Wednesday, January 23, 2013


   “When he broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth animal shout, ‘Come’.  Immediately another horse appeared, deathly pale, and its rider was called Plague, and Hades followed at his heals.” (The New Testament, John, Rev. C. 6, v. 8)  But Julian of Norwich saw that all was created with love and said that all, in all manner is well and will be well. (Julian of Norwich, The Revelations of Divine Love. Showing 13, C. 32)

   Joanne & I traveled to England leaving Christmas Day 2012 to celebrate the baptism of our new grandson Jacob.  The day of the baptism was cloudy and cold.  Television commentators in the U.K. that morning commented on U.S. issues such as gun control and the immanence of going over the financial fiscal cliff.

   The ceremony was brief but meaningful.  Father McCarthy, the lead celebrant, welcomed the radiant and beautiful Jacob Alan Lange into the community and reminded us of our responsibilities in love to Jacob.  Father McCarthy prayed for the support of the ever present “Communion of Saints” including Saints Jacob, Joel, and David.  In my own prayer I added Julian of Norwich.

   We arrived in London a week before the ceremony and had time to visit Norwich a city to the east and north of London and close to the North Sea.  The purpose was to discover more about Julian of Norwich, a 14th century  anchoress.  An anchoress is a female hermit who withdraws from secular life to a sealed room connected to a church for religious reasons. 

   Norwich was second to London in population and commercial importance in 14th century England.  It was a century of dramatic change similar to our own times.  Increased finished cloth production brought in skilled workers to Norwich from Flanders.  Many foreign workers in Norwich were murdered during the Peasants Revolt in 1381.  (Whittock, Martyn, Life in the Middle Ages, London, 2009, p. 68)  Climate change, constant war with France, the Black Death, a corrupt Catholic Church, which had moved its headquarters from Rome to Avignon, and strong theological dissent, responded to by the inquisition, set the background for the writings of mystic Julian of Norwich.  (see - Tuchman, Barbara W. A Distant Mirror, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1978.)  

      A visit to Norwich can bring history alive.  Several stops during rainy cold days gave us a greater awareness of anchoress Julian.  Let us consider three: the Cathedral, St. Andrew and Black Friar’s Halls and St. Julian’s Church.

    The Norwich Cathedral, Church of the Holy Trinity, which, since Henry VIII, (1491-1541) has been under the control of the English government and the Anglican Church.   The Cathedral was established by Norman Bishop Herbert Losinga and the Benedictines in 1096, and construction was completed in 1499.  The Cathedral has differing architecture since its construction continued during centuries of time.  For example, the lower part is Romanesque and the upper vault is Gothic.

   At least three references to Julian can be found in the Cathedral.  Various chapels line the inside of the Cathedral.  Priests were required to say Mass every day and the BenedictIne Community had many priests and needed many chapels to accommodate.  It was believed the Masses provided the ground of existence for mankind.  One of the chapels, dedicated to the 9th Army Regiment of Norfolk, has a painted window of “St. Juliana.” It is not known what her real name was, but  she is called Julian because she was an anchoress at St. Julian’s Church. She appears in Benedictine habit with a cat at her feet.  There are doubts as to whether she was really a Benedictine nun, and those who think she was a nun call her – Dame Julian.  She was never officially declared a saint, but her writings cut out the legs supporting Christian theology so official canonization to sainthood would very surprising.  The cat, the only animal allowed to be with an anchoress, was useful in catching mice and rats that might enter the cell.  Also the founder of Christianity in the region of East Anglia was St. Felix, a name often associated with cats.

   Another chapel has a painted glass window depicting notable Benedictine monks.  Julian is at the base of the window wearing a Benedictine habit.   An inscription in Latin, “Ut in omnibus glorificatur Deus” (hence in all God is glorified. - a Benedictine saying, but arguably a summation of Julian’s theology,)  The tour guide called her Mother Julian.  

   An entrance to the Cathedral is flanked by contemporary statues of St. Benedict and Julian.  We had the good fortune to meet the sculptor, David Holgate, at a tea shop, and he told us he did many months of research for the statues.  Julian is carved wearing the typical dress of a 14th century towns-woman.  She is appropriately holding a book since she was the first woman to write a book in English, Revelations in Divine Love, and to this day she is a teacher.  Julian wrote in a form of English similar to that of Chaucer – a contemporary.  St. Benedict, the founder of monasticism, is shown in his habit with his index finger over his lips to show the importance of silence.  (“Be still and confess that I am God!  I am exalted among the nations – exalted on the earth.  The Lord of Hosts is with us, our stronghold is the God of Jacob.”  Psalm 46, vs. 11 -12.  “Nothing in all creation is so like God as stillness.” Meister Eckhart, Matthew Fox, Original Blessing, Bear & Company, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1983, p. 133.)


   We visited the St. Andrew’s and Black Friars Halls to get further insights into Julian’s 14th century.  The Dominicans, Black Friars, arrived in Norwich in 1226.  They took over the priory of St. Andrew’s in 1307, and began constructing the Black Friars Hall in 1345.  The Friars (White Friars – Carmelites, Grey Friars – Franciscans, Black Friars – Dominicans) of Norwich differed from the Benedictine Monks in that the Benedictines would establish an Abby that attracted people to form a productive community with its center at the Abby.  The Benedictine motto is:  laborare est orare (to work is to pray.)  The Abbot or Abbess would be the ultimate community authority.   The friars differed in that they would go out to the people preaching in parishes, establishing community centers. 

   The family of Thomas Erpingham, hero of Agincourt, 1415 - a major victory for the English in the 100 years war with France, donated money for the construction of the Black Friars Hall.  Erpingham’s son was a Dominican; the Erpingham coat of arms is evident in the hall.    Some believe Julian was of the wealthy aristocratic Erpingham family, hence the use of the title – Lady Julian.  The reasoning is that Julian was an educated woman, even though she claimed not to be, and someone had to support her as an anchoress; it could have been the bishop, but this is unlikely.  The Bishop, Henry Despenser, and Thomas Erpingham were enemies.

   A plaque at the Black Friars Hall commemorates two anchoresses that were attached to the hall – Katherine Foster and Katherine Mann.  Did the Dominican charism, “contemplata aliis trader” (giving the fruits of contemplation to others) influence Julian?  The first Dominicans were cloistered nuns.

   Of course the most important place we went to on our pilgrimage was St. Julian’s Church.  Even in the cold and rain we recognized it as Holy Ground.  This is where Julian lived as an anchoress for probably over 40 years in a room attached to the church.  The room was sealed but she had a window looking into the church so that she might participate in the liturgy and a window to the street so she could be available to console,  council and encourage others. 

   It is a small stone church still in use for prayer.  It is estimated that there has been a church on this site since 950.  The name is probably from Bishop Julian of Le Mans (4th century).  In 1135 King Stephen gave the Church to the care of the nearby Benedictine Nuns of Carrow.  The Church is close to the river Wensum which connects to the North Sea and facilitated Norwich to be a port of entry for the Normans and people from the low countries.  Julian the anchoress gets her name from the Church.  A replica of the Church was re-constructed in 1953 because of bombing damage suffered during W.W. II.  

   Among the interesting features of the Church is a medieval baptismal front which dates from about 1420.   Several well known saints are carved on the font, but at the base are saints that a Church brochure notes with a question mark.  One is William of Norwich, a boy whose murder was blamed on the Jews.  
   “Unwanted children were often sent into the forest to die, as the
   story of Hansel and Gretel recalls; parents could easily explain their
   disappearance by blaming it on the Jews.  In Norwich Cathedral in
   England, one can see a very apologetic plaque commemorating the
   boy William of Norwich who in the twelfth century was said to have
   been stolen by the Jews and crucified.”  (We did not see the plaque.)      
   “In compensation he was made a saint.”  (Middle Ages, Editors of
   “Horizon Magazine,” American Heritage Publishing Co. Inc. New York,
   1968.  p. 131.)

 The Jews were expelled from England in 1290 by Edward I.

     Not far from the Church was “Lollards Pit” where followers of dissident Oxford Priest and scholar John Wyclif were dumped after execution.  Julian’s showings supported Wyclif; which raises the question – who was Julian’s protector?


    The profundity of Julian’s book goes much deeper than we are capable considering, but look at the following.  Julian wrote at a time of rampant fear and hatred, but she pointed to all pervasive love as the response.  She saw the “passion” not just as her suffering or Jesus’ suffering but as the suffering of humanity which elicits love – compassion – and justice.  Julian uses the term “humanity” in the “realistic” sense of Benedictine Anselm Archbishop of Canterbury (1033-1109).  Ironically, I believe that 14th century (c1290 -1349) polar opposite Franciscan “nominalist” William of Ockham would have had no objections to Julian’s work.  

   For Julian, God was the mother of all.    She did not preach a crusade against the Muslims as did 14 century mystic Catherine of Sienna, nor did she march with the flagellants preaching apocalyptic fear and denouncing Jews, as did the defender of Avignon, St. Vincent Ferrer. 

   Julian agreed with Wyclif  as to the equality of the people of God.  Her term was “even Christians.”  Her God was a God of motherly love, not one of wrath that required mediators.

   The connection – the unity of heaven and earth was clear to her.  Humanity was in partnership with the Creator to restore all.  Jacob’s ladder is an appropriate symbol.  Fourteenth century German Dominican theologian Meister Eckhart has an explanation: “down is up and up is down.”  (Fox, Matthew, A Spirituality Named Compassion, Harper, San Francisco, 1979,  p. 40.)