#24: Angela of Foligno and Translation

On eliding boundaries and speaking through the other

Angela of Foligno is a Friend of the Newsletter, having been previously covered for her devotional practice of leprous scab eating. To recap: Angela is born in Umbria in the second half of the 13th century. She is pretty standard-issue-levels of devout for the time period up until she hits middle age, when all of a sudden, her faith starts changing into something more serious, starts being practiced with more intent. Within the span of a few months, her mother, husband, and children all die, and this is when her faith takes a radical leap into the unknown. She gives away her money, gets kicked out of churches for screaming and weeping before the crucifix, and in one particularly beautiful section of her memoir, talks about laying herself bare before the cross—literally undressing, ridding herself of worldly trappings and the status conveyed by her clothing. We know all this about her because she left us an autobiography, a recounting of her life and her steps towards devotion.

Or, well, sort of.

The autobiography is mostly in first person, but almost as soon as it begins, a second first person creeps in—that of Angela’s confessor/scribe/disciple, Brother A. His first person will pop up, sometimes sharing space in a paragraph with Angela’s “I,” his authority and authorship overlapping, speaking over and alongside her. Despite having his voice, we know little about Brother A.’s life, including his name. We know he was a Franciscan monk—part of, at the time, a fervent and powerful religious movement in the area—and possibly a relative of hers. They met after she was kicked out of church for sobbing too loudly, and he followed her out to chastise her further. By his own admission, his scribing for her began as an attempt to bring her words before church leadership to discredit her as a hysteric fraud, but by the time he’s sat down to compile her words on how to become closer to God, it’s clear he believes in Angela’s holiness as much as she does.

Based on some of his asides in the text, we know that Brother A. usually met with Angela. He would let her talk, asking clarifying questions, sometimes drawing the narrative in a certain direction with them. From his notes, which went from haphazard scraps of paper into more beautifully bound and expensive notebooks, he then produced the text we’re able to read today. Angela spoke in a vernacular language, likely Umbrian, a dialect of Italian, and Brother A. would transcribe as she spoke into Latin, the language of learning, and of the church. He tells us that he “did not want to write down one single word which was not exactly as she had said it.”

Before going much further, a note on Latin, and writing in general: there’s no evidence that Angela knew Latin, or even really knew how to read and write. Literacy in the 13th century was something reserved for the wealthy, for the learned, and for men. Latin was a lingua franca across the Church’s holdings, and translation into it was a colonial project from the time that Latin was the official language of a political empire and not just a holy one. Saint Jerome, the original translator of the Bible into Latin, compared the work of a translator to that of a general: “The translator considers thought content a prisoner which he transplants into his own language with the prerogative of a conqueror.”

Brother A., despite his fervent belief in Angela’s holiness, is essentially “stealing” it from her for the greater glory of the Church, corraling it into submission. Although, not quite. Because the thing that makes Brother A’s transcription so notable is how honest he is about all the ways and times in which he fucks up. The text is peppered with his admissions of mediocrity: Angela tells him that his “words were dry and without any savor,” that they “recall to me what I told you, but they are very obscure,” that they are “what is bland, inferior and amounts to nothing,” she tells him his writing is “very defective,” and implies that she is simplifying her language in order that he may “somehow put it in [his] mouth and enable [him] to swallow it.” He also compares himself to a “sieve or sifter which does not retain the precious and refined flour, but only the most coarse.”

But it’s not only Angela telling us, through Brother A., that Brother A. is a terrible scribe: God does too. “All the things which are written here are true...but what was said was much more complete or had much more meaning. What I [Angela] said is defective, and the scribe’s version of it is also weak and defective.”

This divine caveat creates space beyond the text, proves that the reader is involved in some kind of game of telephone with God, whose message we’re getting garbled not-quite-beyond comprehension. The friar’s inclusions of the admonitions against his scribing open up all this space between versions that allow the inexpressibility of God to come through: between the version before us, and the version that Angela spoke in Umbrian, and the version given to Angela by God.

Right now, I'm reading Douglas Robinson’s The Translator’s Turn, kind of for book research, and his main argument is that translation is something we do with our bodies. You work through a text on gut feelings and inclinations and ideas, finding something that feels right to you, a kind of affective certainty that (at least for me) washes away as soon as you've seen your work printed in black and white. The stakes for Brother A’s translation were tremendous: Angela's credibility, her holiness, the literal words of God passing though his pen, his own knowledge of Umbrian, taught to him by his mother, and Latin, learned under the tutelage of some holy Father, through his own affective responses to the miracles Angela could express to him, and the emotions he associated with each language.

I spent this week at work doing a lot of translation with asylum seekers, gathering comments for those that would be affected by the latest asylum rule (it's very bad). I'm not fast enough to take notes in English on a conversation in Spanish, so I did a labor I think of as similar to Brother A’s: I had a conversation with someone, and listened to them talk as I took notes, and asked some questions when I needed to, and then sorted through their words—thrumming with vitality and brilliance and a political will, but a little disorganized, digressive, as so much spoken language is—and in a different language, polished them into statements that traced a personal narrative and connected it to the structures of the new rule, made connections between the personal and the political, just as the asylum seekers had in answering my questions. This work, to me, is harder than writing, because the words are not my own—I become responsible to ensure the meaning, the life in someone else’s words comes through on the page, try to seal up the cracks as best I can, get it as close as possible to this person's life.

And yet, the spaces between our conversations and my notes and the documents submitted to the federal register are there. These spaces are full of the details I couldn't fit into the comment, full of the life they're living beyond the brief phone call we had, full of their willingness to revisit their experiences in the hope, like Angela, that the thing they have gone through, if explained in enough detail, if told carefully enough, will help someone else.

This letter is maybe less about Angela and her work, and more about dear, nameless Brother A., and his apologies that have survived hundreds of years, dozens of languages, and the work he and I share of gently, carefully taking everything someone has chosen to tell us of their story and making it ready to present it to the world.


Works Cited:

  1. Angela of Foligno, Selected Writings. If you’re ever in the market for a really solid version of whatever mystic or whoever, the Classics of Western Christianity are the way to go.

  2. Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. This is the book of translation theory I use the most often, and that opened the door for me—I especially love Walter Benjamin’s “On the Task of the Translator.”

  3. Douglas Robinson, The Translator's Turn. I suspect this one is out of print, but it's from Johns Hopkins University Press, if that helps?

  4. If you want to know more about the proposed asylum rule (truly I am not catastrophizing when I say it will end asylum as we know it in the United States) you can read this article.

  5. I (perhaps unsurprisingly) have written a 3,000 word essay on this for grad school that goes HARD about medieval theories of translation and has way more textual evidence, a lot of this letter was drawn from that, as I had to give my copy of Selected Writings back to the library a year ago when I graduated (rude). If you want to read it, drop me a note and I’ll send you a link.

No new writing up online this week, but I do have a few (virtual) events coming up in support of my translation of A is for Asylum Seeker/A de Asilo.

As always, if you loved this newsletter, please forward it to a friend, tweet about it, etc.

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#23: Theresa Mancuso, Kate Zambreno, and Contemplation

On urban hermits, reading, and making a life for yourself

In Annie Dillard’s book, For the Time Being, she quotes Theresa Mancuso, a church-sanctioned hermit living in New York City: “The thing we desperately need is to face the way it is.”

The last time I read For the Time Being, I was living in an apartment in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens in Brooklyn with two friends from undergrad. I looked up Theresa Mancuso, and she lived, for years, only a few blocks from that apartment, a short walk from where I slept and ate and cried and left every morning to go to a job that a lot of the time, drained my energy without giving much of anything in return—not even much of a salary, honestly.

In 1996, Mancuso set out her basic beliefs and tenets as an urban hermit in an essay for the Review for Religious. Like me, Mancuso had a job, likely commuted on the same train I did, faced the indignities and strangenesses of life in New York City, all the while, in her own words, engaged in “prayer that is intimate and ongoing moment by moment, hour by hour, cements our union with God and prompts the conversion of our hearts over and over again, making holy not only our poor, fragile lives, but everything we touch and everyone we love.”

Last week, I finished reading Kate Zambreno’s new novel, Drifts, and found myself again thinking of Theresa Mancuso, and of my neighborhood in Brooklyn, and of all the ways in which a life can turn towards art and contemplation and solitude, even through all the ways it is difficult and maddening and lonely. Throughout the book, the main character and her partner worry about money, about leaving the city for an isolated cabin somewhere, for looking for somewhere cheaper—all in order to balance this life of writing and thinking and reading. Drifts hews closely to Zambreno’s own life—her house in a neighborhood near my old haunts in Brooklyn, working on a book, commuting to class, having a child. Zambreno was my teacher in undergrad: when she writes about former students emailing her to ask for recommendations, when she writes about resenting having to “sell the writing life” to student writers, I recognize emails I’ve sent her in the middle of some writers-life-crisis or another (How on earth will I find the time to write within the structure/strictures of this job? How does one find an agent? How do you even go about building this kind of life?). “Was being a writer a way of escaping from having a job, or was it, as others have framed it, extreme discipline and unceasing solitary labor? I didn’t know anymore. The lofty comparison irked me; the spirit of Sebald’s comment is right, to write with attention to the present is in some way to become like a dog.” Drifts is a dog book, but within it, she answers her own questions in the clearest way possible—it is somehow both and neither.

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says that “How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and that one is what we are doing.” Drifts is a minute accounting of these days and minutes—the inabilities to write, the emails to friends that are full of doubt or competition or support, the long, lazy afternoons with books laid out on the table in front of you, the return and recursion to texts, to images, to conversations. This is the stuff of the writing life, not necessarily or always or ever Jo March in her scribbling suit in her garrett, or Emily Dickinson drifting through housework. It’s hard work in equal measure to distraction, dissatisfaction in higher proportion than triumph. I’ve always liked reading Zambreno’s work because her reading lists run nearly parallel to mine—she quotes Simone Weil, Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, alongside other people I’ve never read, and these are the characters that populate her work. Drifts is in many ways not dissimilar to accounts of monastic life I’ve read—Thomas Mertons’ The Sign of Jonas comes to mind, especially. Zambreno’s desire for Drifts was to write a book in which drifts of time would accumulate like snow or sand blown against a window, granular and fluid all at the same time.

We’re several months into a quarantine, several months into a time when time has moved strangely, circularly, dripping and crystallizing by turns. I often feel as if I’m wasting it, as if the last three months have been a total wash. I’ve been bad at reading (mostly romance novels), bad at writing (scraping by on like 600 words and definitely not daily), bad at exercise (rarely), at leaving the house, at taking showers, at not drinking every night. But I think it’s also been contemplative, in the way that both Mancuso and Zambreno outline. That is to say: not easy, full of distractions and deferrals and an inability to get to the actual heart of the thing despite wanting to.

In the novel itself, the Zambreno-character wrestles with Drifts like Jacob wrestling with the angel—its unwieldy and important and strange and at once impossible to do and happening just before your eyes as you read it. Mancuso writes about prayer and especially the Liturgy of the Hours as something both impossible and dearly wanted—working life does not accommodate itself to a monastic schedule, and so instead she does the impossible, setting up a thrumming undercurrent of the Jesus prayer throughout her day.

Both Mancuso and Zambreno’s writing are about this—about doing the thing, (the writing the prayer) even though there is every reason, every way, every inclination in your heavy body and your sluggish mind not to, even though most days it doesn’t feel like you’re doing anything at all. While Mancuso’s writing is triumphant, victorious, secure in its relationship with God, Zambreno’s is full of the struggle, of the everydayness of the writing life—watching her dog, the neighbors, dipping into and out of texts, dealing with having a body, but she nevertheless does what at least Mancuso’s goal is, which is to have a life centered at least somewhat around writing and thinking and looking at Durer prints. There are commutes, and meetings with students, but through it all there’s still the reading and the writing and a life that is centered around her home, with its big bed and front porch.

As it is starting to seem like we are going to be inside for much longer than expected, I want to sink into this contemplative life, have my stay at home be a feature of the year and not a bug, find the ways in which the rituals of the day can shape my thought and my reading and writing. I want to face the way it is, and also keep fixed in my mind the way it might be, through enough attention and work and love.


As always, if you enjoyed this newsletter, please feel free to share it, by tweeting or forwarding it to a friend.

This month, I had a piece come out on Patagonia’s blog on the risk and rewards inherent in falling in love with our planet. As with all my writing, it’s a little bit about God, a lot about trees. I also got to do the illustrations for this—I created the embroidery collage based on stuff I found in my neighborhood and shot photos of it in the empty lot next to my house.

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#22: Mary's Magnificat

On living in times like these

It feels sometimes like the secret subject of this newsletter is how to stay alive and trying to avoid despair, here, at the bitter and strange end of the world. It is the end of May, and the end of a long, hard week under Shelter in Place and under white nationalism.

This week saw video footage of a white woman, Amy Cooper, her voice ragged as she told the 911 dispatcher that her life was being threatened by Chris Cooper, a Black birdwatcher who had asked her to leash her dog in Central Park. This week also saw the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, the dramatic escalation of violent tactics by these same police against citizens protesting his unlawful death, and the usual political handwringing and mealymouthed requests for peace from our elected officials. This comes at a time when Black people across the country are facing elevated mortality rates from COVID-19, as we watch the slow, slow bringing to justice of the murderers of Ahmaud Arbery. It is again, a time of grief and mourning, a time of renewed confrontation with this country’s original sin.

There are other writers who have written on this much more and much better and from their own experiences in a way that I cannot. I would recommend Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, The New York Times’ 1619 Project, How to be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi, The Condemnation of Blackness by Khalil Gibran Muhammad, reading our foremothers Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, if you haven’t already.

If, like me, you’re from a tradition that doesn’t place much emphasis on the Magnificat, in Luke 1:46-55, take a moment to read it now. Here is an excerpt:

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

He has brought down rulers from their thrones

but has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things

but has sent the rich away empty.

This is Mary’s song after she finds out she is pregnant. She sings this song in a Palestine occupied by the Roman Empire, she sings this song some months before she’s forced to flee into Egypt to avoid her infant son being slaughtered, some years before this same Empire succeeds in killing her son. Nowhere in Mary’s world does it seem like the rulers have been brought down from their thrones or filled up the hungry with good things. Nowhere in our world does it feel like this either.

Mary’s prayer is a promise, a foretelling of things to come, a revelation that springs from her own lowly status as a young woman—if God will lift her up in this way, then the order of the world as it has been is on the cusp of change as well.

I don’t know much about what to do with the fact that it hasn’t, or if it has, only slightly, don’t know what to do about the fact that people die all the time of inequality while we wait. If I had to point to a single tripping block that is an obstacle to my belief, it’s this one. Why does a God that inspires such song, that pays such gorgeous tribute to ideas of equality and justice at the very heart of God’s story just not follow through? How, if God is just, can injustice exist?

These aren’t particularly revolutionary questions, but it feels like with every year that’s ticked by, as the rich appear to get richer and the poor increasingly impoverished, with the more I understand the immense energy, effort, emotion, prayer and hope put into making the world a better, more just place by so many people, I don’t know what to do with the fact that we are still bound up by the very same strictures that Mary called down more than 2000 years ago.

I woke up this morning to the news that protesters in Minneapolis had set the city’s 3rd Precinct on fire, to a line of protesters, linking arms outside. I also awoke to the President suggesting that any looters be shot. This at a time when capital is valued over human life, when many people have lost their jobs in a pandemic and the government seems disinclined to help, at a moment when other protests, have ceased to have any meaningful effect for a whole long generation.

What I see when I see a burning building where injustice has been housed under the name of law is the mighty being cast down. In Benjamin Wildflower’s woodcut of Mary, above, she is crushing the snake beneath her feet, her usually-placid presentation turned active and violent against injustice.

Make Mary’s song your own—consider what it looks like to actively decry injustice, to rejoice in the toppling of power structures, to consider the ways in which you yourself are implicated in them and what giving away your own power might look like. Listen to the contemporary magnificats rising around us—the words and voices of those most directly affected by the bodily violence of the police and the more insidious violence of structural, medical, social, and class racism.



  • Donate some money to George Floyd’s family or the Minnesota Freedom Fund, to get those incarcerated for protesting an unlawful death out of jail.

  • Ashley Reese, “This is What You Get,” Jezebel.

  • J. Drew Lanham, “Birding While Black,” Lit Hub.

  • I also want to provide a tiny bit of a Black theology reading list for folks who are interested in more readings on the intersection of racial justice and faith: James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Kelly Brown Douglas’ Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited. This is just a primer, and all of these authors have deep bibliographies, and co-writers and students and teachers and references it’s possible to get lost in: Martin Luther King, Jr., Cornell West, Delores Williams.

  • I can’t find a good link to it, but the essay “The Time of the End is the Time of No Room” and the essay that follows it, “Letter to a Bystander,” feel deeply important to this discussion. You can find both in Thomas Merton’s Raids on the Unspeakable.

  • You can buy a print of the incredible Magnificat woodcut I’ve used direct from the artist, Benjamin Wildflower, along with many other very cool leftist-religious art-objects

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    As always, please feel free to forward and share this newsletter if you’d like to!

    This month, I translated Jazmina Barrera’s essay, “Dear Eula Biss,” in advance of her appearance with Eula Biss through Pilsen Community Books and Two Lines Press. I love doing translations like this, and this essay spoke to so many things I’ve been thinking about during the pandemic.

    The launch of A is for Asylum//A de Asilo got pushed back to August for pandemic reasons, and I wrote a mini-essay alongside Rachel Buff, the author, about pandemics and translation. You can read that, and preorder the book, here.

#21: Simone Weil and Attention

A return to themes previously discussed

Long-time subscribers to the newsletter will remember that my very first letter was about Simone Weil and attention and prayer. Since I wrote that letter, I’ve graduated from Divinity school, learned to actually translate Latin (which was a schoolboyish abstraction when I wrote that first letter), moved halfway across the country, written some 20 newsletters and most of a book, gotten engaged, etc. What hasn’t happened is me, falling out of love with Simone Weil, or her remarkable essay, Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies With a View to the Love of God. The essay is short enough, and bears reading, but I’ll summarize it for you anyways:

The same kind of attention a schoolchild turns to a tricky Latin translation or a mathematical proof is the same kind of unfocused, often unrewarding attention that ought to be turned towards God in prayer, and the same kind of prayer, in turn, that we ought to turn to the suffering other—a kind of negative capability that leaves you open to the encounter but not straining towards it or pulling away, or even bringing much ego or preconception into it.

I think about this essay all the time because it seems to me to be the only way to survive this world.

Every morning I wake up, and I log onto my computer for work, and I copy paste a dozen or so links on how utterly broken and destructive our immigration system is into an email and send it to a hundred people that are extremely busy helping one person through this system at a time, and I write a little press release about an unjust policy, or I format something on the website, or scroll through thousands of pages of FOIA requested detention center inspection reports to make them legible for journalists, or do any of the other ten thousand tasks that are a part of modern office work, and the whole time, I am, you know, paying attention to detail, and toggling over to look at the HTML to ensure the formatting isn’t weird, and CTRL+I and CTRL+U-ing things to ensure that they’re legible, and getting frustrated when I accidentally erase my own work or slightly resentful of having emails in my inbox, or whatever, and the whole time any or all of this is going on, there’s this knowledge of all of the injustice in the world which I have very carefully copy-and-pasted into an email earlier that day just screaming and howling on the other side of the screen, and it usually feels like the only thing I can really do about it is be like, wow, the URL formatter is really not cooperating today, what a drag.

The only thing that can get you through a day like that is the knowledge that this attention, carefully paid to email and HTML formatting and like, writing good Tweets, is the same kind of attention, unwavering and daily and not performative, just like, showing up and doing the work every single goddamn day even when you don’t get to feel like a hero—it’s the same kind of attention that might someday make things different, the kind of attention that might make a difference if you are suffering, maybe. Weil speaks, in the essay, of experimental certainties: at it’s most basic, “if you build it, they will come.” If you continue to pay attention, work towards it to the best of your ability, remain present, change will come.

A little while ago, I wrote a limited-edition letter on St. Oscar Romero, since deleted from the archives, that argued that a good portion of his saintliness was due to him showing up and doing his entire exact job as archbishop of his community, day after day: calling for peace, reading the names of the dead, grieving with families, praying for the future—I think this is also a bit of the point that Weil is making. Your life prepares you for prayer, prepares you for compassion, you just have to notice it.

This feeling, that only attention can get us through, has only gotten more acute since the pandemic started. We don’t live in the times of the individual hero—we haven’t for a while, but the pandemic has made me (and I think a lot of us) feel the limits of my own extremely fragile body and extremely conditional helpfulness harder than usual.

Weil makes a point, towards the end of the essay, to remind us that the suffering Other is not actually so other:

The love of our neighbour in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: “What are you going through?” It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labelled “unfortunate,” but as a man, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction.

Affliction has been more broadly distributed lately, and being present to it, willing to really listen to the answer to “What are you going through?” is a challenge heightened by volume, heightened by the awareness it could strike us next. It’s a lot easier to believe it won’t, to hide away from it, pretend like nothing is happening so long as we aren’t individually affected by an illness or a layoff.

The pandemic, as I’ve written in a thousand press releases at this point, has done nothing more than underscore how interconnected our fates are—my survival is bound up in yours, my health in yours, the economics of my wallet in yours. And so it seems absolutely imperative now, even more obvious, the ways that our attention should turn outwards, the ways that we should embed ourselves more fully in the land around us, in our communities, in the spaces around us.

I have gotten a great deal of joy and pleasure in the nature around my apartment, the way spring has come anyways, bringing with it magnolia blooms, and a woodpecker on the tree two houses down, and dozens of curious little robins, tilting their heads and hopping, the ways that even though I move through my days in relative isolation, there is still a thrumming world out there. I’ve joined my neighborhood’s mutual aid network and collaborated to meet needs coronavirus specific and otherwise, have sent gifts, bought stamps, spent time on zoom calls with friends that I rarely had time to see before all this.

So far, I’ve been lucky—my partner and I still have jobs, no one we know, even a step or two out, has gotten seriously ill, all our needs are met and we are finding ways to be kind to each other daily—but it feels like a matter of time before our world is irrevocably changed, like perhaps it already has been but we can’t pinpoint how. It has felt critical to pay attention to these days and their strange texture, to ensuring thanks are given for any of the small kindnesses we do for each other, that the world does for us, to attend to blue skies and warmer weather and buds on trees and our sleepy little dog, because our attention is pulled by headlines now, and will be wrenched by grief both small and large later.

It is an experimental certainty that the magnolia trees matter, that the blue sky can lift your spirits, that a phone call can sometimes work to fill some loneliness. It is an experimental certainty that the way you spend these days is just that: the way you are spending your difficult days. Not one of us signed up for this, not one of us was prepared, but here we are. “School Studies” is an essay about attention, but it is also an essay about habits, and the slow, painstaking way they are built up over time, and an experimental certainty is an experiment that has been carried out so many times that it becomes certain. If you make yourself the space to pay attention, you will become good at it. If you make the space to pay attention to everyone, make the space for everyone to have their needs met and to survive, if we make the space to care for one another, a different future is possible.

We can build up the structures now that carry us through to the other side, day by day, certain that someday, we’ll return to the kind of normal that allows us to be in the same room as everyone we love.

For further reading:

  • Simone Weil, Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies With a View to the Love of God. The essay itself, excerpted from Waiting for God.

  • Jenny Odell, How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. I read this book earlier this year and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, particularly in Times Like These—I think Odell’s ideas of real community and placedness and groundedness are something that a lot of people in my life have been gesturing towards, or thinking around the edges of, and I’ve not stopped thinking about it for months now. If you’re building a reading list from this, I’d also throw in the classic, Robin Wall Kimmerers’ Braiding Sweetgrass, Weather, by Jenny Offil and I think Terry Tempest Williams’ The Hour of Land. I want to also throw “Paradise” by John Prine on here, largely because he’s a constant voice around my house, and greatly mourned by us, and because the song fits.

  • Haley E.D. Houseman, The Morning Report. My friend Haley’s newsletter, about her morning rambles with her dog in Northern Massachusetts, the nature she sees, and her gorgeous mind—she’s a master at attending.

  • Scott Berniato, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief.” This made the rounds the other week, but if you haven’t read it, it’s useful.

    As always, if you like this newsletter, please feel free to forward it to a friend, share it on Twitter, or talk it up!


    Here’s where else to find me on the internet (and in your homes) these days:

  • My previous newsletter, on Julian Norwich and social distancing, was partially republished on Monasteries of the Heart, a lovely site full of Benedictine writings for contemporary seekers. This really brings me a boatload of joy.

  • My first chapbook, Declaration, is available for purchase, direct from me! My lovely publisher has gone to Europe and mailed me a stack of booklets, I would like to do my bit to support the U.S. Postal Service and mail them to you! You can read an interview I did about Declaration here, to decide if you want to read it, and if the answer is yes, please send me $8 and your mailing address, via Venmo (@Alejandra-Oliva) or PayPal, or reply to this email w/ mailing address and follow up elsewhere. If you add an extra $5, I’ll throw in my chapbook that’s found poems from Simone Weil’s essay on the Lord’s Prayer, and I’ll be donating 75% of proceeds from both books to the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

  • Finally, some professional news: I’m really excited to announce that I’ve got a literary agent! Dana Murphy, of The Book Group, will be helping to put my baby manuscript into the hands of editors—the book is about translation, and immigration, and being bilingual, and if you’ve been reading this newsletter for a minute, you probably have a pretty good idea of what’s in store.

  • You can also always find me (and a full archive of this newsletter) at my website: olivalejandra.com

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#20: Julian of Norwich and Social Distancing

On anchoresses, plague years, and care from afar

We don’t know very much about Julian of Norwich, not even her name—the name we use is the name of the church she lived in, St. Julian’s, and her city, Norwich, in England. We do know that she was born around 1342, and that she spent the majority of her life as an anchoress, living isolated in a small chamber attached to the walls of St. Julian until her death.

Anchoresses were a kind of religious hermit who opted to withdraw from society, and usually took a vow of stability of place. The ceremony for becoming consecrated as an anchoress mirrors funeral rites. When an anchoress entered isolation, she became dead to the world and reborn instead to a life of the spirit. Despite their vows of isolation, however, many anchoresses lived within the social contexts and auditory landscapes of towns and cities. Norwich, when Julian lived there, was a bustling trade center, second only in importance to London. Even from her anchorhold, she must have been able to hear the sounds of carts to market, of itinerant vendors, of women walking together on their way to do the weeks’ shopping.

Having an anchoress located at once within and without the community, and dedicated, day in and day out, to the strenuous work of prayer, was meant to be like a kind of protective shield of prayer and love in deeply uncertain times.

When Julian was a small child, the black plague came to Norwich for the first time. As a trade center, the city was particularly susceptible, and it’s estimated that about half of the population died, and the economic repercussions must also have been horrific. Aftershocks to the initial infections continued to reverberate through the city up until the 1380s. In 1373, after her own illness brought her nearly to the brink of death, Julian wrote Revelations of Divine Love, a book of visions that contends with the problem of sin, and of bad things happening in the world. This, however, is how the book ends:

“All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

This, from a woman who lived through the plague, through the bloody suppression of the Lollards and the Peasant’s Revolt. Her reasoning becomes clearer as you read deeper into the text:
“If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love.”

We live through it, we survive it, and all of the trial and the suffering and the rest is a reminder that in the end, we are held dear.

The thing that I want to spend a little while thinking through, though, is the shape that Julian’s own life took, living in semi-isolation not necessarily for her own benefit, but for that of the community—continuous prayer, a hub around which the city turned. We also know that the community took care of her, as well. One of the primary ways that we know of Julian’s existence is through a handful of wills of tradesmen and farmers in the Norwich area that left her money in order to support her continuous prayer over the community. She was also consulted by pilgrims and locals alike—another mystic, Margery of Kempe, writes about receiving counsel from Julian as she travelled through Norwich.

Julian’s isolation was a product not of her disdain for the world but for her love of it, even as it kept ending, over and over again. Her anchorhold was not the world entire, but when God showed her “a tiny thing in the palm of her hand, the size of a hazelnut,” and told her it was “all that is made,” she knew it to be true—even from the smallness of the confines of her life, she could envelop and hold all that was made, and keep it safe, and pray over it.

Like many other people, measures of social isolation and distancing have caught hold in my life. I don’t leave my apartment except to walk my dog, I’m worried about the people I know and love who are immunocompromised, I’m scared of the dramatic ways that it seems that daily life has changed in the last 2 weeks. A lot of my social life has already involved screens and phone calls and janky video messaging, so no part of this feels particularly different other than the thrumming undercurrent of anxiety, but I’m nevertheless finding it difficult to figure out what this looks like as pandemic status stretches forward into an uncertain future. I am so lucky to have a house and partner and dog, and hundreds of books, and food stocked up in kitchen cabinets to last months if need be, and the ability to keep working from home and making an income, and even with that, the thought of staying inside, of staying apart from people I love as they potentially get sick, all of this makes me panicky and anxious.

I also got sick this week, a low, inconstant fever and a cough that cleared up in a matter of days, so even though I think what I had is your average bogstandard mid-March cough, I spent a few days in a feverish kind of high anxiety, feeling tremendous guilt about every time I had left the house or talked to anyone in the last two weeks. I also feel particularly unable to do anything or help anyone right now—I don’t think I had coronavirus, but I don’t want to find out I did by making someone else ill, while trying to help by doing a grocery shop or a pharmacy run.

I think part of the impetus behind this newsletter, or the posts that I feel the best about from it, is to look at people who have lived through times like ours, who have survived the worst of it, and still found joy, and beauty and tenderness in themselves and in the world. Julian looked out on a world consumed with illness and war and conflict and saw a place that was held close by a loving God, but a place that nevertheless required her devoted attention and love from afar.

Something I want to try, because so often my newsletters are inspired by something I’ve read, is to have a little section of for further reading composed of books and articles that have changed the way I have thought about things covered in the newsletter. So without further ado:

This month, I was lucky enough to talk to Noé Álvarez, author of the recently released Spirit Run, on running across the Americas as an ally to Native American runners. The book is fantastic, and you can read the interview here. I also found out that my essay, “At the Border, No One Can Know Your Name,” was selected for this year’s Best American Travel Writing anthology by Robert MacFarlane. You can read (or listen to) it at the link above, but rest assured, you’ll be getting the link to purchase the anthology in the fall.

This is also my 20th newsletter, which is exciting! I’m really proud of the work I’ve done here over the last several years, and am hoping to make this a more consistent, possibly more frequent, event. That being said, if you’d like to show a little support, you can slide me a few dollars, share the newsletter by tweeting, instagramming it, or forwarding it to a friend who will like it.


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