Julian of Norwich
Amid the swirling death and anxiety of pandemic, amid the social and political upheaval of today, we remember Julian of Norwich, who as James recently told us Brothers, is a good companion because she lived in a similar time. The late fourteenth century had much anxiety, death, and change. The Great Famine killed many and about twenty years later when Julian was born, the Black Death began killing millions. Then there were social and political revolts and beginnings of church reform.
Amid of all this, Julian received a series of visions and committed herself to a life of prayer, lived in a church, listening to and praying for many who came to her, and wrote a significant book reflecting on her experiences.
Julian’s life and writings embody our text from the Letter to the Hebrews. She encourages us to persevere because of who we know God to be. “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus … let us approach … with faith … let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering … and let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds … .”
Julian lived that faith and hope confident in God’s abiding love for all of us. Robert Ellsberg wrote: “Her central insight was that the God who created us out of love and who redeemed us by suffering love, also sustains us and wills to be united with us in the end.”[i] May we join our prayers with Julian in response to God’s creative, redeeming, and sustaining love, confident in her words that “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
It is remarkable how much a saint for our times is the Lady Julian. Living in the latter half of the fourteenth, and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries, on first glance one would think there was nothing about her life that would resonate with ours. However, like us, she lived at a time of much worry, anxiety, and turmoil. Twenty years before her birth in 1353, the Great Famine swept Northern Europe leaving up to 25 percent of the population dead. Shortly after her birth, the Black Death struck, leaving up to half the population of the city of Norwich itself dead, and killing an estimated 200 million people in total. It would take centuries for the population of Europe return to previous pre-Black Death numbers. Both these events lead to the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, when the city of Norwich was overwhelmed by rebel forces. At this same time early agitation for the reform of the Church, known as Lollardy, initially begun by John Wycliffe, was beginning to take root
It was in that world, not so unlike our own, that the Lady Julian lived and received her showings or revelations during a time when she herself was gravely ill, and expected to die. After receiving the Last Rites on 8 May 1373, she lost her sight, and began to feel physically numb. It was in this state that as she gazed upon a crucifix above her bed, she saw the figure of Jesus beginning to bleed, and received her revelations. Over the next several hours she received sixteen revelations. Following her recovery five days later, she recorded them, first in a short version, now lost, except for a copy, and then many years later in a longer version.
Sermon for The Feast of Julian of Norwich (c.1342-1416)
I’d like to address my comments to the middle school students and their chaperones who are with us this afternoon from Hilltop School in Brattleboro, Vermont. Of course, it’s okay if the rest of you want to listen in. Nothing I’m going to say is secret. But I want to speak mainly to these young people because I think the message we have today is especially important for them to hear, to learn and to remember.
Today we are celebrating the feast of a very interesting woman who lived in England in the 14th century. Her name was Julian, and she lived in the city of Norwich, so she’s usually referred to as “Julian of Norwich.” I’ll tell you more about her in a minute, but first let me say that she was born in the year 1342 and that it was a very difficult time to be alive. In the 14th century, Europe suffered through a terrible plague called the Black Death. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It was highly contagious and deadly and it swept through towns and villages killing all kinds of people — rich and poor, old and young, it didn’t matter. No one was safe. In the end it was estimated that somewhere between 75 and 200 million people died from it, which was about one-third of the population of Europe at that time. Can you imagine a disease so terrible that it took the lives of one out of every three people?
Whenever a man expresses an interest in our life, David, who is the novice guardian, invites him to make a few visits to us here to the monastery. Over these visits he gets to know us, and we him. During those visits, he has a brief experience of our life. He joins us for the Offices and the Eucharist, shares in some of the household chores that need to be done to keep this place running, and is invited for countless walks along the river or endless cups of tea, so that individual brothers can have a conversation with him.
For a number of years now, when it is my turn to have a conversation with a prospective member of the community, I ask him the usual questions. Where is he from? What does he do? How did he find us? What is he looking for? I wait for him to ask me questions. Eventually I ask him the one question, indeed really the only question that I am interested in. I ask him if he has ever fallen in love before. For whatever reason, most men, when I ask that question are completely taken aback. It is not a question they are expecting. But for me the question, or in truth the answer, is essential.
Now, just to be clear, I am not interested in the ins and outs of his love life. I don’t want to know the gory details of his romances. I just want to know if he has ever fallen in love and what that experience was like for him.