Conversatio Divina

A Voice from the Anchor-Hold

Journeying with Julian of Norwich

Joyce Peasgood

This past summer, while awaiting the arrival of our fourth grandchild, I stayed at our son’s house in Salmon Arm, British Columbia. It’s an old house with small bedrooms and limited closet space. My bedroom, the smallest, presented minor living challenges. In the morning, my air mattress was pushed up against the wall to allow enough space to unfold the card table which held my laptop and working papers. This small room was where I studied, read, prayed, attended to wounds (the dog gashed my foot with her sharp claw), and wrote this article. It was also where I received guests; my two-year-old granddaughter came across the hallway each morning to do morning stretches with Grandma after she assisted me in pushing the air mattress against the wall.

Julian was a fourteenth-century English anchorite, that is, someone living in a cell called an anchor-hold, connected to the church in Norwich. Her living space would have resembled my small room, minus the laptop, cell phone, and cosmetics! And, unfortunately for her, she would not have been able to enjoy a cup of coffee on a back deck with a postcard view of the mountains and Shuswap Lake stretched out before her. Nonetheless, for a few weeks, I tasted something of the anchoritic life.

01.  The Anchoritic Lifestyle

Taking an anchoritic vow was a common practice for women (and some men) desiring to fulfill a life of devotion in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Europe. The cell in which they lived consisted typically of a room or two connected to the outside wall of a church or monastery. These women were often nuns desiring a greater rigor to their vocational ministry, or single women and widows choosing to live the remainder of their lives as recluses. These were not the misfits or the marginalized of society. They were women responding to the call to a life of intercessory prayer and the ministry of spiritual direction.

For a woman to enter an anchor-hold was no small undertaking. It required personal discernment, permission from male members of her family, and the judgment of the local bishop that she was suited to a lifelong commitment within this austere lifestyle. Once the necessary steps had been completed, the candidate was issued a license for enclosure from the local court, and the responsibility fell upon the bishop to perform the liturgy of enclosure and receive the woman’s vows. Because the lifelong care of the anchorite became the responsibility of the presiding bishop, admission to the anchor-hold was not awarded easily.

 

02.  Julian’s Life as an Anchoress

Sometime in the mid-fourteenth century, Julian entered the two-room cell where she was to spend the rest of her life. Her anchor-hold was connected to the outside wall of the church in Norwich, England, a small window opening into the sanctuary and allowing her to receive Communion, and a small anteroom allowing her to receive guests for spiritual direction. She adopted the name of Julian after the patron saint of the church, and she was assigned two women servants to attend to her daily requirements, providing her with meals and fetching her books from a nearby monastic library. For her religious life, she adhered to the Ancrene Riwle established for anchorites in the thirteenth century. Interestingly, the rule allowed her to have the companionship of a cat, this no doubt providing her safety from the ravages of rat infestation. Thus, daily life in her cell consisted of intercessory and contemplative prayer, receiving Communion through her window into the chapel, embroidery or other handwork, and receiving guests. About her life prior to entering the anchor-hold she remains silent. In all likelihood, her obscurity is intentional.

What little we know about Julian is predominantly from her. She refers to herself as “unlettered”; however, her literary legacy would hardly confirm this self-assessment. Evelyn Underhill dubbed her the “first English woman of letters” since Julian combines the spiritual fervor of women mystics with the rational theological thought of male mystics such as Meister Eckhart. Further, in sharp contrast to the Latin religious texts, Julian wrote in the vernacular. It appears she intended for her revelations to be a teaching tool and for that reason wrote in the language of the people. She was, in fact, the first woman to write in the English language—Chaucer being her contemporary. Thomas Merton, after studying Julian’s Showings, ranked her with the greatest of theologians and named her the greatest of the English mystics.

It must be remembered that during Julian’s life, England was in utter chaos. The waves of bubonic plague that were decimating the population of Europe bombarded East Anglia (carts removing bodies for burial rolled by her anchor-hold). Women who had lost husbands and sons in the war between England and France would seek comfort and counsel from Julian. The Peasant’s Revolt was raging. On the theological front, the Great Schism of the Church and Lollard prosecutions created anxious times for clergy and laity alike. Thus, Julian was not immune to suffering, since the “world” came to her.

Anchorites were welcomed into the community since they served as the spiritual directors for the sojourners of the day. Further, the anchor-hold provided the ideal environment for inner stillness, a place to hear God and single-mindedly pursue God. Though Julian’s call is not my call, I strive to create similar space in my own life with the same intention. I can say, therefore, that I understand the appeal of an anchoritic lifestyle.

03.  Julian’s Showings

Julian tells us that in her youth she prayed with longing and intensity for three gifts. First, she wanted to know the Passion of Christ: what it meant for Jesus to die. Second, she prayed for a bodily illness that would bring her to the brink of death and be profitable in her journey to her own death. She qualified this request with “if this be your will that I have it, grant it to me, and if it be not your will, good Lord, do not be displeased, for I want nothing which you do not want.”Julian of Norwich, Showings, trans. Edmund Colledge and James Walsh, The Classics of Western Spirituality Series (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 126. Her third request was for “three wounds”: the wound of contrition, the wound of compassion, and the wound of longing with all her will for God. We really should be careful what we pray for, as Julian would very soon discover!

We do not know the exact date on which Julian entered the anchor-hold or her age on doing so. What we do know is that on May 8, 1373, when she was thirty years old, she experienced a series of sixteen visions. For the next twenty years, she contemplated the Passion of Christ revealed to her in these revelations, writing two versions of them—a short text entitled Showings, which recorded her visions and their impact at the time of the experience. In the longer version, The Revelations of Divine Love, written twenty years later, she describes her contemplation of the visions and addresses theological issues surfacing for her from them.

Julian’s writing displays a degree of learning unusual for a woman of her time. They also indicate deep biblical knowledge and profound theological understanding. She is familiar with the writings of Augustine, Meister Eckhart, Pseudo-Dionysius, Gregory the Great, Walter Hilton, and perhaps Catherine of Siena. I would argue that she also shows Celtic influences in her perception of God’s role in the created world. We are left to speculate how she achieved such learning. Even though women were not allowed to exercise the authoritative role of teacher, The Revelations of Divine Love identifies Julian’s ability and confidence as an educator.

A word of caution: Julian is hard going! Don’t expect to read a systematically organized text with a seven-point argument for every dogma of belief. That doesn’t happen. What you will discover is the marvelous working of an intellectual theological mind coupled with contemplative reflection: the marriage of theology and spirituality. She teaches Christian doctrine, emphasizing the integration of systematic and mystical theology. Perhaps that is why I so admire Julian. She draws from a fundamental component of the Christian faith, Love, which is sometimes lost in the milieu of rational doctrinal formulations and Christian faith. She states that God is our “clothing, who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces and shelters us, surrounds us for his love, which is so tender that he may never desert us.”Julian of Norwich, 183. Julian promotes the concept of God’s tender love in a context in which the contemporary European church promoted the judgment and the wrath of God. Grace Jantzen argues “it would have been utterly foreign to her [Julian’s] thinking to ask for reasons of belief which would satisfy her intellect before allowing her emotions to become involved, or before allowing for any implications for the pattern of her life.”Grace Jantzen, Julian of Norwich: Mystic and Theologian (New York: Paulist Press, 1988), 92. I recommend this book as a commentary on Julian’s Showings. Although it is academic and at times a challenge to read, it is well the effort.

Julian informs us that the teachings of her Lord were revealed to her in three parts. The first was by bodily vision, where she describes in detail the visions she saw occurring before her. Second, her visions were accompanied by “words formed” in her understanding—not heard by her physical ears, but God-shaped doctrinal truth that clarified the meaning of the visions. Third, her bodily visions were accompanied by spiritual vision, referring to deeper meanings beyond the visions. She says of these spiritual visions, “I may not and cannot show the spiritual visions to you as plainly and fully as I should wish; but I trust in our Lord God Almighty that he will, out of his goodness and for love of you, make you accept it more spiritually and more sweetly than I can or may tell it to you.”Julian of Norwich, 135. Further, “[A]bout the spiritual vision, I have told you a part, but I can never tell it in full; and therefore I am moved to say more about this spiritual vision, as God will give me grace.” Julian of Norwich, 167.

In her two texts, Julian develops the doctrine of the Trinity, salvation, demonology, angelology, justification, sin, spiritual formation, the problem of evil, the place of hell and purgatory, the Motherhood of God, the role of Scriptures, and the role of the Church—and I may have missed a few! On occasion, she reminds the reader of her allegiance to the Church, clearly avoiding alienation from the Church or being judged for heresy.

04.  Highlights of Julian’s Teaching

Every time I read Julian, I am in awe of her perception of the Trinity. She is truly and deeply Trinitarian in her comprehension of God. It is while she experiences the Passion of Christ that the Trinity floods her heart with joy. To Julian, the Trinity consists of God the maker (the work of creation), God the keeper and protector (the work of mercy), and God our lover (the work of grace). God the maker she identifies as God the Father, God the keeper and protector as Christ, and God our lover as the Holy Spirit.

She writes that Jesus revealed to her a small object in one of her visions, a hazelnut. In it she saw three properties: the first, that God made it—the Creator (Father); second, that God keeps it – the Protector (Son); and third, that God loves it—the Lover (Holy Spirit). Upon further contemplation of the blessed Trinity, Julian concludes that the Trinity has three properties—the property of fatherhood, the property of motherhood, and the property of lordship. She reasons that God the Almighty Father is the protector and sustainer of the created world. Jesus provides knowledge and wisdom, and thus, as our restoration and salvation, he is our Mother, Brother, and Savior. And the good Lord, the Holy Spirit, provides the reward and gifting to live and labor for God. She says, “In the first we have our being, and in the second we have our increasing, and in the third we have our fulfillment.”Julian of Norwich, 294.

In Julian’s view, the almighty of the Trinity is our Father, the deep wisdom of the Trinity is our Mother, and the great love of the Trinity is our Lord; therefore, the first (God) is the creator as viewed in nature; the second (Jesus) is mercy; and the third (Holy Spirit) is grace. Though the concept of the motherhood of God was not new in mystical literature, Julian was aware that her perception of the feminine side of God could come back to haunt her. Thus, she takes particular care to explain her understanding on the matter. With regard to Christ as our Mother, she notes that through his Passion, Christ unites us to God, works mercy in his children who are obedient, and has borne the pain of death for us. She explains, “Our great Father, almighty God, who is being, knows us and loved us before time began . . . by the prescient eternal counsel of all the blessed Trinity, he wanted the second person to become our Mother, our brother, and our saviour. From this it follows that as truly God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother. Our Father wills, our Mother works, our good Lord the Holy Spirit confirms.”Julian of Norwich, 296.

A mother can give suck to her child; thus, our Mother Jesus feeds us with himself through the precious food of sacraments and the power and grace of his word. A kind mother who knows the needs of her child guards the child tenderly and faithfully. In our spiritual birthing, our Mother Jesus uses immense tenderness in protecting us—he kindles our understanding, he prepares our ways, he eases our conscience, he comforts our souls, and he illumines our heart and gives partial knowledge of his blessed divinity. The Motherhood of God can also be seen in Jesus when he took on human flesh, and through his pain gave us new birth. Further, Jesus has given us birth by virtue of giving us life in the first place.

Julian’s teaching on the Motherhood of God as manifest in Jesus may make you somewhat uncomfortable. But I encourage you to give a charitable reception to her thoughts and the visions on which they were founded, for they contain much that is wise and important.

Julian does not adhere to the dualism of body and soul that arises in medieval mystical writings. Knowledge of God and knowledge of self are inseparable; we cannot know the one without the other. She writes, “Greatly ought we to rejoice that God dwells in our soul; and more greatly ought we to rejoice that our soul dwells in God. Our soul is created to be God’s dwelling place, and the dwelling of our soul is God.”Julian of Norwich, 285.

Julian is well known for her optimism: “All will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.”Later she offers God’s assurance: “I will make all things well . . . and you will see that all things will be well.”Julian of Norwich, 151. These were comforting words offered to her by her “good Lord,” a response to her own doubts and questions. The “all will be well” is a recurring theme throughout her texts, soothing words for suffering and weary souls.

Julian’s absolute certainty that the “Trinity will make all things well that are not well”Julian of Norwich, 152. comes to her through reflection upon the Passion of Christ—the heart of the Christian message. God reveals to her the power of his grace, which abounds over the power of darkness. As she encounters the immense love of her Lord embodied in the Passion, Julian embraces the grace of God’s love, which overcomes the debilitating effect of fear and anxiety. Julian affirms the notion that God comes to us when we reflect upon the joy and bliss located in the depth and fullness of the suffering of Christ. This, for her, is the primary means of grace. She observes that the Lord’s grace translates into “ease in our souls and . . . peace in love—disregarding every disturbance which could hinder our true rejoicing in him.” Julian of Norwich, 232.

This only scratches the proverbial surface of Julian’s theology. Her Revelations of Divine Love continues to be fodder for a great deal of scholarly research, and her literary legacy continues to affect Christian “pilgrims” around the world profoundly.

05.  Julian Speaking to Joyce

I truly admire Julian! She was intelligent, courageous, contemplative, unpretentious, a lover of God—all attributes worthy of pursuit. She pursued God with all her mind, soul, body, and spirit, and we benefit from her humility and obedience to God. I feel almost a sense of envy that God would bless her with such insight and wisdom and knowledge. The ability to devote her life to a pursuit of God in the solitude of a cell is less enviable, at least from my perspective, yet I desire the intimacy with God that Julian experienced. I am challenged by Julian to pursue God with all of who I am, with the desire to know Jesus in all his fullness.

In Julian, I encounter a spiritual friend who dipped deeply into the well of the love of her Lord, and her bucket was continually brimming over with wisdom, passion, hope, and truth. My soul thirsts for the same!

06.  Further Recommended Reading

Flinders, Carol. Enduring Grace: Living Portraits of Seven Women Mystics. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1993.

Gatta, Julia. Three Spiritual Directors for Our Time: Julian of Norwich, The Cloud of Unknowing, Walter Hilton. Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1986.

Nuth, Joan. God’s Lovers in an Age of Anxiety: The Medieval English Mystics, in Traditions of Christian Spirituality series. New York: Orbis Books, 2001.

Ruether, Rosemary R. Visionary Women, Three Medieval Mystics. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.

Footnotes

Joyce Peasgood serves as associate professor of Spiritual Formation at Rocky Mountain College in Calgary, Canada. She is a spiritual director and a prayer retreat director and offers seminars on topics relating to Christian spirituality. Joyce was involved in the development of the Centre for Spiritual Formation at Carey Theological College in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her passion is reuniting the Christian mystics with the contemporary church. Joyce and her husband reside in Calgary. She may be contacted at jpeasgood@rockymountaincollege.ca