Social Distancing and Julian of Norwich

In this time of global pandemic, when everyone is social distancing, one of my favourite mystics has a great deal to say. Julian of Norwich was a champion social distancer.

She was an anchoress, which was a very particular kind of nun who lived an especially ascetic life. An anchoress was ‘anchored’ to the side of a church or cathedral where she lived in a small cell. Considered to be dead to the world, she would spend her time praying, fasting, and occasionally giving spiritual advice through a small window that opened into the church.

The ritual involved in consecrating an anchoress was a kind of funeral. Parts of the death rite were used and the newly named anchoress would enter her cell singing the antiphon from a burial service ” Here shall be my rest forever.”

Yet, while she endured this great hardship, immersed in a tradition which loved to emphasize punishment and wickedness, Julian turned inward and found a little light of God’s unconditional love and humanity’s unquestionable goodness. Somehow, in the midst of intense self isolation, in a period of history when the bubonic plague had killed a third of Europe’s population, and after surviving an almost fatal illness herself she was able to see the cosmic truth that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things of shall be well”.

By turning inward Julian found God’s goodness, God’s love for all of humanity, and all of creation. Out of the midst of suffering she was able to see the truth that God is in all things and loves all things and that goodness is the foundation even of those things which seem evil to us. She said:

God is the ground, he is the substance, he is the same thing as kind nature, and he is true father and true mother of nature. And all the kinds of nature which he has made flow from him to work his will and shall be restored and brought back in him again by the salvation of man through the workings of grace; for all the kinds of nature that he has invested in part in various creatures are all wholly present in man, in fullness, in power, in beauty and in goodness, in majesty and nobility, in every kind of dignity of worth and honour.

Here we can see that we are fully bound to God by nature, and we are fully bound to God by grace. Here we can see that we do not need to seek far and wide in order to know various kinds of natures but seek them rather in Holy Church, in our mother’s breast; that is to say, in our own soul, where our Lord is dwelling. And there we shall find everything.

Julian does a really interesting little thing there where she equates the soul with the church. She seems to be saying that we find these truths in tradition, but is actually subtly saying we find them within.

This reminds me of another quote from my favourite anamcara, Pelagius. When giving spiritual advice to a novitiate named Demetrias, Pelagius discusses how by turning inward and examining our own soul we can discover the truth about God’s goodness and the image of God’s goodness in which we are created. Demetrias was also living in a very turbulent time – the fall of the Roman empire. Her family, and likely Pelagius as well, had fled from the sacking of Rome to Africa and were living as (very wealthy) refugees.

It was in this time that Pelagius suggested to Demetrias:

Come now, let us approach the secret places of our soul, let everyone examine themself more attentively, let our conscience itself deliver its judgment on the good of nature, let us be instructed by the inner teaching of the mind, and let us learn about the good qualities of the mind from no other source but the mind itself.

In this time of self isolation, when the world seems to be falling apart around us, I pray you will take the time to look inwards and discover this truth. Because it can change your everything. When we take the time to look inward we will eventually find goodness, even if there is a bunch of junk piled on top of it. So use this time wisely and let your cell teach you.

In the meantime, I would like to share with you a video from my friend Michael Petrow where he discusses Julian and her timeless wisdom with Mirabai Starr.

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