Anchored in Place with Julian

As we enter the second month of Pennsylvania’s official shut down, my thoughts have turned to a woman who lived in England a long time ago. The words of Julian of Norwich have often spoken to me, and I believe her life and wisdom have a special message for us today. This is her story.

Julian was an anchoress, a manner of living quite foreign in our century. She literally anchored in one place and was ceremoniously walled-up within one or two rooms. She desired to give herself entirely to God and a life of prayer, and this was her way. While this extreme seclusion was unusual even in the 1300’s, she was not unique. The room of the anchoress (or anchorite) always attached to a church with a window through which one could gaze on the altar and join in worship. An exterior window opened to the street so people could come to receive guidance. A servant attended to her physical needs, and often there was a cat for company – and catching mice.

Julian and her cat

Julian lived secluded but she was not truly separated from the violent 14th century world outside her window. Norwich was a major seaport, and Julian’s church sat on a main street. She lived during a time of ongoing war, appropriately named the Hundred Years War. During her years as an anchoress, the bubonic plague repeatedly swept through her city. Starvation was not unknown, and fierce persecution of religious dissenters sometimes concluded with a burning.

I imagine Julian’s prayers interrupted by the rattle of corpse carts past her window, by the marching of soldiers, by the wailing of the bereaved. I imagine Julian was often called to the window when someone came in search of her wisdom and comfort. Julian lived in the space between two windows, between the suffering world and the holy space of the sanctuary. Anchored in that place, grounded deeply in God, she gave herself as a channel for God’s love in times of plague, starvation, and war.

What did she offer those who came to her window in such times? We know some of what she offered because Julian passed on her experience and understandings through Showings, the first book in England written by a woman. She wrote

He did not say, ‘You shall not be tempest-tossed, you shall not be work-weary, you shall not be discomforted.’ But he said, ‘You shall not be overcome.’

Yes, Julian wrote, you will be in pain, exhausted from the storms that rage and toss you in their midst. But, in the end, you will not be overcome.

Perhaps the most famous Julian quotation is All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. These have always been difficult words for me. How can she say “all shall be well” when it clearly isn’t, when pandemic, economic collapse, and war, like fierce storms, rage around us? It wasn’t “well” in her century, and it’s not “well” in ours! But Julian told a story for times like ours:

God showed me in my palm a little thing, round as a ball, about the size of a hazelnut. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and asked myself: “What can this be?” And I was answered: “It is everything that is created.” I wondered how it could survive since it seemed so little it could suddenly disintegrate into nothingness. And I was answered in my understanding: “It endures and always will, because God loves it; and in this way, everything has its being by the love of God.”

In this little thing I saw three properties.
The first is that God made it,
the second is that God loves it,
the third is that God preserves it.

Today, when it seems our world could “suddenly disintegrate into nothingness,” Julian invites us to deeper intimacy with God, or, as she described it, being one-ed to God. Anchored in the space between all that is Holy and a world of pain and fear, Julian calls us to anchor more deeply. In some mysterious way we don’t need to understand, God is still creating, loving, preserving. The power of Love is still greater than the power of disintegration.

May this time of sheltering in place also shelter and anchor us within God. May we, trusting the mystery, echo all shall be well.

5 thoughts on “Anchored in Place with Julian”

  1. Thank you, Nancy.
    These words stand out to me, “Today, when it seems our world could “suddenly disintegrate into nothingness,” Julian invites us to deeper intimacy with God, or, as she described it, being one-ed to God. Anchored in the space between all that is Holy and a world of pain and fear, Julian calls us to anchor more deeply.”

    “Anchored in the space between all that is Holy and a world of pain and fear, Julian calls us to anchor more deeply.” “Anchor more deeply.” May it be so for me. May it be so for all of us.

    Dear Ann,
    I’m glad Julian spoke to you,Ann! Yes, in a fragile-seeming world, we need to be “one-ed” to Godeven more deeply. Thank you for writing, and encouraging all of us.

  2. Thank you Nancy for this timely reflection! It is challenging to feel anchored as a health care worker in a hospital however God never abandons us! Blessings to you & Larry.Pam

    Dear Pam,
    It was good to hear from you. I will hold you in my prayer as you work as a hospital health care worker. May you find moments to take a deep breath and re-find your anchor!

  3. Thank you Nancy. This is just what I need to hear today. I was having s tough day yesterday because I briefly lost hope. You through my dear spiritual director have brought it back for me.

    Dear Eleanor,
    I am so glad that the words of Julian spoke to you in a hard season. May you continue to find hope as we journey through this time.
    Peace for you,

  4. Sometimes I feel guilty for feeling calm during a time of grief and suffering, so Julian’s story is a welcome reminder that it is all right to live in a serene space that connects with both the center of all things and the pain of the world.

    Dear Kay,
    I agree that the blessing of quiet space when there is so much grief and suffering can feel uncomfortable. Julian’s living from her quiet space was a blessing for others. We can, as Anne mentioned above, find ways of connection, of kindness that are a gift. thank you for writing.

  5. Julian had already refined her life to essentials (including a cat), so to wait on the Word and reassure seekers at her window. This current period of threat and critical priorities gives me a chance to pare down my doings (and belongings) making more space and time for acts of kindness, practicing a prayerful pace for all my routines. As Dorothy Day says, “Little by little. . .”

    Dear Anne,
    I’m so glad your seclusion in this time is opening space for ‘paring down’ and for acts of kindness. May we continue to live more deeply anchored in God!

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