Years ago, I attended a workshop with Ralph Milton, an author. Ralph is a gifted storyteller, in fact Ralph is a teller of warm, and often humorous, but always spiritual, stories. Though his roots are actually Mennonite, southern Manitoba Mennonite, and his original name was Ralph Milton Friesen, Ralph has spent most of his life active in the United Church.
Ralph's new book at the time was “Julian’s Cell,” a somewhat fictionalized story of a real person, Julian of Norwich, based on extensive research that Ralph had done.
Julian was a Roman Catholic woman who lived in Great Britain in the 14th century. Julian, as presented by Milton, offers powerful lessons on suffering and on hope.
From his research, Milton assumes that Julian began her adulthood, probably in her early teens, as a wife, and then as a mother. But these were very dark times, and plagues came and decimated the English population, taking up to one-third of the people of the village of Norwich, including, Milton suggests, Julian's husband and children. With no place else to go, no strength to look after herself, she was given refuge in an abbey. And over time, as Julian retreated into a life of solitary prayer to help her through her huge despair, she sensed a call to become an “anchorite.”
For Julian, that meant being voluntarily locked into a small cell for the rest of her life. In fact, the bishop who presided at the “locking in” ceremony basically preached a funeral service over her. Julian's basic needs were looked after by a maid, but her role, as anchorite, was to pray, a minimum of four hours a day, asking God for visions, and then to use the wisdom gained through those visions to offer spiritual counsel to all who came to knock at her window. History shows that Julian spent the next 40 years doing just that.
How does a person cope with that painful history in a tiny stone cell? You and I might think of someone in our families or community who has had to face a loss of near that magnitude. If that person responded to that grief by permanently isolating themselves in a dark and dismal place, we would be very concerned. How was it possible to move from intense suffering to peace, without support, without community, without the hope of loved ones around her?
Yet, Julian survived. Not only did Julian survive, but the visions of God, and the interpretations of those visions, as recorded by her own hand, are still among the most hopeful, the most positive, the most love filled, the most insightful, and indeed the most radical, of all the people of God ever recorded.
This was in a time in history and the church when it was assumed that the horrendous suffering that was everywhere, the devastation of plagues, the incredible death rate among children, the awful violence, usually in the name of the church, it was assumed that all of this was the plan of God to punish a fallen race. That about the most God inspired act that one could do was to beat themselves into a bloody frenzy. That a faithful life could not be separated from a life of guilt.
Through her experience of suffering, through her isolated experience of God through prayer, Julian offered a totally different picture of God.
Listen to the words of Julian of Norwich.
Because of the endless love that God has for all humanity,
There is no difference between the soul of Christ, and the soul of the lowest person on the social ladder.
So we should rejoice that God lives in our soul,
And even more rejoice that our soul lives in God.
Our soul was created to be God's home.
I see no difference between our essential nature and the nature of God.
We are part of God, and God is part of us.
As Ralph Milton read pieces of Julian's writings to us, I sensed truth. Not because the words came from the mouth of a warm and favourite storyteller, not because the words were originally written by a Roman Catholic mystic, writing in a time when women had no voice, in fact it was questioned frequently whether they even had a soul. No, these words rang truth to me because they fit with truth that God has given me in other ways, through the experiences and stories of others, and through my own.
But equally powerfully came the sense that this gentle and profound wisdom would have been impossible to uncover, had Julian not experienced intense suffering. That her writing would have unfolded very differently if she had gone into her prayer times, confident that she was already well on her way to knowing God, understanding God, owning God. Suffering, a natural part of living, has the potential of wiping away our arrogance about God, and our need to control God. Suffering has a way of bringing us to a place where God is all that is left.
In these present days, the Christian church walks into the dark hours of Good Friday.