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Published: Tue Jul 14 2020
Eva Lundsager, A Pause (detail), 2021, oil on canvas
Online 2020 Illness Reading Spirituality
The Showings

It was several years after I first encountered her writings that I realized that Julian was not her first name, not her real one, that the medieval anchoress whose strange visions comprise Revelations of Divine Love is today called Julian of Norwich because history has recorded only the name of the church on whose grounds she dwelt and the city in which it stood. And it was several years after that before I was able to make my solitary pilgrimage up from London to visit the Church of St. Julian and see for myself the place where Revelations’ author lived. Rain had begun to fall as I turned down King Street, almost imperceptibly at first but then with real vigor, such that by the time I arrived, my scarf wrapped around my hair and my clothes sopping and smelling of wet wool, I must have looked a truly pitiful sight, less a tourist than a refuge-taker. This, I think, is what the caretakers at St. Julian’s took me for, for they bade me sit with them and gave me shortbread and a pot of tea without my asking for it, all arranged neatly on a tray, and also on the tray was a slip of paper with a quote from their saint, and a little wooden bowl in which sat, like an object on which to focus one’s spiritual contemplations, a single hazelnut. I couldn’t help but smile—it was a scene from Revelations concerning a hazelnut that had first captured my imagination when I stumbled upon it by chance years before, and which would eventually lead me to explore the saint’s writings. In it, Julian recounts a vision in which God places a hazelnut-like object in the palm of her hand and explains that the tiny ball, which “might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness,” nevertheless contains “all that is made.” A small moment in the context of the book as a whole, yet it encapsulated the theological and interpretive imagination that so compelled me.

It was in a time of plague that the woman who would come to be known as Julian was born and grew up, and it was in a time of plague that she was beset by a dreadful illness that had claimed so many other lives. Long had she prayed to be sick: for the wounds of Christ to bloom forth in her flesh and for her body to be so wracked with pains that she would emerge cleansed of all sin and renewed in her faith in God. Now, at “thirty years old and an half,” she suddenly felt that her body “was dead from the middle downwards”; bedridden for days, she received the last rites. All remaining sensation left her; now blind, the only thing she could see in the darkness of her visual field was the golden crucifix held aloft before her face. It was then that the first of what she would later call her “showings” occurred.

These showings, of which Julian received sixteen over the course of several days, would form the subject of Revelations of Divine Love, the first known book in the English language to have been written by a woman. She wrote it not just once but twice over, in a short version as she ascended the steep climb from near-death and then in an expanded version after two decades of meditation. Both texts put forth a conception of God that contrasts sharply with the vengeful Yahweh preached and prayed to by much of the medieval world, a wrathful deity obsessed with sin and damnation, in whose name long lines of hooded flagellants marched across the English countryside, rending their own flesh in pious self-sacrifice amid a pestilence-scorched landscape that everywhere betokened the fury of a wronged deity. Julian does not shy from ghastly detail in the story of Jesus (for it is the son, and not the father or the holy spirit, who most occupies her): she describes the brownish blood of Jesus beading beneath his crown of thorns like herring scales before streaking down his face “like to the drops of water that fall off the eaves after a great shower of rain, that fall so thick that no man may number them with bodily wit.” She enumerates the colors that his body passes through after death with the equanimity of one counting rosary beads: white, blue, blue-brown, brown, black. Her showings are “horrifying and dreadful, sweet and lovely.” Even as she gazes at a hard, terrifying reality, she sees twinned with it a kinder, more beautiful essence, and it is this that she chooses to expound on as she constructs her theology of heavenly compassion.

After the holy visions abated, Julian withdrew from the world, taking up residence on the church grounds, in a cell with three windows––one for receiving food and handing out her night soil, one through which she could contemplate the chapel, and another through which to receive and communicate with the ill and the desperate who soon began to stream to her hermit lodging as news of her miraculous visions spread. Not far away were the banks of the River Wensum; in medieval times, ferrymen made several journeys between its shores each day, when they were not bringing goods from up- and downriver into Norwich, then a town of several thousand known for its wool and leatherworking. And as Julian shuttled between her discussions with visitors––the scrofula victims and the women with barren wombs and those whose minds had been captured by demons––and her communion with God, she may have seemed like a ferry-driver of souls, bearing them to Heaven in her quest to spread her gospel of love.

Of the cell where she once dwelt in prayerful meditation nothing remains: a Luftwaffe bombing destroyed the church completely and what stands on the site today is a reconstruction made after a post-war fund drive. It is this facsimile church that at last I entered when I’d finished my pot of tea, when the ladies who’d greeted me so solicitously at the visitors’ center had at last taken their leave. Alone, I contemplated the saint’s aloneness. We two are not alike: I am not a believer, have none of the mystical feeling that animated her life and still animates her words. Yet I felt drawn to this place and to her. Just as Julian imagined Jesus as both enclosing and enclosed by us all, so did she, cloistered, bring forth a book that would undergird and enfold the history of women’s writing in English. Julian is a part of me as I am a part of her. But would she have recognized herself as such? In the opening lines Julian declares herself a “simple creature, unlettered.” Mechthild of Magdeburg, another woman mystic writer of the medieval period, wrote that God, not she, was the creator of her text. Would Julian have felt similarly? Would she have thought of herself as an author? Putting my hands in my coat pocket as I left the church, my fingers brushed against the hazelnut I’d been given, in which Julian had seen encompassed the whole of creation. To find in the smallest thing the betokening of something larger: that, after all, is the mark of a writer.

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Erica X Eisen is a writer and journalist whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, n+1, The Baffler, AGNI, Harvard Review, The Paris Review Daily, The Guardian, and elsewhere. She lives and works in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. (updated 9/2019)

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