Today we wake up to the devastating news that our much-loved Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has now deteriorated to such a point that he is in intensive care and receiving oxygen treatment. This comes amid reports of more and more people, each one a son, daughter, brother, sister, husband, wife or friend, suffering severely from the effects of Covid-19, both within our parish and beyond.
Yet the Lord would not have our hearts be troubled; please be assured that there is hope, as today’s saint would no doubt tell us if she were still on earth. What’s curious about Julian of Norwich is that none of us know her real name. In fact, we don’t know a great deal about her life at all, other than that she was born toward the end of the year 1342 in Norfolk (then one of England's most religious places) and that she lived as an anchorite in the grounds of St. Julian’s Church, Norwich, from where she gets her name. As an anchorite, she would have undergone a rite of profession and consecration which resembled a funeral rite, symbolising her death to the world and desire to live only for God. Unlike hermits, anchorites also took vows of stability of place, electing to be permanently enclosed in a tiny cell which was usually attached to the church, as was the case with Julian.
Julian lived during the time of the Black Death, which swept through Europe and is thought to have killed fifty million people, or sixty percent of Europe’s population. Julian almost certainly lost loved ones and she herself became gravely ill when she was just thirty years old (it’s believed that this took place before her consecration as an anchorite). On the 8th of May, believing she was close to death, the curate came to give her the last rites, holding a crucifix over her bed and telling her to “look at it, and be strong”. Julian did so and saw the Corpus Christi begin to bleed as the room went dark, leading her to believe she was about to die, although she later said that she no longer felt any pain.
He’s not cross
Over the next twelve hours Julian received fifteen wonderful visions from the Lord and Our Lady, and a sixteenth the following night. A week later, she completely recovered from her illness and proceeded to write about her “shewings”, which she believed were intended for all Christians. These Revelations of Divine Love are beautiful in that they draw back the black drapes of fear and shame to display the brilliant light of a God who is sweet-natured, “friendly and courteous”, infinitely gentle and merciful and whose love is truly inalienable. Perhaps most significantly, they reveal to us a God who is simply incapable of wrath:
“I saw truthfully that Our Lord was never wroth nor never shall be. For he is God, he is good, he is truth, he is love, he is peace. And his might, his wisdom, his charity, and his unity do not permit him to be wroth. For I saw truly that it is against the property of his might to be wroth, and against the property of his wisdom, and against the property of his goodness. God is that goodness that may not be wroth, for God is nothing but goodness.”
This revelation of God’s character came at a particularly significant time, and not merely because the theology of the day was laced with guilt and placed a heavy emphasis on sin and damnation. Church leaders believed – and taught – that the Black Death was an expression of God’s displeasure with the human race and a means of punishing sinners. Julian’s shewings assure us that this was not and never will be the case. I’ll leave it to the reader to make the necessary application to our current situation. It’s a Truth that many of us find difficult or even impossible to believe, as Julian was well aware:
“Some of us believe that God is almighty, and can do everything; and that he is all wise, and may do everything; but that he is all love, and will do everything— there we draw back.”
Much has been made in the news of patients dying alone in Intensive Care Units because they aren’t allowed to have any visitors and medical staff are too stretched to be able to attend properly to them. But is this really true? Jesus said that not even a sparrow falls to the ground without Our Father noticing, and human beings are of much more worth than sparrows. Here, too, Julian has a jewel of Divine Wisdom for us:
“And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.
In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.”
The hazelnut, then, can be seen as a microcosm of all creation and symbolic of every living thing. There is not a single soul on this earth who is not infinitely precious to our God and who is not held cherishingly in the palm of His hand, either during their life or when their time comes to pass unto Him.
All shall be well
Life on earth can be tragic and fraught with difficulty. It’s a truth from which, in the modern West, we sometimes manage to shield ourselves to a degree, kidding ourselves that our advanced technology and state of the art medical equipment make us invincible. Times like this can leave us feeling exposed and vulnerable and, with our limited human perspective, it might not be easy to see how God is working. Living in a time of only primitive medicine, Julian would have experienced this to full – yet she would encourage us not to lose heart:
“AND thus our good Lord answered to all the questions and doubts that I might make, saying full comfortably: I may make all things well, I can make all things well, I will make all things well, and I shall make all things well; and thou shalt see thyself that all manner of things shall be well.”
I once saw a man wearing a T-shirt which bore the slogan: ‘death is only the end if you assume the story is about you’. I have a hunch that this young man probably didn’t hold any religious affiliation, but the slogan was true up to a point. The story is about you, and me, and everyone else – but the story itself is not mine, yours, or anyone else’s but His. We, like Julian, are living in the midst of His Story – and it’s a story whose ending has been written from all eternity. Therefore, regardless of how each tiny chapter unfolds, we have assurance that the ending shall be a happy one.
With a God who is so gratuitously good, loving, tender and merciful, a God who knows and cherishes everything He has created and who is so incapable of being angry - how could it be anything else?
By Lucy Stothard