It’s been a very strange couple of years, looking back over the Covid lockdown, and a number of us feel we have aged more than usual during this time. We’ve often been lonely; for months we were not able to meet friends or family, with very little shopping and no trips or excursions. A solitary life is not one that most of us would choose to be living. But in the Middle Ages a number of women did voluntarily choose a solitary, locked-in, life, and it is one of them that I would like to talk about today.

My excuse is today’s date, 8th May. On 8th May in the year 1373 and yes, it was a Sunday in that year as well, in the prosperous thriving city of Norwich a thirty-year-old woman was gravely ill; she was expected to die. Her family and friends were gathered round; the priest was there holding up a crucifix for her to see. But she did not die that day, instead she had a series of very vivid visions or ‘showings’ as she called them, sixteen of them altogether on the same day. She recovered her health and wrote her ‘showings’ down,, the first woman to be writing a book in English at that time. She may already have been living a solitary life in a single room attached to a local church, or that day may have been a new beginning – we don’t know – but certainly for the rest of her life she remained in that one room, built onto St Julian’s church, and so she is known to us as Julian of Norwich.

Julian read and prayed and thought about her visions for the next twenty years, and wrote a fuller account of them, which we call the Revelations of Julian of Norwich. The  manuscript survived, almost miraculously, but the book only became widely known and studied and loved in the 20th century.

It was not so unusual for a woman to become an ‘anchoress’ as they were known. With the bishop’s permission, at a special ceremony she would be enclosed in a small cell with two windows, one window giving her a view through to the altar of the church, so that she could hear and see services, and the other window opening to the world outside, so that people could come and speak to her. They did not just come to gossip; the anchoress would become something like a spiritual agony aunt, giving counsel and good advice to those in trouble or distress.

As we look back now over the past couple of years, or listen to the news when we can bear it, we tend to think ‘What a terrible time this is; things have never been this bad before.’ But of course things have been as bad and worse than this. Many periods over past years and past centuries, there have been some really inescapably grim times. In the fourteenth century, during the lifetime of Julian of Norwich, , the Hundred Years War was dragging on, there were years of bad harvests and famine; plagues like the Black Death recurred many times. Then came the Peasants Revolt, and persecution of the early Lollards. Oh, let’s not go on with that dismal list. Surely, we think, this was the age of Faith; the Church must have given some comfort in adversity. Well, possibly, but most of the services were in Latin, not a lot of help to ordinary worshippers. For them, at least the church walls were very often decorated with paintings, until they got whitewashed over at the Reformation. But the main central painting would probably show a stern Christ sitting in majesty, judging the souls after death, and the artist had most likely used all his imagination when painting the mouth of Hell and the damned being dragged down into it.

This was not Julian’s vision at all, nor the message presented by the showings, the Revelations she wrote down. Julian’s message was above all of God’s love. It wasn’t that she ignored the existence of human sinfulness, but she insisted that God was not a God of anger and wrath, God was supremely a God of love. “In all these showings it seemed to me that it was right and proper for us to see and know that we are sinners, and do many evil deeds we ought not to do, and leave many good deeds undone that we ought to do.. Notwithstanding all this I saw truly that our Lord was never angry;, nor ever shall be, for he is God.”

 

Julian must have been a great comfort to worried or depressed folk who came to visit her. We have the record of one devout but rather emotional and hysterical womanMargery Kempe, who spent several days with her. Julian evidently treated Margery gently and approved her visions, but she did caution her to “measure these experiences according to the worship they accrue to God and the profit to her fellow Christians.” But really the greatest and most lasting evidence we have is Julian’s own writings, and the effect they have had on people over the years, and particularly in the last century and this.  And if you ever have the opportunity to go to Norwich, as I did with my mother twenty years ago, it is well worth walking to St Julian’s Church and finding the Julian Centre there. And especially spending time in Mother Julian’s cell attached to the church and being quiet to appreciate the atmosphere and think about her life and teaching and growing influence.

 

That influence has grown far wider nowadays. Many people treasure and use copies of the small booklets containing a month of daily readings, ‘Enfolded in Love’ and ‘In Love Enclosed’. Throughout this country and beyond there are many local ‘Julian Meetings’, groups which meet regularly for silent prayer. There are at least three in Buckinghamshire, but none very near Amersham – as yet. Google ‘Julian Meetings’, or email Sheila Shield to explore the idea.

 

We may not be holy spiritual guides like Julian, but we can realise that there is a positive side to living alone, even in a space confined by health or circumstances. It can be positive for ourselves and also for  those we encounter during the course of the day. Julian was one of those who carried out the command of the risen Christ to his disciples in Luke chapter 24, the command to proclaim the message of God’s love and peace, of repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name. Jesus promised that they would be given power from on high; that became true not only for those first disciples  but for very many ‘even Christians’, as Julian called them, over the centuries since.

 

Here to end with are  a couple of the best known phrases from her Revelations:

God showed me a little thing the size of a hazel nut in the palm of my hand. I looked at it with my mind’s eye and I thought ‘What can this be?’ And answer came: ‘It is all that is made.’ And the answer came into my mind, ‘It lasts and ever shall because God loves it’ And all things have being through the love of God.” And perhaps the best known words of all: “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”