Message for June 21, 2020
Text: Psalm 16:7-11
Julian of Norwich, alluded to earlier in this worship video, is probably best known for this one affirmation: “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Julian was the anchoress at the church in Norwich — a city in Norfolk, England. She was born in 1343 and died in 1416 or 17. What is (or was) and anchoress, you may ask? This term refers to the female version of a type of Christian hermit (the men were called anchorites), a person who would formally withdraw from the world of society and “hole up,” for life, in a small cell,12 to 15 square feet, usually built into the wall of a village church. The first anchorites appeared in the third century; this way of life saw its height in the Middle Ages, many of them were in England. At one point, the women outnumbered the men by four to one.
The cell of an anchoress had three windows: a shuttered one facing into the church and its altar; one, covered by a translucent cloth, facing the street; and a third which allowed a servant to attend to the anchoress’ physical needs (i.e. the bringing of simple meals and emptying of the all-important chamber pot).
It is reported, from as early as the 10th century, that in Germanic-speaking areas the local Bishop would say an Office of the Dead over an anchoress or anchorite as they entered the cell, called an “anchorhold” — signifying their dying to self and dying to the world in order to enter a new life of continual communion with God. Anchoresses were sought after for their wisdom, and some wrote down or dictated their visions for posterity. Julian was one of these, and her Revelations of Divine Love is regarded as one of the greatest works of English mysticism. It is also the first book written by a woman in the English language. You can read the entirety of that work on the Internet.
Julian became very seriously ill at the age of 30 (the description of her illness sounds eerily similar to some stories I have read from COVID-19 survivors). She thought she was on her deathbed, when she received 16 “shewings” of the Passion of Christ. When she recovered, she wrote down two versions of her account of these visions. The manuscripts were carefully preserved by Benedictine nuns, and nearly 300 years later the first copy of Revelations of Divine Love was finally published.
The cell and church in which Julian lived her life was destroyed by bombing in World War II. The church was rebuilt, and iIn the place where her anchorhold once was, there now is a chapel, complete with a stained glass portrayal of Julian and the statue shown here, made by David Holgate in 2001.
The times in which Julian lived, like those of Paul Gerhardt (the hymn writer cited earlier in today’s worship celebration), were filled with war and disease. The Black Death took 60 percent of the population of her town when she was a child. The Peasants’ Revolt took place just two years after her vision, and the Hundred Years’ War spanned her entire lifetime. This word that she received from God, that “all shall be well,” was not a trite phrase — and it is not meant to trivialize the trials that we are going through, either.
Julian herself seemed surprised by her visions, because the God she encountered in them was completely lacking in anger or desire to punish — and back then (as many of us encounter now), there were plenty who could look at the dire circumstances of life — the wars, the diseases, the environmental disasters — and conclude that “God is mad at us; sin is to blame, and we are being punished.” What Julian beheld, however, was a God who is all love — and she was astounded. This flew in the face of the teachings in which she’d been steeped.
It was hard for me to find quotes not over-couched in old language, but I have included a few on the screen, trusting you can hit the “pause” and “rewind” buttons if you’d like to ponder them more. And if they intrigue you, I commend pursuing the full work (the link will be included in the credits and on our church website).
All this that I have now told, and more that I shall tell after, is comforting against sin…. when I saw that God doeth all that is done, I saw no sin: and then I saw that all is well. But when God shewed me for sin, then said He: All SHALL be well. (34)
I shall do nothing but sin, and my sin shall not hinder His Goodness working. (36)
He saith: I am Ground of thy beseeching. And thus in this blessed word … I saw a full overcoming against all our weakness and all our doubtful dreads. (42)
Though we, by the wrath and the contrariness that is in us, be now in tribulation, distress, and woe, as falleth to our blindness and frailty, yet are we securely safe by the merciful keeping of God. (49)
(Also, I have no idea why a cat appears in so many artists’ depictions of this saint!)
In her reflections on Julian, Dr. Wendy Farley, whose soon-to-be-published book is the inspiration for this worship series, asserts that contemplative practices are not meant to be an escape from the harsh realities of this world, but help us remember that we are deeply loved and companioned by God, and that it is for this reason that we can say “all shall be well” in the midst of all that is not well. The human condition instills in us a deep anxiety and “a deep forgetfulness” of our worthiness, and what contemplative practice does is help us replace those fretful habits of mind with new habits of remembering that God is with us, God is in control, and God is to be trusted.
Now, suffering is a huge component of what it is to be human. There is no denying that. But when we remember that we are beloved by God, though we still suffer, we are able to bear it without becoming utterly overwhelmed. And while we may know this on an intellectual, “this is what I believe about God” level, it’s at the deeper, emotional, “night time” level — when the voices of self-doubt and despair threaten and forgetfulness overtakes us — that’s where the contemplative practices help us re-learn and rebuild from the inside out.
I will conclude with another quotation by Julian of Norwich:
God is nearer to us than our own Soul … We can never come to full knowing of God till we know first clearly our own Soul. (56)
My prayer for you in this series is that you might get better acquainted with your soul as you try on some of these contemplative practices. In so doing, I pray you will also come to know the love of God more deeply. Amen.