Two solitaries from different apostolic churches, from different centuries, from different parts of the world, cultures and circumstances; yet with the same message. For different reasons, the writings of both became obscured; but, for the same reason
have become popular in modern times: thee reason. they have become gr world is calling out for love, and the Gospel tells us it is in the reach of all of us.
St Isaac the Syrian
Preaching the Astonishing Love of God
Who among the Eastern Fathers has written more eloquently, more profoundly about the love of God Almighty than St Isaac the Syrian? “In Isaac’s understanding,” states Met Hilarion Alfeyev, “God is above all immeasurable love. The conviction that God is love dominates Isaac’s thought: it is the source of his theological opinions, ascetical recommendations and mystical thought” (The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, pp. 35-36). Sadly this great doctor of the divine love remains relatively unknown in English-speaking Christendom. Only in recent decades have his discourses become available in translation. Yet despite Isaac’s relative obscurity, I believe that his writings are necessary reading for all Orthodox and Catholic preachers, pastors, and confessors. Why do I say this? Because having heard my fair share of Orthodox and Catholic sermons over the past eight years, I am convinced that most Orthodox and Catholic preachers simply do not understand what it means to speak the good news of Jesus Christ. They do not understand that preaching is, first and foremost, the proclamation of the God who is absolute love and mercy. The homilies I have heard may be characterized as exhortation. I have heard exhortations to good behavior. I have heard exhortations to imitate Christ in his care for the poor. I have heard exhortations to repentance and the acquisition of the virtues. I have heard exhortations to adhere to the dogmas and traditions of the Church. I have heard exhortations to prayer and ascetical discipline. But rarely, oh so rarely, have I heard the kerygmatic announcement of the surprising and unmerited mercy of God. Rarely have I heard the proclamation of the resurrection of Christ and the eschatological existence now freely given to us in the Church by the Spirit. Rarely have I heard of the God who leaves his flock in search for one lost sheep and upon finding it lays it on his shoulders and rejoicing takes it back to the flock. Orthodox and Catholic preachers prefer to exhort, urge, counsel, warn, and admonish their congregations; but this kind of preaching, whether moralistic or ascetical, cannot save. Only the proclamation of love communicates the abundant life that Christ came to bring us. Exhortation alone either drives away sinners or makes them into Pharisees. The prophet Amos declared, “‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord God, ‘when I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD'” (Amos 8:11). In the Church today we are experiencing a famine of the gospel. We are told to act better, to pray better, to be better; but we are not given the only Word that can actually transform us and make us new. St Isaac the Syrian is the antidote to this woeful situation.
Isaac’s reflections on the divine love are scattered throughout his discourses–the First Part and the Second Part. I cannot point to a single homily or two in which Isaac expounds on the love of God at great length (though Homily 38 in the Second Part is a good place to begin). Fortunately Alfeyev has written a fine introduction to Isaac’s mystical thought, The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, and it is readily available from Orthodox bookstores and internet booksellers. Every preacher should read and inwardly digest this book. I wish I had been acquainted with the discourses of St Isaac during my years of active ministry. Perhaps I would have been a better preacher. I know I would have been a better disciple of Jesus Christ.
For Isaac the world is a gift of the divine love. It begins in love and will be consummated in love. This love is unconquerable and irresistible, not because it coerces—God forbid!—but because of its intrinsic beauty, truth, and goodness:
What profundity of richness, what mind and exalted wisdom is God’s! What compassionate kindness and abundant goodness belongs to the Creator! With what purpose and with what love did He create this world and bring it into existence! What a mystery does the coming into being of this creation look towards! To what a state is our common nature invited! What love served to initiate the creation of the world! This same love which initiated the act of creation prepared beforehand by another dispensation the things appropriate to adorn the world’s majesty which sprung forth as a result of the might of His love.
In love did He bring the world into existence; in love does He guide it during this its temporal existence; in love is He going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised. And since in the New World the Creator’s love rules over all rational nature, the wonder at His mysteries that will be revealed then will captivate to itself the intellect of all rational beings whom He has created so that they might have delight in Him, whether they be evil or whether they be just. (II.38.1-2)
What a magnificent passage. God has created the world in love and for love. Angels and human beings alike have been brought into existence to delight in the divine mercy and to enjoy eternal communion with the God who is love. Everything that God has done, everything that he does in the present and will do in the future is an expression of love. “Among all his actions,” Isaac proclaims, “there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love, and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and the end of his dealings with us” (II. 39.22). Here is the purpose of creation and the Incarnation, “to reveal his boundless love to the world” (quoted in Alfeyev, p. 36).
The love of God is indiscriminate, promiscuous, prodigal. It intends every rational creature. As Jesus teaches, the Father who is in heaven “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt 5:45). There is no one “who is to the front of or to the back of God’s love. Rather, He has a single equal love which covers the whole extent of rational creation, all things whether visible or invisible: there is no first or last place with Him in this love for any single one of them” (II.38.2). There is no before or after, no greater or lesser. The divine love addresses and upholds all equally. St Isaac firmly rejects the Calvinist thesis that God has predestined some human beings for damnation. Such a thesis is unthinkable, indeed blasphemous. Every being created by God is loved by God. Our disobedience does not change the character of the Father; our sin does not diminish his love for us. “There is no hatred or resentment in His nature,” Isaac explains, “no greater or lesser place in His love, no before or after in His knowledge” (II.38.5). No matter how much disorder we cause in the world, no matter how grievous our sin, no matter how horrific the evil we commit, God’s salvific will for us does not change. He eternally wills our good, and in his wise providence he will accomplish this good. “There exists with Him a single love and compassion which is spread out over all creation, a love which is without alteration, timeless, and everlasting” (II.40.1).
The providence of love encompasses all material and spiritual dimensions:
Let us consider then how rich in its wealth is the ocean of His creative act, and how many created things belong to God, and how in His compassion He carries everything, acting providentially as He guides creation; and how with a love that cannot be measured He arrived at the establishment of the world and the beginning of creation; and how compassionate God is, and how patient; and how He loves creation, and how He carries it, gently enduring its importunity, the various sins and wickednesses, the terrible blasphemies of demons and evil men. Then, once someone has stood amazed, and filled his intellect with the majesty of God, amazed at all these things He has done and is doing, then he wonders in astonishment at His mercifulness, how, after all these things, God has prepared for them another world that has no end, whose glory is not even revealed to the angels, even though they are involved in His activities insofar as is possible in the life of the spirit, in accordance with the gift with which their nature has been endowed. That person wonders too at how excelling is that glory, and how exalted is the manner of existence at that time; and how insignificant is the present life compared to what is reserved for creation in the New Life; and how, in order that the soul’s life will not be deprived of that blessed state because of misusing the freewill it has received, He has devised in His mercifulness a second gift, which is repentance, so that by it the soul’s life might acquire renewal every day and thereby every time be put aright. (II.10.19)
The merciful God has provided a way for sinful creatures to avail themselves of the mercy of God—repentance. Nor is repentance something beyond our capabilities, says Isaac. God understands our weaknesses and limits. Repentance involves the whole person, mind, will, conscience, heart, “so that it might be easy for everyone to acquire benefit from it, both quickly and at any time” (II.10.19).
The infinite love of the Creator is dramatically displayed in the Incarnation of the Son. Why did God become man? Why did Jesus die on the cross? Certainly not to propitiate an angry deity. If God’s sole purpose were to achieve the remission of sins, he could have accomplished this end by another means. The cross is the perfect and compelling revelation of the divine mercy. Isaac understood that sinners would not and could not believe in the possibility of their reconciliation with their Maker without a revelation embodied in the terrible suffering and bloody death of God himself:
If zeal had been appropriate for putting humanity right, why did God the Word clothe himself in the body, using gentleness and humility in order to bring the world back to his Father? And why was he stretched out on the cross for the sake of sinners, handing over his sacred body to suffering on behalf of the world? I myself say that God did all this for no other reason than to make known to the world the love that he has, his aim being that we, as a result of our greater love arising from an awareness of this, might be captivated by his love when he provided the occasion of this manifestation of the kingdom of heaven’s mighty power—which consists in love—by means of the death of his Son. (Quoted in Alfeyev, p. 52)
God must die on the cross. Only thus can human hearts be pierced and turned away from self and sin; only thus can mankind apprehend the true identity and nature of their Creator and be converted to the path of salvation. It is the divine love, manifested in the humility and death of the Son, that transforms sinners and brings them everlasting life.
But the sum of all is that God the Lord surrendered His own Son to death on the Cross for the fervent love of creation. … This was not, however, because He could not have redeemed us in another way, but so that His surpassing love, manifested hereby, might be a teacher unto us. And by the death of His only-begotten Son He made us near to Himself. Yeah, if He had had anything more precious, He would have given it to us, so that by it our race might be His own. (I.71, p. 492)
St Isaac quotes the famous verse from the Gospel of John: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (Jn 3:16).
Why do we not hear this message of the astonishing love of God every Sunday, Sunday after Sunday, in our Churches? This is the gospel. There is no other gospel worth preaching. In a world filled with wickedness, suffering, despair, and death, we desperately need to hear the proclamation of the omnipotent power of God’s love and mercy. We need to know that he treasures us, that he has a plan for us, that his good will for us, and for the world, will triumph. Only thus does it become possible for us to cooperate with him in prayer and good works. In the words of the great Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar: “Love alone is credible; nothing else can be believed, and nothing else ought to be believed. This is the achievement, the ‘work’ of faith: to recognize this absolute prius, which nothing else can surpass; to believe that there is such a thing as love, absolute love, and that there is nothing higher or greater than it; to believe against all the evidence of experience (‘credere contra fidem‘ like ‘spere contra spem‘), against every ‘rational’ concept of God, which thinks of him in terms of impassibility or, at best, totally pure goodness, but not in terms of this inconceivable and senseless act of love” (Love Alone is Credible, pp. 101-102). Without the preaching of the boundless love of God enfleshed in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, the Church has no reason to exist; indeed it cannot exist, for it is the Word of love that creates the new life that is the Church. Without love, there is no theosis, no repentance, no sanctification, only Pharisaic zeal and deadly dogmatism.
The Shewings of Julian of Norwich Introduction
by: Georgia Ronan Crampton (Editor)
The Shewings of Julian of Norwich tells of an intense experience that took place within a few days and nights of May, 1373, in Norwich. The book is a first-person account of a young woman's visions. They came, she tells us, when she was thirty and a half years old, after seven days and nights of illness. At the very point of death - her curate holds a crucifix before her eyes to comfort her, and she is aware that her mother, thinking her dead, has moved to close her eyes - she received fifteen "shewings," to be confirmed the next day in a sixteenth. Health restored, she lived on into old age, almost certainly as an anchorite.
Two accounts of the showings, or revelations, as Julian also calls them, one much longer than the other, survive. She apparently wrote a first, short narrative soon after the 1373 illness, and a second, six-fold longer, twenty years later: "For twenty yeres after the tyme of the shewing, save three monethis [months], I had techyng inwardly" (lines 1865-66). Much of the short text reads as if it were immediately, spontaneously, recounted. An authorial consciousness as well as a bolder and a more elaborated theology mark the long text.
Julian's showings comprise visual images, words that emerge in her mind fully articulated, and spiritual events without sensuous representation, either visual or verbal. She carefully reports not only the content of her experiences, but also their modes of perception: "All this was shewid by thre, that is to sey, be bodily sight, and by word formyd in my understonding, and be gostly sight. But the gostly sight - I cannot ne may not shew it as hopinly ne as fully as I wolde" [All this was shown in three ways, that is to say, by bodily sight, by words formed in my mind, and by spiritual sight. But I cannot nor may not show the spiritual sight as openly nor as fully as I would wish to do] (lines 340-43; see also 2974-79). And again, "Than He, without voice and openyng of lippis [lips], formys [forms] in my soule these words: Herewith is the fend [fiend] overcome" (lines 500-01; see also 2829-30). Most of the visual showings center upon Christ's suffering during the crucifixion:
I saw His swete face as it was drye and blodeles with pale deyeng, and sithen more pale, dede, langoring, and than turnid more dede into blew, and sithen more browne blew, as the flesh turnyd more depe dede. For His passion shewid to me most propirly in His blissid face, and namly in His lippis. There I saw these four colowres, tho that were aforn freshe, redy, and likyng to my sigte. This was a swemful chonge to sene, this depe deyeng, and also the nose clange and dryed, to my sigte, and the swete body was brown and blak, al turnyd oute of faire lifely colowr of Hymselfe on to drye deyeng. For that same tyme that our Lord and blissid Savior deyid upon the Rode, it was a dry, harre wynde and wonder colde, as to my sigte. [I saw His sweet face when it was dry and bloodless in its pale dying, and after, as it became even paler, more death-like, languishing, and then it turned more deathly into blue, and after, a more brownish blue, as the flesh turned more deeply into death. For His passion showed itself to me most in His blessed face, and especially in His lips. There I saw these four colors, in those lips that before were fresh, red, and pleasant in my eyes. This was a grievous change to see, this deep dying, and also the nose shriveled and dried in my sight, and the sweet body was brown and black, completely turned from His own fair, life-like color on into this dry dying. For at the time that our Lord and blessed Saviour died upon the Cross, there was a dry, harsh wind, and it seemed to me terribly cold.] (lines 589-99)
Not all of the visual showings are of Christ. Secular images whose meanings unfold in Julian's understanding, sometimes after years of reflection, sometimes immediately, are a striking feature of the showings. An often-quoted example is the hazelnut cosmos: "Also in this He shewed a littil thing, the quantitye of an hesil nutt [hazelnut] in the palme of my hand; and it was round as a balle. I lokid there upon with eye of my understondyng and thowte, What may this be? And it was generally answered thus: It is all that is made" (lines 148-51).
Julian accepts her experience as answering previous, but forgotten, petitions to have bodily sight of the Crucifixion and to undergo in youth a severe illness in order to be "purged be [by] the mercy of God and after lyven [live] more to the worshippe of God because of that sekenesse" (lines 60-61). But between the prayers and the May of their granting, "These two desires foresaid passid fro [from] my minde" (line 70). She also had asked to receive what she calls three "wounds," true contrition, compassion, and "willfull longing to God" (line 69); this third petition "dwelled with me continually" (lines 70-71).
If The Shewings did no more than recount these events in the fashion that it does, the book would merit attention for the particularity and verve of its prose, as a vivid spiritual document, and as an early autobiographical fragment in the vernacular. But what makes it more deeply significant is that, especially in her longer version, Julian incorporates in no simply appended way but in an evolving integration the results of a long concentration upon the visions. Reflective passages support the narrative of the visions with a circling, complex, always reasoned consideration of the doctrinal and devotional implications twenty years of thinking about them have yielded. For Julian, the showings reach deeply into what it means to be a human being, which for her is to be a creature created by God living in Christendom.
Her discussions include the nature of the Trinity, God, and most especially Christ; the nature of sin; the relation of the individual soul to God, to neighbor, and to self; the roles of providence and chance; the process of prayer; the salvic roles of nature and grace, and a theology of creation. The church and the sacraments are accorded a respectful, summary, mention. Through her exploration of these topics, Julian offers to our regard her world. It is one in which pain, illness, sin, desolating loneliness, and numbing stupidity occur, but one in which, because every human creature in it is suffused with the presence of God, all things are, finally, and also in an underlying deep and present reality, "well." Her world is not an open one and surely not an open-ended one. It is not a world that is being fabricated, or improvised, or written into existence through the endeavors of successive human generations. But although a totalization, not of human making, the world is not recalcitrant or static; rather it is shot through with interchanging energies. It is, in Julian's word, a "werkyng," and also "sekir" [secure] space and time in which people - all that is within them - are "kept," saved, cherished, and loved. It is a world whose potential, bent, and reality, even unfelt and unseen, is joy. A fundamental vocabulary of plain words - werkyng, sekir, kepyng, and lyking (pleasure) - reiterates directly this sense of how things are.
The writing, while idiomatic and pungent, is marked throughout by the description of abstractions in terms of their properties, by succinct statements couched as formal definitions, by rigorous distinctions, by negative clarification, by enumerated analytical classification; by some conspicuous meticulousness in disposal of prepositions (see lines 2181-84 and 3114-15), and by a vocabularly that recalls not only the Bible (especially John and Paul), but also learned discourse. Some examples to which she repeatedly has recourse include the can-may-will division of possibility, action and suffering as binary categories, the contrast of creator to creature, and the use of substance in its technical, philosophical sense. This intellectuality has led most scholars to conclude that the writer could not have been illiterate and that she probably knew Latin, at the least well enough to read the Latin Bible, a conclusion that would be unexceptional except that it contradicts her flat assertion that the revelation came to a "simple creature that cowde [knew] no letter" (line 41).
A number of explanations of how this is to be interpreted have been offered: It may be an instance of captatio benevolentiae, a modesty topos, that could be accepted at face value only by those unfamiliar with the convention of such disclaimers; it may mean that, like the German mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg whose similar profession indicated ignorance of Latin but not of German, Julian was literate in the vernacular only; or, it may mean that the visions did come to her when she was unlettered, but that before composing the longer account she became literate.1
To be taken into account is Julian's residence in a town, large by medieval standards in England, with a number of institutions of learning.2 It claimed a noted grammar school. At the great cathedral, the priory gave instruction both to monks and to young men destined for the diocesan clergy. Late fourteenth-century Norfolk still drew scholars from the continent. Julian's contemporary, Peter of Candia, the scholar who became the controversial Pope Alexander V, traveled to England to study at Norwich as well as at Oxford. The four mendicant orders maintained Norwich convents which prepared candidates in philosophy and theology before they went on to Cambridge or Oxford. Scholars from the orders, most of whom lived within a mile or two of one another, held disputations, although these probably were not open to women auditors.3 In such a place, the quality of the sermons must have been enviable, and an eager listener might well absorb both advanced ideas and the formulations that would most economically express them. As a late twentieth-century person might speak of the mirror stage in child development without reading Piaget, a fourteenth-century person lacking formal education might grasp theological issues and terms.
The fact is that it is very difficult to judge confidently the degree to which a listener might become learned in a late medieval milieu.4 Even the twentieth-century mix of oral and written, authorial and scribal, may become complex. Consider only Ferdinand de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics or a Paris Review interview. Lacan writes that his subsequently published lecture, "The agency of the letter in the unconscious or reason since Freud," is inserted "at a point somewhere between writing [l'écrit] and speech - it will be half-way between the two." Lacan then footnotes, "The lecture took place on 9 May, 1957, in the Amphithéâtre Descartes of the Sorbonne, and the discussion was continued afterwards over drinks."5 Evidently he considers the final writing to owe something to this pendant, surely oral, occasion. Weighty and plausible, the evidence that Julian was literate in both Latin and English is not conclusive.
Interest centers upon the statement not only for its bearings upon the issue of the late medieval interplay of orality and literacy but also because this is one of the rare facts Julian offers about herself that does not issue directly from the few hours of the visions, their occasion and context. We know little or nothing of her life with certainty. Even the identification of the book's author with the anchoress who in the late fourteenth century occupied a cell at St. Julian's church in Norwich, though secure from reasonable challenge, depends not upon internal evidence but upon a manuscript rubric. Of a neighboring, younger religious seeker, Margery Kempe of Lynn, we know family, Christian and married names, status of father and husband, number of children, business ventures, travel itineraries, and the gist of encounters with many persons, clerical and lay, including Julian herself (see Appendix B). Saint Augustine addresses his Confessions (a book Julian may have known - see note to line 918-19), to God, but exposes to incidental audiences a David Copperfieldian abundance: names of mother, father, son, and various friends and associates; education and reading; marriage negotiations, and professional conditions in two cities. Of the English solitary of the generation preceding Julian, Richard Rolle, we have many anecdotes, including how he dropped out of Oxford at the age of eighteen and embarked on his hermit's career in a garment fashioned from his father's rainhood and two tunics of his sister, prompting her to cry out, "My brother is mad!"
But Julian models no emblematic anecdote and offers few facts. Least of all self-dramatizing, neither is she forthcoming. Some of the sparse externals - that her mother was present at her bedside and that a child accompanied the priest on his sick call - as well as her defiant sense of her own daring in presuming as a woman to speak up with authority (see Appendix A) are even pared away in the later version of the Shewings. A curate, anonymous others in her sick room, and "a certeyn creature that I lovid" (line 1167) survive into the revision, the last to make the point that one ought to be interested in what is general, not in who is particular. A charmingly illuminated cat in the modern Julian of Norwich Cathedral window is extra-textual, no doubt prompted by the thirteenth-century Ancrene Riwle whose author warned his recluses against owning a cow as a too cumbrous and worldly responsibility, but did allow a cat: "Ge mine leoue sustrene ne schule ye habben nan beast bute cat ane." [You, my dear sisters, should have no beast, except for one cat.]6
Nonetheless, the book projects a strong sense of a particular, intensely-lived life, of a distinctive personality coupling a benign, open temperament with a discriminating mind, energetic, ardent and focused, working hard. This working, and reworking, strains the outline of the showings, as becomes especially clear when comparing short and long versions. The visionary events which continued "shewing be process ful faire and sekirly ich folowand other" [showing by a fair and certain progression each following the other] (lines 2741-42) are sliced into to form envelopes accommodating the probing of their significance. B. A. Windeatt has described the long version's "structure of exploration and enquiry" as resulting from "the pressure of meditation" that pushes the narrative framework "outwards from within" (Art, pp. 57, 60).
This pressure makes it seem that the frequent enumerations are not so much sets of conclusions as a way of securing a hold upon exigent issues. "It nedyth me to wetyn it" [I needed to know], Julian will write (line 1788; emphasis mine). Explanation and exploration resolve in sudden concisions: "And Hymselfe werkith it; then it is" (lines 2142-43); "He is here alone with us all; that is to sey, only for us, He is here" (lines 3283-84); "For in the beholding of God we fall not; in the beholding of selfe we stond not; and both these ben soth" [are true] (lines 3335-36); "I have seid as I saw as trewly as I can" (line 2976). She quite deliberately thinks of her later version not only as a book but also as a project, a process, drawing to conclusion with an enigmatic proviso: "This booke is begunne be Gods gift and His grace, but it is not yet performid, as to my syte" (lines 3391-92). The reader may find the want of biographical fact and domestic context well compensated by the close view she offers of her mind in the intimacies of its acts of apprehension. Still, a vita can be posited. Julian's dating of the visions, research on the anchoritic life in England and upon the East Anglia of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century, and a few documents - wills, the visit of Margery Kempe, and a rubric in the short version's manuscript - allow educated guesses.
Putting together the May, 1373, date for the visions and Julian's statement that she was then thirty and a half, we get a birthdate of late 1342. The first will to mention her as an anchoress appears in a testament dated 1394. Surely enclosed then, it is entirely likely that she was an anchoress much earlier. It has been assumed that the company at her bedside means that she was not a recluse at the time of the visions, but the visitors' presence could indicate that a solitary's life might be less rigid than enclosure ceremonies suggest or that the regime was relaxed in emergencies. The manuscript heading of the shorter version states that she was still living in 1413:
There es a visioun schewed be the goodenes of god to a devoute womann, and hir Name es Julyan that is recluse atte Norwyche and yitt ys onn lyfe. Anno d(omi)ni mill(esi)mo CCCCxiij; In the whilke visyoun er fulle many comfortabylle wordes and gretly styrrande to alle thaye that desyres to be crystes looverse. [Here is a vision shown by the goodness of God to a devout woman, and her name is Julian, who is a recluse a Norwich and still is alive, the year of our Lord 1413; in which vision are many comforting words, greatly moving to all those who desire to be lovers of Christ.] (BL MS Additional 37790, fol. 97r.)
The last bequest naming Julian comes in 1416 from Isabel Ufford, countess of Suffolk, included among numerous gifts to religious and religious houses: "Item jeo devyse a Julian recluz a Norwich 20s" [Item: I bequeath to Julian, recluse at Norwich, twenty shillings]. However, bequests to an unnamed anchoress at St. Julian's continued until 1429, so it is possible that the writer lived until that date.7
Although fourteenth-century England offered a diversity of religious callings, options for women were narrow, and the anchoritic way of life was the only one that more women than men chose. It was officially recognized from the twelfth century; then a paper trail of enclosure rituals, ecclesiastical regulations, documents of support, and a virtual genre of advice-to-solitaries literature begins. But the anchoritic choice was never really common. In anchoritism's most flourishing century, the fourteenth, there were 214 anchorites in England to about 35,000 other religious, secular and regular.8 To be an anchorite was to choose a more severe and idiosyncratic, but also a more initially accessible, path than that of communal life in orders where dowries were required. The solitary calling drew lay people, the poor as well as the aristocratic; priests, canons, and friars who moved into seclusion from roles of social service; and monks and nuns who stepped beyond the regular community pattern into a more deeply contemplative solitary life.9
Most male anchorites were clerics, but since no record was taken of the previous status of nuns, records do not show how many women recluses were professed religious. Although Margery Kempe gives Julian the title of "dame," customary for nuns, none of the wills naming her identifies her in that way. Nonetheless, it has been supposed that Julian may have been a nun. If so, her most likely community would have been Benedictine. A Benedictine convent, Carrow Abbey, stands about a mile from St. Julian's parish church and held its advowson (i.e., the right to nominate its rector). Certainly Carrow Abbey later supported other anchorites, and, whether or not Julian was a nun there, it is among Benedictine communities of nuns that the Shewings reappeared in the seventeeth century. Whether she was indeed a nun, however, remains disputed.10
Unlike hermits, solitaries who moved about, most anchorites vowed stability. After enclosure they remained, normally for life, in the same restricted quarters, most attached to a church or convent. Whether Julian made a formal vow of seclusion cannot be said; Norwich diocesan registers do not have complete records of formal commitments (Tanner, p. 61). Julian very likely took her name from St. Julian's, the Norwich parish where a church had existed since Saxon times and which had an anchorhold. The prescribed size for a solitary's cell was twelve square feet. In actuality, sizes varied from place to place, some modestly spacious, others severely cramped. Some sites provided for more than one recluse, such as that for the three sisters for whom the Ancrene Riwle was written. An anchorhold found at Compton in Surrey allowed barely room to turn around, measuring six feet, eight inches, by four feet, four inches, plus a loft (Warren, p. 32). According to Canon Michael McLean, former rector of St. Julian's, the dimensions of Julian's cell, probably built against the church's south side, were almost certainly smaller than the site that visitors see in the present building, reconstructed after the bombing of June 27, 1942. Though most opinion accepts the present site, Canon McLean observes that at least two ancient maps show a cell in different positions alongside the churchyard wall. It had been assumed that Julian's cell was destroyed at the time of the dissolution in 1539, but it is now believed that the structure, which may have been of timber on stone foundations, simply fell into ruins after the Reformation.11
Regulations for reclusoria prescribed arrangments beyond size of the quarters. Cells were to have three windows, the first opening to the church to allow the recluse to hear Mass, receive the Sacrament, and speak with a confessor; the second for delivery of necessities; the third, for light, was to be covered so as to be translucent, but not distracting. Julian's window into the church did not allow much view of the altar; the tabernacle housing the Blessed Sacrament, which then hung in front of the altar rather than being recessed upon it, was, however, fully visible.12 A priest-recluse might have an altar in his cell. Gardens were allowed, certainly a possibility at St. Julian's.
Enclosure rituals for the neophyte recluse included a mass with prayers for the dead; the anchorite was henceforth to be one dead to the world. But in fact enclosure could not preclude ties between anchorites and their communities, ties both practical and spiritual. Bishops were responsible to see to it that the life was not assumed carelessly and that the anchorite would have lifetime support. Servants, and no doubt volunteers, fetched and carried. The Ancrene Riwle recommends that in order to have time for prayer, anchoresses keep maidservants (p. 311). Julian apparently had two servants, for John Plumpton, a Norwich citizen, in 1415 willed forty pence to Julian herself and twelve pence each to her serving maid and to Alice, her former maid (C&W, I, 33-34). Anchorites counseled visitors. Margery Kempe sometime in 1415 sought and received the counsel of "an ankres in the same cyte whych hyte Dame Ielyan" [an anchoress in the same city (i.e., Norwich) who is called Dame Julian].13 Priests who took up seclusion might continue duty as confessors; Margery Kempe counted an anchorite of Lynn as her "principal gostly fadyr" (pp. 43-44). Letters of advice warn anchorites that they are not to gossip or get a name for themselves as school mistresses, though they might perhaps oversee a servant's instruction of children. On the other hand, the anchorite might be the one requiring instruction. When Emma Stapleton, daughter of Sir Miles Stapleton, became an anchoress at Norwich's Carmelite friary in 1421, five persons, including the prior and sub-prior, were appointed advisers.14 Probably most recluses passed some time in secondary occupations; needlework was commended to women; men might be copyists or priests (Warren, p. 42). We know that Julian, like Rolle and like another contemporary recluse, the Monk of Farne, with or without scribal help, wrote.
Still, the center and reason for being of reclusive life was contemplative prayer. Ann K. Warren's fact-filled study of anchorites and their patrons in medieval England reports the bequests and grants from middle class, noble, and royal patrons establishing that lay people and religious alike valued these contemplatives whose lives so differed from their own. She writes of the intangible, but central communal role of anchorites:
Encouraged, applauded, and supported by society and church, they undertook their solitary life by encamping in the heart of the community. Enclosed and yet exposed, hidden and yet visible, shadows behind the curtains of their access windows, medieval English anchorites were daily reminders of the proper focus of Christian existence. Martyr, viator, penitent, ascetic, mystic, miles Christi - the recluse was all of these. (p. 7)
Julian had no immediate, local model for her calling. Although more hermits and anchorites lived in Norwich between the last third of the fourteenth century and the Reformation (which effectively put a pause, for some time, to anchoritism as a recognized religious life) than in any other town in England, none is recorded there between 1312-13, long before her birth, when local records mention two, and her emergence in 1373. During her lifetime, the number of anchorites within the city increased to some ten (Tanner, p. 58).
Julian's Norwich was a vigorous place. Its solitaries formed one element of a mixed, thriving religious life to which both the older church institutions and the new popular avenues of devotion contributed. Norwich had been a cathedral city at least since 1103, its priory and church planned on a scale to match the older cathedrals - a priory for sixty Benedictine monks, a fourteen-bay nave for the church.15 The scholarly founding bishop, Herbert Losinga, who was responsble for the new cathedral's ambitious scale, also immediately set about the collection of a library, and when fire almost entirely destroyed that collection during a conflict with citizens in 1272, the cathedral set about at once with the labor of copying to replace standard works and profited, too, from the bequests of its own monks and former monks. At the time of dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII the collection probably numbered 1,350 books.16 Nor was the cathedral library Norwich's only one. The Austin friars, whose house was directly across from St. Julian's parish church, had a library from which Julian herself conceivably could have borrowed. The library was considerable, we may infer, because a fifteenth-century Norwich donor (a lay woman) provided it with a new building. An Augustinian regulation exists stipulating that books were not to be taken from the library unless there were duplicates, which implies that if there were, they might be borrowed (C&W, I, 39-40).17
The fire of 1272 shows that Norwich townspeople did not always feel themselves at one with their cathedral, but possession of the see stimulated and focused cultural, as well as religious, life. It was chiefly the cathedral that patronized the artists who shaped the great period of East Anglian art. This was coming to its end at the time of Julian's birth, but as she was growing up, that art, as well as the masonry of castle, cathedral, and city wall and the wind-swept, sea-near marshlands, pastures, and rivers, made up what she would have seen about her. How rich the art could be can be estimated from what remains of such luxurious manuscripts as the Ormesby and Gorleston psalters. Embroidery, metal work, painting, sculpture, illumination, stained glass - all contributed to the splendor of the cathedral. Norfolk, as the late St. Omer psalter demonstrates, also had lay patrons. Artists from the continent worked throughout the region, supplementing a high level of local craftsmanship. Parish churches too were impressively adorned with illuminated glass, altar pieces and screens, carved fonts, and statues. The large number of surviving wooden rood screens carved with figures of saints, which in Julian's time would still be brightly painted, indicates that they were to be seen in nearly every parish church.18
Norman P. Tanner's study documents the vitality of the varied constituents of this religious world in later medieval Norwich. They included not only the cathedral and its priory, but also some fifty parish churches, more per capita than for any other English town - four were within a half mile of Julian's anchorhold - five places of worship attached to the cathedral priory, and eighteen religious houses or hospitals within or just without the city walls as well as anchorholds and the individual chapels of some private citizens. Craft guilds and religious confraternities increasingly sponsored religious activities, including plays. Norwich was the only place in England where communities resembling the continental beguinages developed, somewhat after Julian's lifetime (Tanner, pp. 64-66).
The medieval city, enclosed by the river Wensum and its three-mile city wall constructed between 1297 and 1377, centered about the castle and the cathedral close, but as a weaving, leather, and trading center, Norwich also looked to the sea and cultivated flourishing contacts with the Rhineland. It shared fully in the desperately eventful political life and human damage of the last half of the fourteenth century. The plague came upon the town three times, the first a drastic sweep in 1349, when Julian would have been six, and again in 1361 and 1369. When Julian was thirty-eight, the Peasant Uprising of 138l spread throughout East Anglia. One episode involved her putative convent, Carrow Abbey. Rioters advanced upon it and, threatening violence, obtained from the prioress deeds and court rolls which they afterwards burnt at Norwich in the presence of the rebel leader, Geoffrey Litster (or Lister), who had gained the city.19 The astonishing mix of secular and religious, ecclesiastical and martial, brutal and refined is instantiated vividly in the account of how the rebels were suppressed. The bishop, Henry Despenser, led forces opposing the rebels. When Litster was defeated the bishop personally shrove him and then presided at the execution - hanging, drawing, and quartering. The bishop expressed gratitude for the victory, according to a plausible tradition, not only with a mass but also with the donation to the cathedral of a wonderful retable with five panels, centered upon a poignant crucifixion scene.20 The date of its donation, 1381, makes it impossible that the scene could have affected Julian's vision of the crucifixion in 1373 (and her description in no way resembles the retable panel), but if she were not yet enclosed when the gift was made, she might have seen it. Julian's cell was three quarters of a mile from the cathedral; before her death, she had a closer neighbor, the execution place for Lollards, whose repression included, for the first time under Henry IV, burning. Allusions to politics of the times - to what a twentieth century Norwich cathedral dean has characterized a "violent, insecure, ambitious and lively society" - sometimes have been read into Julian's work, but, if there, they are indirect.21 She indicates her social bond in two more general ways, ways that issue directly from her inner life: most expansively, by her understanding and reporting of her visions as being intended for all her fellow Christians; second, by her decorous acceptance of the church's teachings, even when her visions refuse corroboration of some doctrine.
Broadening the context beyond Norwich, we may see Julian as a part of that epoch when the vernacular re-emerged as a literary language. Chaucer, Gower, Langland, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing and Walter Hilton were all writing. The Gawain poet, with whom Julian shares an insistent motif of courtesy, was her earlier contemporary.22 Her life overlaps with that of Richard Rolle of Hampole (1300-1349) at one end and with Margery Kempe (born c. 1373) at the other. It has been supposed that she may have read, or even used as a model of rhetoric, Chaucer's translation of Boethius (C&W, I, 45-47) or have read or been read by the spiritual writers who were her contemporaries. But with the exception of Margery Kempe, certain evidence that Julian knew of any of them or their works, or they anything of her or hers, is lacking. Margery Kempe apparently knew Julian only as a spiritual counselor, not an author, significant because the younger woman does record names of spiritual writers whose works were read to her.
We may see Julian in another context, as the late successor of the Rhineland mystics of a century and a half before, many of them women, whose writings, sometimes in a vernacular, constituted a literary phenomenon as well as a contribution to spiritual renewal in their own times. Largely because of feminist scholars' interest, some selections of medieval women's religious writing have appeared in English translations, but few of their manuscripts are known to have been in England in time for Julian to have profited from them directly.23
If, apart from the Bible, we do not know exactly what Julian read, neither do we know who in her own time or the next generations read her. Some Middle English spiritual texts directly address an immediate audience. Aelred wrote a guide to reclusive life for his own sister. The Ancrene Riwle, written for three enclosed sisters of the same family, quickly spread beyond them to others. The Cloud of Unknowing author writes for a young monk undertaking a strict solitary life. Hilton wrote for an anchoress, his "ghostly sister in Jesus Christ," and forty-seven extant manuscripts of the Scale of Perfection show how generally others found that treatise useful.24 Julian did not do this, did not direct her Shewings to a special reader or readers. She took the showings as given generally for all, and she wrote to all, to her "even Cristene." But, in the short run, the very lack of evidence indicates that she reached very few. In a study of Julian's influence and that of Richard Rolle on the Middle English lyric, Mary A. Knowlton concludes, in effect, that she had none.25 Lateral contamination indicates that both short and long texts were in circulation by 1413 when Julian, if we trust the short text's introduction, "yitt ys onn lyfe," but between this date and the mid-seventeenth century, there is silence.
Julian's first readers about whom we have any definite information appear in the mid-seventeenth century in two small exile houses of English Benedictine nuns, one at Cambrai, in Northern France, the other its daughter house in Paris. There women of recusant families followed their vocations until the French Revolution drove them back to re-establish in England. (Stanbrook Abbey descends from Cambrai; St. Mary's Abbey at Colwich, Stafford, from Paris.) There, they pursued lives of prayer and study; some wrote; and they copied, voluminously, spiritual writings. Three names from these communities can be directly linked to Julian's work. The first is that of Margaret Gascoigne (d. 1637), a Cambrai author who quoted Julian in her own writing; the second, that of Barbara Constable, a productive scribe who made her profession at Cambrai in 1640, and wrote a selection from Julian appearing in an anthology of religious writings and translations of Father David Augustine Baker, spiritual director at Cambrai from 1624 to 1633; and, more tentatively, the third, that of Anne Clementine Cary (1615-71), founder of the Paris convent, who may have been the scribe of one of the complete manuscripts, that one edited here. The first scrap of Julian's long text that we have out of these houses is Margaret Gascoigne's quotation: "Thou hast saide, O Lorde, to a deere childe of thine, Lette me alone my deare worthy childe, intende to me, I am inough to thee, reioice in thy Sauiour and Saluation (this was spoken to Iulian the Ankress of norw[ich], as appeareth by the booke of her reuelations)." [You have said, Oh Lord, to a dear child of yours, Let me alone, my precious child and listen to me; I am enough for you. Rejoice in your Savior and salvation (this was spoken to Julian, the anchoress of Norwich, as appears from the book of her revelations.)]26
Father Baker translated several late medieval spiritual writers, both continental and English, for the benefit of the convent. He had worked at the library of Sir Robert Cotton, the antiquarian whose library harbored the unique copies of Beowulf and the Gawain poet, and from France appealed to him for help for his charges: "Their lives being contemplative the comon bookes of ye worlde are not for their purpose, and litle or nothing is in thes daies printed in English that is proper for them. There were manie English bookes in olde time whereof thoughe they have some, yet they want manie. And thereuppon I am in their behallfe become an humble suitor vnto you, to bestowe on them such bookes as you please, either manuscript or printed being in English, conteining contemplation Saints lives or other devotions. Hampooles [i.e., Richard Rolle's] workes are proper for them. I wishe I had Hilltons Scala perfectionis in latein; it woulde helpe the vnderstanding of the English; and some of them vnderstande latein" (Spearritt, pp. 291-92). Possibly this appeal is responsible for our having Julian's long version; and it is also possible that her manuscripts were among the "some" books that the nuns had already among them.
This post is dedicated to the nuns of Stanbrook Abbey who preserved "The Revelations of Divine Love" for the world. Please see the BBC documentary.