#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.