Lord, let our souls be…
wide, sweet spaces kept for thee; where holy thoughts pass up and down
And fervent longings watch and wait thy coming.
― Julian of Norwich
I discovered the inimitable beauty of Dame Julian of Norwich in a rather roundabout way. My first job out of college was a mind-numbing affair as a receptionist for an Ophthalmologist, eight hours a day, five days a week. There were two quite civilized perks to this job, however: the doctors gave us a full hour for lunch, and the office was two short blocks from a bookstore. Not just any bookstore, mind you, but a bibliophilic wonderland called The Library Ltd. Each day, I ate my bologna sandwich en route at 12:05 so as not to waste time and arrived on the bookstore steps at 12:07. And a more pleasant hour of time spent, I even now would be hard pressed to find.
They had art books. They had a whole section with prints of Old Masters you could leaf through and feel the art of centuries slipping through your fingers. They had poetry – gorgeously illustrated. You could buy leather journals and fountain pens with a designed cache that made you feel like an actual writer. They didn’t mind if you made yourself quite at home and sat on the floor to peruse a new-found treasure. I loved this place. But by far the very best thing about this storefront bookstore was that it was so little everyone knew everyone else. I would see the same people in scrubs, in power suits, in workmen coveralls all milling about the aisles on specific days, each one absorbed in the transporting power of books. The owners of this store were two lovely eccentrics, who practiced the art of keen observation without being suspected of doing so. They made a mental note of what we asked about, what kinds of books pulled us in like lodestones; and they carefully eyed each and every book we piled before them at the check out counter. It was these two lovely women who made the gracious introductions to my future friend. “I think I found something you might like,” said the quiet one with the shiny eyes one afternoon. She handed me two slim volumes of daily readings written by a Julian of Norwich. I read a few sentences and slowly slipped to the floor. I was lost for an hour, and literally had to run the two blocks back to work. But I was now the proud owner of the magic that is Julian in a small paper bag, handed to me with a triumphant smile by the lady with the quiet eyes.
I did not know who Julian was back then. I was simply content with what she was saying and how she was saying it. That was enough for me. Only much later was I to discover her story, the marvelous stuff of Medieval legend really, which seemed to fit so aesthetically with her ethereal writings about the gracious love of God, who reassured her that He made “all manner of things well”.
Julian was not her real name. No one was ever to recall her real name. She was to take the name of the Church in Norwich, England where she was ensconced as an anchoress: St. Julian’s Catholic Church. But this is to get ahead of the story.
Julian was born in 1343 and thought to be the daughter of a well-to-do merchant who lived in the thriving port city of Norwich, England. Many historians believe she must have been a young wife and mother of only nineteen when she lost her husband and children during a devastating plague, especially virulent among children, that had ravaged the city of Norwich. She continued to live in the city, however, and at the age of thirty-one, she herself became gravely ill. For three days she lay in pain, with a strange paralysis creeping up through her body.
She sank into a delirious fever and the priest was sent for. He began to administer the last rites and blessed her with his crucifix clutched in his hand above her. And then a most mysterious thing happened. She gazed upon that crucifix and it came alive in the priest’s hands. All that grace stirred within and she received 15 visions in succession on that day. The last vision was to come on the next day. And when these visions were complete and began swimming in her memory, she slowly recovered her health, and began to write them down.
She wrote in a flurry trying to remember the voice and face of Jesus Crucified as He assured her that His sufferings united to the sufferings of all humanity are transformed into a kind of deep and lasting joy by His unfolding infinite love making all things suffering into all things well. That His love feeds and nourishes us and reaches down to comfort and carry our souls as gently as a mother carries a babe. It was a timely message for the world Julian inhabited. The poor beleaguered people of that plague ridden era knew great suffering: physical as well as emotional. They lost their husbands, their wives, their children. Life had become full of suffering and sorrow seemingly without meaning.
Julian, who had lost all she loved most dearly, felt her share of this devastating pain and seeming abandonment. In her visions, Jesus spoke to her in the most intimate and endearing terms. He assured her in these visions that He takes care of all and that He is in all and for all. It is not an empty optimism that she is asked to give, but is, as Dr. Rowan Williams, a Julian scholar, points out: “the steady gaze of God looking at her and saying, ‘Trust Me’ I will bring it all together.” Julian was to be, like St. Margaret Mary, and Sister Faustina in their times, a bearer of God’s mercy to the world. But for Julian, this message would travel the ages in as intimate and quietly familiar a manner as it had been received from Jesus. One soul to another, one friend’s hands to another down through centuries. But for the moment, in the secret certainty of her heart it lay hidden and guarded until the proper time was to reveal itself. She fittingly named it: Revelations of Divine Love.
Feeling now that her life had changed entirely, she made the singular decision to become an anchoress. To vow poverty, chastity and stability of abode for the rest of her life. This ‘abode’ was to be one room built into the side of St. Julian’s Church, where she was walled in and was to remain for the next thirty years. There were only three doors in this hermitage. The one most important to this story was a kind of window that looked out upon the busy main road leading up from the port of Norwich, where she would talk to pilgrims of all sorts seeking her wisdom and advice. But for the most part she lived in quiet solitude, and in this silent, prayerful place Julian was to spend those many years examining her revelations, praying over them and slowly developing her own profound theology from the words Christ had spoken to her from His cross of mercy. She added to her original writings and fleshed them out with this newfound wisdom. She no doubt shared them with the pilgrims tapping at her window, to give them comfort and hope. Julian admitted humbly that she was only, “a poor unlettered creature,” but, “just because I am a poor woman why can I not write of the goodness of God?” Indeed. Jesus was to help her in this task of sharing his love with the outside world in a most marvelous way.
Every legend worth its weight has its own beautiful mystery. Julian was to have hers. When she died in 1416, there was no trace of a manuscript in her cell. It had vanished. All her years in this holy bower, the reason for her life, the deepest thoughts of her heart were gone. Who had she given them to among her cherished friends? Whose hands were entrusted with this Divine message? What friend had she loved and trusted enough to pass on this message of mercy? Some say it was a woman named Margery Kempf an Englishwoman who had a penchant for making Pilgrimages. She often stopped at Julian’s window to pray and talk with her friend when she passed through Norwich. We know this because she herself wrote a book (perhaps inspired by Julian) and in it she describes her meetings with the anchoress. Margery took the manuscript and began to lend it to her closest friends to copy and they in turn shared it with other friends. These copies became part of their family libraries. It was also rumored that she entrusted Julian’s original Manuscript to the monks of Walsingham Abbey for safe keeping. No one was to know for sure.
Many years passed, into the reign of Henry VIII of England. It was he who would usher in the Protestant persecution of the Catholic Church. Monasteries were seized for the crown and their books destroyed. In 1538 Walsingham Abbey suffered this fate and was seized by the crown and the monks scattered. Julian’s manuscript was not heard of for many years after this. Had it been destroyed with the rest of Walsingham’s possessions?
Then, in 1623, during the reign of James I, a small group of nine young Englishwomen from wealthy Catholic families felt the call of God to be Benedictine nuns. Surely unwelcomed in a predominantly prostestant England they, with the help of a Benedictine monk, traveled to France to make a foundation at Cambrai. One of these girls, all of seventeen, was Helen More (who would become Dame Gertrude More), the great, great grand-daughter of St. Thomas More. Her father Cresacre More had provided the original endowment for this foundation. It is also thought he provided something more precious: Julian’s manuscript.
Had it wended its way to him through the years after the destruction of Walsingham? Had the monks smuggled it out under the nose of Henry all those years ago? Had perhaps Julian’s manuscript been held by the likes of Helen’s great, great Aunt Margaret, who had been so highly educated by her own father, Sir Thomas. It is a warming thought that St. Thomas might have known of this manuscript kept at Walsingham and traveled there to read it with delight before he died in 1534. In any event, it was certain these nine young nuns had it in their possession when they traveled the English Channel to their new home at Cambrai. At least five copies made from the original manuscript were written out in their scriptorium and are listed in the library’s ancient ledger of 1000 volumes that has survived until today.
Also, each of these nuns had her own spiritual journal of sorts – much like we do now – filled with revelations they discovered in their reading and wanted to remember. Many of these thoughts had Julian’s name at the bottom. One of the nuns’ later chaplains, Serenus de Cressy had also made his own version of the text in 1670 after reading the nun’s copy. His translation was eventually published and had a following outside the monastery. It seems Julian’s manuscript had weathered the Protestant Reformation and was to remain safely ensconced with the nuns of Cambrai for the next 170 years, when they would face the terror of the French Revolution.
During the height of that revolution, the nuns were not spared. On October 18, 1793 there was a loud knocking on the door of the Monastery in Cambrai and the French soldiers told the nuns they needed to be ready in 15 minutes and could not take anything with them but a small bundle each. They were put in open carts and taken to prison in Compiegne. Mingled among them were the sixteen famous Carmelite sisters of Compiegne who would go to their death in Paris singing hymns of praise. The Benedictine Sisters thought this too would be their fate. But before they were called to the guillotine, they were able to convince the French to let them be exiled to England. And so this remnant of Benedictine nuns escaped to England dressed in the very clothes their martyred Carmelite sisters had left behind.
They returned with nothing but their bundles and founded a new Monastery in England named Stanbrook Abbey. All the books in Cambrai had tragically been destroyed…their whole library vanished. Revelations of Divine Love was presumed lost forever. But God had other plans.
Many years passed and in 1901 a most unlikely young woman was to make a wonderful discovery. Grace Warrack, a member of the Scotts Presbyterian Church, somehow had in her possession a rare book called Revelations of Divine Love as translated by a Serenus Cressy. Perhaps she was drawn by its message of beauty and love. But she did not stop at this translation. She wanted to find the original manuscript written by the hand of Julian herself, so taken was she with this woman’s heart. She doggedly followed some clues that led her to The British Library.
There, in the reading room of ancient manuscripts, she came upon the collection of one Hans Sloane, a wealthy doctor, who had bequeathed all 50,000 books in his vast library to his country. Grace scanned the titles of this collection and came upon: MS Sloane 2499 which simply had this description: Revelations to one who could not read a letter. She discovers that this “one” is none other than Julian of Norwich, who in fact did quite well at reading “letters.” Grace had miraculously found the one existing copy of the original five made in France by the Benedictine nuns, sitting there in front of her. One of those nuns long ago had presumably put it in her bundle when escaping France. It was brittle and faded but Grace copied it down painstakingly for the next month, returning day after day to the library. It is through Grace Warrack, a Scots Presbyterian, that the world was to discover the beauty of Dame Julian of Norwich at last.
The story does have a bittersweet ending. The original copy of Dame Julian’s Manuscript was never found, although it is still searched for by eager historians devoted to Julian. Did the nuns hide it away? I think it would be so fitting if it is sitting quite happily on a simple bookshelf somewhere in the French countryside. Julian herself did not want to be remembered as anyone in particular – she called herself a simple, unlettered creature. She only wanted her revelations to be remembered, and God’s mercy to spread like a vine over a barren plain. And truly His mercy has taken an epic journey through hardships and human hatred and war and persecution and has testified down through the ages that the mercy of God truly endures forever. From England to France and back to England. On to Scotland and eventually across the ocean to a busy street in my hometown, placed in my own two hands by a woman with quiet eyes. She had a notion that I would like her. And it is thus that Dame Julian lives on.
Denise Trull is the mother of seven grown, adventurous children, and has recently acquired the illustrious title of grandmother. She lives with her husband Tony in St Louis Missouri where she reads, writes, and ruminates on the beauty of life. She is a lover of the written word in all its forms.