Mystic Wisdom for Modern Times

As demands piled up, a battered copy of Revelations of Divine Love led my introverted friend and me to contemplate Julian of Norwich.  “I want to be an anchoress,” said my friend. “No way,” I replied. “Even you can’t stay home all the time.” Not long after that, we found ourselves at home all the time. What better time to read a new novella about Dame Julian?

Before the virus, daily life was busy. Phones were ringing, emails flying. There were coffee dates, yoga classes, meetings, and dinners; between them all, texting, Instagramming, and sometimes — when I could stand the acrimony — Facebooking. There were also many lovely hours at the Cathedral Bookstore engaging with volunteers and customers, discovering and selling books, searching for delightful gifts, and decorating for the seasons of the church year. When everything rolled along smoothly, it was wonderful, but the smallest stick in the wheel could quickly turn busy to overwhelming.

A friend who volunteers at the Bookstore calls herself a recluse, but she’s actually very social—on her own terms. The term “friendly introvert” comes up frequently in our conversations. One day as demands piled up, we were therapeutically sorting used books. A battered copy of Revelations of Divine Love led us to contemplate Julian of Norwich, and the lives of anchorites in general.  “I want to be an anchoress,” said my friend.

The cloistered existence sounded peaceful. Not ready to deal with the world? Draw the curtain. Hungry? Eat the food that appears at regular intervals. Inspired? Pray, write, sing, knit.  Have visitors when you open the curtain, and a front row seat for every service in the cathedral. Mainly, exist at a safe remove from the messy demands of daily life. But in modern times? “No way,” I told her. “Even you can’t stay home all the time.”

Not long after that conversation, we found ourselves at home all the time. We still have virtual ways of connecting; but we are not busy the way we were. Aside from work, we can draw the curtain and log off when we want. Rather than peaceful, though, it feels more stressful than the busyness did. I thought of Dame Julian again, this time wondering how she had the strength to live all those years sealed in a small room.

When I found a recently published novella about Julian, I was quick to buy it. Lady at the Window: The Lost Journal of Julian of Norwich by Robert Waldron tells the story of a Holy Week late in Julian’s life. With God’s “shewings” many years in the past, she must draw on the deepest well of her faith to remind herself that God is still with her.

Each section presents a day in Holy Week and incorporates Julian’s own words from Revelations. She shares her wisdom about God’s omnipresent love with a homeless wounded soldier, a frightened unwed mother, and several others who fear not only their situation, but also the church’s condemnation. Each visitor leaves Julian’s window feeling uplifted and beloved, even as she herself struggles to re-enter the divine light that she once experienced. The book details her daily routine, a grueling regimen of prayer, fasting, secret writing, and opening herself in complete vulnerability to the pain of her community—not at all the stress-free existence my friend and I had romanticized. Julian expresses her gratitude and deep love for the God she refers to as “My courteous Lord” and “Mother Jesus,” as she beseeches this loving entity to end her spiritual darkness.

The novella is spare but richly referential.  It weaves medieval spellings into the text in a way that feels compelling rather than gimmicky. By the end, I had to remind myself that it was not based on a real journal of Julian’s. Waldron’s text combines the interior life of the notable mystic with her larger historical context, presenting her in a way that made me want to delve more deeply into her actual writings.

Waldron presents the mystic experience thoughtfully. His twenty books include six on Thomas Merton and two on Henri Nouwen. He has received four fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and multiple awards for his writing on modern spirituality. In the afterword, he says Julian of Norwich’s writings serve as “a window, though which we can at any time gaze, and see the great beauty, wisdom, and counsel she has to offer for the twenty-first century.” His novella provides an accessible entry to her world.

Reading it reminded me that while the virus cloisters me away from the daily joys — and pains — of busily interacting with the world, there are still many ways to engage with my own life, with my community, and with God. In Julian’s darkest week, she remains fully present to all three. Reading about the profound mix of light and darkness in her Holy Week provided the centering thought that if we focus on the presence and love of God in everything — even in our modern plague — all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

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Lady at the Window
The Lost Journal of Julian of Norwich
a novella
978-1-64060-534-3
$16.99
Paraclete Press
To purchase, click here.

 

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language 
And next year’s words await another voice.

~T.S. Eliot

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