Looking up while locked down – lessons from Julian of Norwich

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Today we are going to look back 600 years from our locked down state to a medieval mystic, the anchorite Julian of Norwich, to see what she might be able to teach us from a form of religious isolating and how she used lockdown to look up. What words of hope and encouragement can reach across the centuries to inspire us in our isolation and confinement?

Mention the name of Julian of Norwich and two things are likely to come up. Firstly, she referred to God as Mother as well as Father. This has often been taken to be revolutionary and radical, but she wasn’t the first to do this. The eleventh century Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm, did it three centuries before her, and he was drawing on the words of Jesus who got there first. As Jesus gazed on Jerusalem, he wept over it and how he would like to gather the people to himself as Mother Hen gathers her brood to her heart (Luke 13:34). It is an image of loving, embracing, protecting and nurturing. And the love of God is a central theme, if not the central theme, in Mother Julian’s book, her ‘Revelations of Divine Love’.

The second thing likely to come to mind will be hazelnuts. Small, round, easily held in the palm of our hand. Or alternatively, now available handily encased in chocolate – an essential for lockdown survival. More of that in a moment.

The woman known as Julian lived in Norwich in the 14th century. We don’t actually know who she was or even what her name was – though some have tried to work it out. Her name is taken from the Church of St Julian in a modest area of Norwich away from the city centre. It is not central and that is fitting because Julian spent 26 years holed up in her cell next to the church.

She had a profound religious experience while lying on what she thought was her deathbed. She was so ill that she was given the last rites and recalls the crucifix being held before her eyes. This image of Christ’s passion played on her mind and she reflects deeply on the love of God she saw there, on Christ’s grace, and that he gave so much for the salvation of the world, for her. Sometime after she recovered, she became an anchorite, a solitary religious in isolation in a cell next to a church.

It is almost unthinkable for us to imagine being sealed into a single room for 26 years. We are struggling with six weeks. She would never leave it and is probably buried under the floor. Once she entered, food was passed through to her. She could see and receive communion through a window into the church and there was a window the other side onto the street where people called to consult her wisdom and insight. Not quite as isolated as it might seem, but it was confined.

Julian lived in the shadow of the Black Death and would hear the carts trundling past her window taking the dead for burial. Having nearly died, she had a strong concept of being mortal and fragile, of life being subject to the will of God and could be taken, surrendered at any moment. It is a context that focussed her mind of the love of God in Jesus Christ, on his passion and on the hope we have in him and through him. This mattered above all else. Our own confinement seems to be raising an interest in spiritual questions and from the numbers tuning in to these services there would seem to be a desire to connect and explore questions of faith.

As Julian recounted her visions, she reflected on what she thought of as two kinds of spiritual sickness. One was to make heavy weather of our hardships and sufferings. The second was despair, where we are weighed down with doubts and dread. The remedies were to remember the patient endurance of Christ, his passion and joy, and to delight in his love. She wrote in Chapter 73 of her ‘Revelations of Divine Love’:

“Love makes might and wisdom come down to our level. For just as by his courtesy God forgives our sins when we repent, so he wills that we forgive our sins too, and as a consequence our foolish despondency and doubting fears.” (Chapter 73)

We are to let go and not be weighed down by what we have lost, but be present in this moment, for this is where God will reveal his love to us; here, not somewhere else.

Then there is that hazelnut. In it she saw the world and contemplated three things:

  • that God has made it,
  • that he loves it
  • and that he cares for it.

God is the maker, the lover and the carer. In this she saw the world in a bigger context, just like the astronauts who have looked from space and seen the blue planet in the vastness of the universe. It is packaged, like my bar of chocolate packages the hazelnuts it contains. And there is at least one person in this household hoping that they will be able to liberate them from their casing at bit later.

Isolation gives us time to change our view. Actually, some people seem to have a lot of time on their hands and others seem to be struggling to keep up. But we are looking at life differently in our lockdown state. As Mother Julian did with her hazelnut reflection on the world, may we come to see our Covid incarceration within its context. The most important part of which is that God who made us, loves us and cares for us. We see this in his self-giving passion and resurrection.

Our lives are so fast paced and often we are looking for outputs and striving. Julian sits in contrast to some of her contemporaries and our own frenetic, endless activism.  Remember the psalmist’s assurance in the storm,

‘Be still and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46:10).

Take some time to be still and notice where you are, to be with God and know that God is God. Be renewed in hope, in trust and confidence in God’s enduring goodness for as Mother Julian assures us

“all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well” (Chapter 27).

In Christ all shall be reconciled to God and brought to fulfilment in him. Look out of the window and see yourself in a greater context of a road, of a city, of this country and planet. Zoom out in your mind and maybe join those astronauts gazing on the world from space. Think back to the Gaia earth exhibition in the Cathedral last year and at the earth suspended in that vast space. Or just place a hazelnut or bar of whole nut chocolate in your hand and use it think of the world; that God made it, loves it and cares for it, and so with us… and then enjoy the chocolate –

‘taste and see how gracious the Lord is’ (Psalm 34:8).

 Alleluia! Christ is risen.

He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

 

Sermon for Easter 4, Live-streamed Sunday 3rd May 202

 

About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough and Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral in the Church of England Diocese of Peterborough. He served as Rural Dean of Peterborough for 5 years. Prior to moving to Peterborough, Ian was in Leeds for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian was born and grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon and is a former head chorister at Shakespeare's Church - Holy Trinity. He studied in Canterbury, Lincoln Theological College and has a Master of Divinity degree from Nottingham University. He is married with two sons. Publications include three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His most recent book, 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus', was published by Sacristy Press in 2017. There is a hymn based on this 'Christ the Saviour'. He has been writing online since the mid 1990s. Ian is a keen photographer and these frequently appear in his posts and on social media.
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