Today the Anglican Church celebrates the feast of Dame Julian of Norwich (c. 1343 – 1416).
She lived during the second wave of the Black Death, a pandemic which ravaged Europe. She was an Anchorite, someone who chooses to withdraw from secular life and live a life of asceticism, in prayer, focused on the Eucharist. She lived most of her life in a cell built onto the wall of the church of St. Julian, in Norwich, which she takes her name from.
Today’s first reading is Psalm 40. It begins with a celebration of God’s deliverance from some form of desolation (v.1-3), verses of praise and exaltation of the biblical God against other gods (v.4-5), words about the intimate relationship of the psalmist and God (v.6-8), and a proclamation of the psalmist’s willingness to tell everyone about God’s awesomeness (v.9-10).
It then, somehow, transitions into a plea. The psalmist asks for God’s deliverance, so God can prove wrong all who are mocking him (v.13-15). It ends with a blessing towards all who trust in God, a confession that the psalmist is poor and needy, and a pleading vow of trust towards God (v.17).
I have seen a lot of this same ambiguity both in myself and among my friend’s circles on social media. We are living through a pandemic, and we have been put in isolation whether we like it or not. Some of us are finding it to be a time of deliverance away from the stressful demands of the constant capitalist rush we live in. Others are finding it far more stressful than anything they were used to, and the isolation is extremely difficult to cope with. Some are meditating and praying more, finding deeper connection with God. Others feel an incredible absence in the lack of a tangible experience of the Eucharist.
We are all feeling so much. Like this psalmist, we go from celebrating “everything is alright, God is great!” to confessions that after all things are not alright at all. What does it mean to trust in God in times like these?
We are not Dame Julian. Our seclusion is not a voluntary act of devotion. We are not deprived from the Eucharist as some form of state persecution (a narrative I have encountered), but as a form of care for our lives. Yet we can learn from her. She suffered of a severe illness at the age of 30 and was close to death when she had visions of Christ, which she eventually wrote in her famous “Revelations of Divine Love”. In it she affirms, amidst the Black Death and her own infirmity:
“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
There are no easy answers. What does it mean for things to be well? What does God Almighty think is “well” or “not well”? We are poor and needy.
Love God; love one another. May we find inspiration and courage in the great cloud of witnesses, the saints who came before us who lived human lives like ours, struggling with much of the same ambiguity we encounter every day. In this community of faith which transcends death, are not alone.
— Lucas F. M. Coque
Image credit: Stained-glass window in St Andrew’s parish church, Holt, Norfolk, representing St Fursey, St Felix and St Julian. Wiki Commons.