December 21st, 2001
Several weeks ago, after attending a conference in England near Winchester, I made my way east and north on a personal pilgrimage to Norwich and a small chapel attached to the Church of St. Julian. The chapel had been built on the site of the cell in which a woman, taking her name from the church itself and known only as Julian, had lived and prayed many centuries ago. She would have been wholly unknown and forgotten had she not set down an account of her profound encounter with Christ in the midst of a near fatal illness. Written not for the spiritually advanced, but for her "fellow Christians," namely ordinary men and women struggling to be faithful, her Showings proclaim God's unbounded compassion. She writes: "â¦Our Lord God cannot in his own judgement forgive, because he cannot be angry-that would be impossible. For this was revealed, that our life is all founded and rooted in love, and without love we cannot live."
As I sat in silence in the empty chapel, I noticed two windows: one on my right that looked out into a garden, and one on my left that opened into the church with a view of the altar. In the original cell the same would have been true, except that the window into the garden would have looked out onto a major road through the city. Julian opened both windows. In her prayer and reflection she brought together the busy and chaotic world of the late 14th and early 15th century, and the continual remembering of Christ's deathless love in the Eucharist. Her Showings exist in a short and longer form. The latter is an amplification of the earlier version and shows the marks of her growing spiritual maturity and the fruit of her prayer.
Continuing my reflections, it occurred to me that Julian did not live at a peaceful time. Drawing from the Great Litany, hers was an age of "plague, pestilence, and famine; battle and murder and dying suddenly." The fact that life outside her cell was harsh and cruel makes Julian's deep confidence and joy in God's mercy and compassion all the more striking. Perhaps her attention to the place of suffering both in the life of Christ and in the lives of her "fellow Christians" was made more acute by her awareness of what was happening in her city and to those around her. For just as she opened the window into the church, she also opened the window into the world. In fact one of her duties of her vocation as a solitary was to receive at her window the cares and burdens of men and women who came to her for advice and counsel.
I then thought that we, too, are living in an uneasy time for both the world and the church, and that the conditions enumerated in the Litany are still very much with us. I also reflected upon myself and the ministry I seek to exercise on your behalf. Trying to guide our church into the way of Christ's ever-unfolding truth requires my own personal yielding to the one who is the Truth. Sitting in that holy space, I had to acknowledge that it is not always easy for me to find my grounding in the confident joy that characterizes Julian's thought and her unshakable belief that in Christ "all manner of thing shall be well." But then I found consolation in the thought it may also have been difficult for her to keep her footing sure. The window to the world exposed her to the stresses and strains in the church and the lives of her "fellow Christians," and there must have been times when she was deeply troubled and close to despair. Yet by crossing her cell and opening the window to the altar she was able to situate all that she received and sought to carry for the sake of others within the Mystery of Christ's birth, death and resurrection made present in the Eucharist. I wonder if this is why the Eucharist, which has always been central to my life, has become even more important to me over the past three years. Do I know at some intuitive level that I need to place all that is happening within the ambit of Christ's dying and rising? Or is it Christ himself inviting me to yield all to him as the true bearer of all our burdens?
As I left the cell, I found a piece of paper containing some sayings of Julian. Among them my eyes fell upon the following: "Our enemy tries to depress us with false fears which he proposes. His intention is to make us so weary and dejected, that we let the blessed sight of our everlasting friend slip from our mind." Only a person who knew weariness and dejection could write such words. I therefore came away from my visit strengthened by Julian's courage and faithfulness, and saw her as a friend given to be by Christ, our everlasting friend.
The Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold
XXV Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA