Monasteries of the Heart

Monks in Our Midst: Alejandra Oliva on Julian of Norwich and Social Distancing

We don’t know very much about Julian of Norwich, not even her name—the name we use is the name of the church she lived in, St. Julian’s, and her city, Norwich, in England. We do know that she was born around 1342, and that she spent the majority of her life as an anchoress, living isolated in a small chamber attached to the walls of St. Julian until her death. 

Anchoresses were a kind of religious hermit who opted to withdraw from society, and usually took a vow of stability of place. The ceremony for becoming consecrated as an anchoress mirrors funeral rites. When an anchoress entered isolation, she became dead to the world and reborn instead to a life of the spirit. Despite their vows of isolation, however, many anchoresses lived within the social contexts and auditory landscapes of towns and cities. Norwich, when Julian lived there, was a bustling trade center, second only in importance to London.

Having an anchoress located at once within and without the community, and dedicated, day in and day out, to the strenuous work of prayer, was meant to be like a kind of protective shield of prayer and love in deeply uncertain times. 

When Julian was a child, the black plague came to Norwich. As a trade center, the city was particularly susceptible, and it’s estimated that about half of the population died, and the economic repercussions must also have been horrific. Aftershocks to the initial infections continued to reverberate through the city up until the 1380s. In 1373, after her own illness brought her nearly to the brink of death, Julian wrote in Revelations of Divine Love:

“All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”

This, from a woman who lived through the plague, through the bloody suppression of the Lollards and the Peasant’s Revolt. Her reasoning becomes clearer as you read deeper into the text:
“If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love.”

We live through it, we survive it, and all of the trial and the suffering and the rest is a reminder that in the end, we are held dear. 

Alejandra Oliva, a new voice to Monks in our Midst, is an essayist, embroiderer and translator. She has a masters in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School, and is an Aspen Words Emerging Writers Fellow for 2019.  For more of Alejandra Oliva’s reflection on Julian of Norwich and social distancing, read the full piece here. Sign up for Ojos de Santa Lucia, her newsletters on female saints and surrounding themes.


Reflection Questions:

  1. In what ways has your prayer life, your spiritual journey, changed since the beginning of this pandemic, whether you are an essential worker who is not able to stay home, or you are self-isolating away from your usual rhythms?
  2. Is it true that “all shall be well”? What do you feel called to do to ensure “all manner of things shall be well” coming out of this crisis?


Please share your reflections with us here.

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