Dr Gabriel Byng is spending the year as a Ministry Experience Scheme intern working with the Anglican chaplaincy in Vienna. A historian who has specialised in the late medieval period, he preached the following homily at a Communion service celebrated on 7 May 2020, held under the auspices of Holy Trinity Church, Geneva. The president of the Eucharist was physically in Dorset, the preacher in Vienna, the majority of the congregation were located in Geneva and ‘France voisine’, although there were also guests present in Rome and Marseilles. We were connected by ‘Zoom’. Can Julian’s wisdom speak into our contemporary situation?
The illustration above is a panel commemorating Julian of Norwich which forms part of ‘The Durham Quilt’. This Quilt was created by the women of North-East England and presented in a service held in Durham Cathedral 25 January 1992. The panels of the Quilt celebrate European Christian Women who over the centuries, past and present, have expressed our Christian faith in and to the world. A picture which shows the entire Quilt can be found below Gabriel’s homily.
On the 8th May the Church of England commemorates the life of the late-fourteenth and early-fifteenth-century mystic Julian of Norwich. For many Christians, and I suspect for some of you, she is still an important, and much-loved, writer.
It seems pertinent that we read and think about Julian during a time of trial. Her Revelations, a series of 16 visions, came when she believed herself to be about to die, in the midst of terrible sickness and pain, when the curate had already come to give her the Last Rites and her body was half-paralysed and blinded.
Of course, she did not die. But this was not a straightforward recovery, back to the way things were. She was forever changed. The visions she would have that day would come to guide the rest of her life, spent walled into a tiny room by the church of St Julian in Norwich, after which she is named, praying and reflecting on the revelations she had received.
Those visions would sustain the rest of Julian’s life: they did not merely fill up those many solitary hours, they would demand them, and then they would overflow them. A lifetime of meditation and reflection was her courageous and necessary response, as was her decision to break with the conventions of medieval female behaviour and to record them to paper. Hers is the earliest female writing in English that we know of.
It would be glib, I think, to draw any parallel between her confinement, so long, so severe and so entirely voluntary, and our own – but at all times, in and out of lockdown, what I find so extraordinarily hopeful about Julian is that of all people, locked away, isolated, hidden, trapped, alone, she would produce a theology so over-brimming with love and comfort.
When I was still a teenager and just beginning my life as a convinced and practicing Christian, I went on a chapel trip to peer through the tiny window into Julian’s cell (or, in truth, a much later reconstruction of it). And while I looked, I tried to imagine a whole life spent in this narrow space, the way it would turn the mind back upon itself and its memories, the way it could force those brave and brilliant enough to be consumed in a different kind of spaciousness.
It was as if only an anchorage, a tiny, lonely cell, was small enough to contain the vastness of God’s love as it had been revealed to Julian.
Indeed, one of her most famous, and surely most beautiful, observations describes exactly the kind of enormity that can exist, can only exist perhaps, in the smallest, most fragile of objects, the way God can make us feel at once so slight and so protected.
It was rendered especially beautifully into poetry by William Blake. But I’m going to read Julian, and to read this most famous of passages with a little more of its context than we usually hear:
He shewed me a little thing, the quantity of an hazel-nut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon with eye of my understanding, and thought: What may this be? And it was answered […] thus: it is all that is made. I marvelled how it might last, for methought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for little[ness]. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasteth, and ever shall [last] for that God loveth it.
I do not want to suggest that the transformative potential of sickness or confinement will, or even could, be the same for us as it was for Julian – tempting as it is. For many people around the world, this is a time of terrible struggle, in which economic, physical and mental survival is far from certain. There will be positive transformations – but many negative ones too.
Rather, our blessing is that, even if we are not called to be like Julian, we can still be comforted by her and her teachings. Even if we do not find solace in our isolation or transformation in our anxieties, we can be consoled that she did.
Julian entered further into the darkness than most of us will have to – and there, in the most unlikely of places, she found love, enough love to sustain a lifetime. Love is there, she tells us, even if not all of us find it. Few us will be blessed with her spiritual fortitude, her tenacious joy, her simple poetry – but all of us can find assurance in what she told us about the most threatening, desperate moments of human experience.
And so I will risk cliché by ending with the most moving, astonishing, reassuring words that Julian wrote, after fifteen years living in her anchorage, words that, to my mind at least, 600 years after they were written, light up the Christian message with all its energy and beauty:
Wouldst thou learn thy Lord’s meaning in this thing? Learn it well: Love was His meaning. Who shewed it thee? Love. What shewed He thee? Love. [Why] shewed it He? For Love. […] Thus was I [taught] that Love was our Lord’s meaning.
Thanks be to God.
The square depicting Julian is in the third row, on the left hand side.