On May 8th, 1373, a young woman lay dying in a room which had been attached to the side of the church in Norwich, England. The woman, whose name we do not know, was an anchorite, a person permitted by the Church to take on specific ascetic practices, the foremost being walled into the room, her monastic cell, and never coming out. The room was small and had an opening for the woman to watch Mass, an opening for food and daily essentials, and a small window for talking to people who came to get the advice of this holy woman. But things looked grim for her.
We celebrate her life and teaching on May the 8th. We don't know much about who she was. During her lifetime the Black Plague was wiping out upwards of 60% of the population in the 14th century, and then returning every five years or so to take another 10% - 20%. In short, she was living in a time that had terrible periods of a pandemic which no one knew how to treat. Except for this: the fatality rate in noble and rich families was low. This was because these people withdrew behind the walls of their castles and manor houses. So they accidently did as we are attempting to do now: shelter in place. They had no better access to medicine that anyone else.
So this young woman had a lot going against her. She did not have the Plague, but her 30 year old body was shutting down. She had prayed that God would give her special favors, even if this was at the cost of her life. It did not appear to her that this would happen. The priest of the Norwich Church came to give last rites and brought a crucifix for her to look upon and gain some relief. And then a marvelous thing happened. As she looked at the crucifix, she began to see changes, such as the blood flowing from Jesus' wounds. She did not die and was granted sixteen visions she called Showings, or Revelations.
We have given her the name Julian of Norwich. She was the first woman we know of who published in English. She says she did not know letters, and dictated to a scribe. But what she said continues to be studied by Middle English scholars as well as those taking up ascetic and spiritual practices. She had been left on shelves for a long time, but now is very popular, with new editions of her work coming our periodically.
And during one of those Showings she said perhaps the most quoted words by any mystic ever: "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." The utter optimism of that is a tonic for us in these times of stress and sorrow. She reaches out across the centuries to us at Holy Comforter and reminds us that God's love and graciousness are what is in control, no matter how dire things may look. As God loves us, we love one another. And in the midst of a new pestilence, less terrible by far than that which Julian knew about all too well, she saw the work of God, moving us steadily closer to salvation. And right here, right now, God is doing that, and holding us in those almighty arms of Love. Amen
Michael Craighead, Theologian-in-Residence