Top 5 Saints #3: Saint Julian of Norwich

Saint Julian of Norwich holding her book “Revelations of Divine Love” from a statue on Norwich Cathedral. Her face is a picture of measured piety. There are few representations of Saint Julian of Norwich, I am going to assume outside of the area of Norwich she is hardly regarded at all. But there’s something to her that is truly captivating and I think she deserves a little bit more love. (Credit: rocketjohn CC-BY-SA-2.0)

Admittedly I was unaware of Saint Julian of Norwich, at least in any detail until very recently. I had heard the name, I am a former Norwich-dweller. However friend of We Lack Discipline, incredible author, and overall generally nice person Vivienne Tuffnell has a soft spot for her and when I looked into Julian it became apparent why.

She is not, sadly, a ‘true’ saint. She has not been officially canonised. Hence she is more often referred to as ‘Mother Julian’, ‘Dame Julian’ or ‘Lady Julian’. But I don’t care too much for what the church thinks! She is regarded as a saint by many and I am one of them.

Saint Julian of Norwich lived between around 1343-1416, in, unsurprisingly, the English city of Norwich. At the time Norwich was very prosperous as a centre of trade and commerce. It could be argued it was the second city of Britain after London, it was that important. The whole region of East Anglia, of which Norwich is part, was wealthy at the time and it is one of the reasons for the significant number of medieval churches in the area.

As Alan Partridge once famously said of his home city in the wonderful ‘Knowing Me, Knowing Yule with Alan Partridge’ – “After the bombing of Dresden, Norwich became the city with the largest number of pre-reformation churches in Europe.” I don’t know if this is true, but Norwich has a huge number of gorgeous medieval churches.

Saint Julian of Norwich from a stained glass window at Norwich Cathedral. She is shown clutching a book, indicative of her role as a Christian author. She is also depicted with a cat. Whilst Julian is not the patron saint of cats she did, apparently, have a cat companion. Her only company in her secluded cell and a necessity to manage rodents (especially important since plague was decimating the population of England in her lifetime – though the medievil britons would not have known the significance.) Her face is often depicted as fiercly stoic. She is a woman of true holiness, the weight of the world and its sins carried upon her shoulders with the alleviation being salvation. As she wrote “All shall be well.” (Credit: Amitchell125 CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Around 1373, at the age of 30, Julian suffered an illness that had her on her suspected deathbed. We don’t know if she was devoted to Christian life before this but we do know she was wholly devoted after it. She did so as an anchoress (or anchorite). These are people who withdraw from secular life and live in seclusion, devoting themselves to holy study. She lived in a tiny cell attached to Saint Julian’s Church, Norwich. Some people suggest this is where she took her name from, others say there is no evidence anchorites assumed new names and she may have already been called Julian (Little is known of her life before she became an anchoress). It’s a remarkable church, built around the 11th or 12th century and possessing a very East Anglian round tower.

She’s also very unlikely to be a myth or a legend. Several legal documents, specifically wills, leave sums to an anchoress named Julian in Norwich. There are also documents of people having visited her, such as that of mystic Margery Kempe.

The title page of a 1670 copy of the ‘Revelations of Divine Love’ as it is known for shorthand because that’s the full title right there and it’s long! As far as I am aware no original manuscript exists, however copies and prints were made. There are two versions, the short text and the long text. This is from a long text version. (Credit: Public Domain)

So what makes her special to me? For one thing she wrote the first known English language book by a woman. Her ‘Revelations of Divine Love’ are, I believe (I haven’t read them) a description of a series of visions she had during her illness.

But there’s something about the anchorite lifestyle that just strikes a chord with me.

Unlike Julian I am permitted to leave my confinement. However I do spend an awful lot of time reading, thinking and writing in the same tiny space. I feel this is important, the seclusion is important. Free from trappings and distractions I find my mind is better able to focus on what I am thinking and doing. In my social circles little is taken seriously. I like that in a social context. I’m irreverent. But I also believe irreverence is only earned through consideration. To hold something in irreverence is not merely to mock it for no reason. It must have been seriously considered before you can be joking and irreverent about it.

To that extent Julian resonates with me. She, too, thought what she was doing was important, was a means to be seen in heavenly eyes as a good person. She, like me, wanted to live not a good life, but a righteous life. ‘Good’ lives can merely be comfortable, true righteousness requires sacrifice. Whether you agree that locking yourself in a house-cupboard is the means to do that is irrelevant. We all have our different paths and she committed to hers 100%.

She did what she thought right and is remembered for it, she’s considered a saint for it. As mentioned, she was donated to in more than one will so clearly other people, her contemporaries, were affected by her too. Unlike many of the other saints on this list I am not drawn to the art and imagery of her. She is sparsely depicted, often austere when she is, and little known. This lack of art, this austerity, is something of which I think she would approve, though. That’s remarkable.

Christ makes quite clear in his teachings that deliberately performative acts of piety, charity or goodness earn you no credit in Heaven. So those saints, like Julian, who just did what they thought holy, followed through with it and didn’t seek attention, didn’t inspire mass fervour, didn’t obtain huge patronages and didn’t spread their influence across the ages – they’re saints I can respect. These are quiet saints and humble saints.

One of the most stunning images of Julian from stained glass at St. Julian’s Church, Norwich. The scroll reads “All shall be well.” A quote from Julian’s ‘Revelations’. She herself is a humble figure, in bland blue robes, kneeling before an ostentatiously depicted Christ. So ingrained in nature, in the creation of the whole world, is the Son of Man that he grows from a flower vase, surrounded by ornate leaves and flowers. He’s also throwing his hands in the air like he just don’t care! These humble depictions of Julian speak volumes of how she is considered. She’s very much a People’s Saint! She’s normal, like us – yet somehow holy in a way incomprehensible to us. (Credit: Evelyn Simak / St Julian’s church in Norwich – modern stained glass / CC BY-SA 2.0)

It’s pretty incredible to think about, really. This is, as far as we know, the world’s first female English language author. This is a woman who imprisoned her body not for safety, nor was she confined in penitence or punishment, but instead she restricted herself to stop her body being an impediment to the freeing of her mind and soul.

Perhaps my admiration merely comes down to my neurology. I am autistic and for me a retreat to solitude every now and then is not merely a nice thing to do to ‘get away from it all’. It is vital to stop me getting consumed by it all, or more worryingly, consuming it all. Sadly seculsion is often represented as weakness, a withdrawal, a hiding – It isn’t. I am not shielding myself from the world, I am shielding the world from me. It is not a weakness I seek to protect, but an uncontrollable strength I seek to trap.

I love stained glass. Here is a rare depiction of Julian from outside of Norwich. This is from St. Chrysostom’s Church in Quincy, Massachusetts. It should be unsurprising. A huge number of Early English settlers in the USA were puritanical ‘pilgrims’, many of them from East Anglia. To what extent did Julian’s austere lifestyle inspire devotion to puritanism? Depravity – to be deprived – was one of the core tenets. Religious art, imagery and pomp were curbed by puritanism. Is Saint Julian really representative of that? Regardless the iconography in this image is staggering. Julian is shown with a trademark stoic face, clutching a scroll to indicate her role as a religious writer. This is enhanced by the quill to her left. She looks up at a glowing cross, symbolising her looking towards holiness, the aim, the direction of her pious life. To the bottom right is a bleeding crown of thorns. Her isolation through devotion recognised as a suffering, but she was crowned, revered, through it. (Credit: A K M Adam CC-BY-NC-2.0)

But it could also be a recognition that modern, developed life regularly means a detachment from what is truly awesome, worthy of thought and consideration and fundamentally meaningful. We live in a world of trappings, of constant attention-grabbers and distractions. These are becoming so integrated into our lives that emotional states can be determined by little ‘like’ icons that people click on a computer. We also appear to be in demand of more information in less time. Online media content shrinks itself further and further, lengthy blogs lost out to short tweets, Vine crumbled but was replaced by TikTok and Youtube Shorts, and people pay less attention to that which takes more time to consider. Many people are glued to screens – I can’t talk, I’m one of them – yet in Saint Julian we have the remedy.

Saint Julian’s Church, Norwich. Its once tall round tower (right) now cut short. This humble flint-and-stone 11th-12th century church is where Julian had her cell, the place of her confinement as an anchoress. (Credit: © Copyright David Dixon CC-BY-SA-2.0)

Put your body in a box free from distractions and let your mind and spirit be free.

You may as well get some practice in while living. It happens to us all eventually, anyway.

Want to know about more saints? Read our full list.

Happy All Saints’ Day!
Top 5 Saints #5: Saint Mary – Our Virgin of Sorrows and Mother of Christ.
Top 5 Saints #4: Saint Sebastian – A former Roman guard turned arrow-filled Martyr.

Top 5 Saints #2: Saint Michael the Archangel – The heavy metal sword of God!
Top 5 Saints #1: Saint Francis of Assisi – Pious, compassionate and a role model.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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