Wednesday, August 17, 2022

A Protestant Saint?

Dear Friends,

Julian of Norwich. A mystic? Theologian? Medieval Cat Lady? All three accurately describe this intensely religious woman of God who is a Saint, not only of the Catholic Church, but of Protestant churches as well. This nameless woman is a much beloved Saint with a day of commemoration in the Anglican, Episcopal and Lutheran churches and she’s even considered the “Patron Saint” of Christian cat lovers! Who was this fascinating woman from the 1300s and why is she so loved by such a diverse yet ecumenical collection of people today?

We don’t know her baptized name. After she became an “anchoress” at Saint Julian’s Church in Norwich, England, she abandoned her given name and took up the name of the Saint that the church was named after. Saint Julian’s Church was built in the 11th and 12th century and has been both a Catholic and Anglican (protestant Church of England) church. A lithograph from 1829 shows what it looked like before it was destroyed by a direct hit during a wartime bombing raid in 1942. It was rebuilt in the early 1950's and exists today as a church chapel and shrine for Julian of Norwich. 

“Anchorites” were deeply religious men and women who were called by God to spiritually and physically attach or “anchor” themselves to a particular church and dedicate their life to prayer for that church, the priests and those in the surrounding community that the church served. A “cell” – a small room – in the church or on the church property would be given to the anchorite. In some cases, once the anchorite committed the rest of their life to the church, the room would be sealed up except for a small opening though which food could be passed and the chamber pot also passed through to be emptied and returned. You and I cannot possibly imagine a more intense and dedicated religious experience than living the life of an anchorite! 

At Saint Julian’s, a cell was built for “Juliana” in the garden that was walled off from public access. (Juliana is the female version of the male saint’s name and that’s how she was called.) She could leave her cell but not the small and enclosed garden and she saw no one but the woman caretaker who brought her meals. The anchorite rules prevented Juliana from seeing people, but an opening high in the garden wall allowed her to converse and pray with people who sought her wise spiritual counseling. While the Benedictine Anchorite Rule prevented relationships with people, it encouraged the anchorites to have cats that provided needed companionship when living the hermit’s life of solitude and prayer. We know nothing about her cats other than that she had at least one living with her during her life at Saint Julian’s.

Juliana lived in her cell when multiple plagues carried by rodents swept through England with each new wave killing tens of thousands of people. Isolated from the virus in her cell and living with only her cat, Juliana stayed healthy and lived a long life. During our own recent coronavirus “plague,” when I thought of the older women I knew who were isolated from the virus by living in their “hermitage” homes with only a cat for a companion, I’d wonder if they knew they were living the life of Julian of Norwich. 

Born in 1343, Juliana apparently had a husband and children who had been killed in one of the early plagues which also nearly ended her own life. That’s when at age 30 she lay dying and a priest was called to deliver the Last Rites. As he held up a crucifix over her bed, she went into a state of spiritual ecstasy that she later wrote about. She described visions that God showed her and saw a “different” God than how He was described in the church doctrine of that time. 14th Century Catholic teaching focused on sin and preached God as judgmental, harsh and condemning. But Juliana’s visions were of a God who was compassionate and loving and who protected His beloved by His providence.

Inspired by her mystic visions, Juliana felt called to be an anchoress and she entered the cell at Saint Julian’s where she wrote a short manuscript describing what God had showed her in the visions. Twenty years later she wrote a longer version "Revelations of Divine Love" that was the earliest theological book written in English. It could not be published because during the time of reformation a “woman theologian” was an oxymoron – no such person could possibly exist! The most interesting fact and our take-away is that "Revelations of Divine Love" was also the first book ever written in English by a woman. The first published copy of her book was in 1670 – over two hundred years after she had died in her 70s.

“And I saw full surely that ere God made us he loved us; which love was never lacking nor ever shall be. And in this love he has made all his works; and in this love he has made all things profitable to us; and in this love our life is everlasting... in which love we have our beginning. And all this shall we see in God, without end” (Revelations of Divine Love)

While there are entire books filled with Julian of Norwich quotes, perhaps her best known words come at the end of a prayer she wrote: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” 

When we find ourselves today drinking the news and social media poison that emphasizes all the hysteria, hype and rage in the world and increases stress, conflict and, for some, even panic about the future, it might be helpful to remember that God is still on the throne! Our Sovereign God still has the whole world in His hands and no matter what is happening today, as Julian of Norwich put it:

“All shall be well, and all shall be well
and all manner of thing shall be well.”

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