suffering becomes redemption for people around them—cheering them up, saying, ‘Look, this isn’t the end of the whole world. Even if it were, God knows what he’s doing… You’re risking your life for me. What can I do for you?’”
Solitude and faith
Reaching this point of spiritual development, Pelphrey suggests, likely requires a degree of solitude—whether this means being forced to lie in a bed unable to talk to family members, having to stay at home in quarantine or venturing outside in a mask where one is unable to stand closely to other people due to social distancing.
The idea of solitude strengthening one’s faith is integral to the view of anchorites and anchoresses, who represent a unique form of monasticism with deep roots in Christian history.
The word “monasticism” derives from the ancient Greek word monos, which means “alone”. Going back to the early figure of Anthony the Great, known as the Father of All Monks, Christians have viewed solitude as a way to better focus on sensing the presence of God.
Unlike monks and nuns who live together in a secluded community, or hermits who wander from place to place, anchorites and anchoresses do not go anywhere. Instead they are sealed up in a cell attached to a church, where they can engage in prayerful solitude that seeks to embody the values of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability.
While Julian lived in her cell, Norwich at the time was a bustling centre of commerce, and St. Julian’s Church was right in the heart of the city. As a result, Julian could speak through her window to local residents.
“There’s something very interesting about the image of Julian being somebody who was secluded and in isolation, very literally, with one window into the church and one window into the public,” Stone says.
“How is it that we in our time…are in this liminal space of isolation, [which] asks us to look into our structures of church, and yet also look out into and receive what’s going on in the world around us?”
During his time studying in Edinburgh, one of Pelphrey’s teachers was Fr. Roland Walls, a former Anglican who helped found the Community of the Transfiguration in Scotland. In a booklet called From Loneliness to Solitude, Walls suggests that it is only in solitude that a person can encounter themselves. However, Pelphrey notes that a sudden shift to seclusion or isolation can be difficult.
In the context of COVID-19, he says, “we are being forced into a kind of solitude. Some people cannot take it…and we’re seeing that. They riot, they demonstrate…. But what if you really had to come to terms with seclusion? Think about how much you depend on other people, and think about who you really are.
“Julian would say, ‘Thank goodness, this is a good step.’ You’re seeing it as a bad thing, you’re seeing it as a pandemic: ‘Oh my god, we’re all going to die.’ And she says, ‘Yes, as a matter of fact, you are all going to die, one way or the other. So embrace it and stop being terrified.’ The next step is, be sensible about it, don’t make other people sick. But on the other hand, encounter yourself for the first time.”
It was through her own prayerful solitude that Julian experienced her visions and developed her theology. Among the most famous of her visions is seeing “a tiny thing” in the palm of her hand “the size of a hazelnut,” which God told her represented all of creation and God’s presence in everything.
‘All shall be well’
Stone describes this vision as highly relevant today, as the Anglican Church of Canada uses technology to adapt during the pandemic. She offers the example of a family scattered in distant locations that was able to participate in an Easter worship service together online.
“Through this experience of COVID, we’re starting to say, ‘Well, how is God present?’ Because I think we’re creating a spirit-driven experience now on a digital church…. It’s making us think in different ways, and it’s making us see the Spirit’s capacity to create community in different ways,” Stone says.
Along with renewed interest in Julian herself, Stone also points to a growth of interest in Christian mysticism, reflecting the “diversity of Anglican expression.”
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby publicly stated in 2019 that he prays in tongues every day. In Canada, Stone says, many Anglicans are practicing forms of contemplative prayer designed to evoke a more mystical experience, such as Taizé chants and walking labyrinths.
As rector of the only church in North America named after the anchoress, Stone has seen firsthand the resonance that Julian continues to have today.
Upon learning that there is a church named after Julian, she says, “it stops people in their tracks…. I learned to recognize how unique and special that is by people commenting on [how] there’s a church named after this increasingly popular mystic, who was one of the leading women in English writing, in theology, and also in spiritual and pastoral care of a community in chaos.”
Sometimes the only thing that people can talk about, Stone says, is the statement that Julian said Christ told her in a vision: “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Stone describes this as a “profound” message, “especially at this time of COVID…. There’s a bigger story that we’re participating in.”
Clarification: This article has been updated to more accurately describe the content and interpretation of Julian’s first vision.