A Christian monastic who has withdrawn from society by becoming permanently enclosed in a small, single-room anchorhold from which she offers advice and spiritual guidance to her community.
Julian of Norwich was one of the many anchorites, or anchoresses, of medieval England. She survived the Black Death as a child while about half of those around her perished. Then, when she was a young woman, the plague returned and killed another twenty percent of the population. A decade later she had her visions and began writing Revelations of Divine Love from her anchorhold.
I felt a deep connection to Julian from the moment I began reading her words a few years ago, but I never imagined that I would ever relate to anything like experiencing a global pandemic or extreme social isolation. That world felt impossibly far away. While I pray that the mortality of our modern pandemic is much less severe and that our isolation is much less permanent, I think it’s a fitting time to look to Julian for wisdom and comfort as the people of her city used to do at her anchorhold's window.
The shock, fear, anxiety, uncertainty, disappointment, and even the longing and boredom that we find ourselves faced with daily are real and powerful emotions. We may be tempted to keep busy, to distract ourselves with netflix, to grasp for control by reading the predictions of experts, to organize, to craft, to fill our schedules with multiple skype dates a day. All of these things can be good, but I want to suggest that we also take advantage of one of the rarest and most precious opportunities that this lockdown is affording us: the chance to be still.
We have the opportunity to experience some of the benefits of the anchoritic life. I know stillness can be maddening, almost panic-inducing, but the richest harvests come from ground that has lain fallow. Julian’s masterpiece would not have been possible without her commitment to the stillness of her anchorhold. We can already see the benefit this slowdown is providing for our planet and I believe it will do something similar for our minds, if we let it. I have no doubt that the insights and art that will spring from this period of time will have the power to change the world, just as Julian’s work has.
For the next 6 weeks, I’m going to post a passage from Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love to instagram on Sunday evenings. If you want to practice leaning into the anchoritic life with me, set aside time that week to sit in silence with the passage and to use it as inspiration for meditation. You can look up descriptions of examen, lectio divina or centering prayer for ideas on how to do this. Then, see if that time of stillness bubbles up into some kind of creative expression: a drawing, a song, a recipe, a dance, a poem, or maybe just a thought. If you want to, share it with the hashtag #accidentalanchorite so we can all be encouraged by the beauty that can spring up from stillness. I’ll be posting my creative responses on Fridays and I’d love to see what others are making too. We’ll end on May 8, Julian’s Feast Day.
NEAR: THE JULIAN PROJECT
The Julian Project book and exhibit is a dream of mine that has been put on hold but not abandoned. If you want to be kept updated about the project in the future, please fill out the form at the bottom of the page.
To create a body of artwork that connects
a modern audience with the beautiful vision of divine love expressed by the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich.
The artwork created for this project will “illuminate” passages of Julian’s writing, much like the illuminations that adorned the margins of the medieval texts of her time. The illustrations will be based on research of her cultural context and arranged in a beautiful hardcover book that will invite the reader into Julian’s experience.
The original artwork created for this project will be adorned with genuine gold leaf, a material whose effect is not easily reproduced. The purpose of the exhibit will be to connect the original work with a gathered body of people, and to find each piece of the collection a home where it will further Julian’s vision of divine love.
Little is known about the 14th century woman who devoted herself to God as an anchorite and experienced a series of visions on what she believed to be her deathbed. We call her Julian, but that name likely derives from the church in which she was enclosed. Though her personal life may be undocumented, her Revelations of Divine Love, the first book in the English language known to be written by a woman, has not only been an influential source of wisdom for the Christian tradition for over 600 years but a foundational and canonical document for all of English literature. Julian’s message is hugely relevant today yet, to many, she feels distant and inaccessible. The purpose of this project is to artistically bridge our worlds, that we might join in the unique experience of God’s love that she so longed to share with us.
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"God is nearer to us than our own Soul:
for He is [the] Ground in whom our Soul standeth"
- Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love -