Pomegranate Place is in one of those old mansions you find throughout the Capitol Hill neighborhood, a relic of another era. It looks like a place where a benevolent secret society might meet. But it's a women's center and on the cool dusky evening of Friday, October 15th, it was the perfect setting for a talk on a book about the 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich. In her landmark work, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, Barbara Tuchman outlines a time in Europe of the 100 Years War, the bubonic plague and religious and political unrest separate from the aforementioned war. The Renaissance, much less the Enlightenment hadn't happened yet and it was, to borrow the title of a William Manchester book on the Middle Ages, A World Lit Only by Fire.
Amid the turmoil and relative lack of documentation of the lives of ordinary people, Julian of Norwich became the first woman to write a book in the English language. As Amy Frykholm, author of the recent Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography, pointed out in the discussion of her book, little is known about the actual life of Julian of Norwich beyond the fact that she was a woman who lived in the 14th century and into the 15th century and wrote a book about revelations she received from God while recovering from a nearly fatal illness and her subsequent contemplations thereupon.
During Julian's lifetime, Frykholm explained, people did not write religious books in English because it was considered what Julian said was a "homely language" - the language spoken by people to each other in everyday life and not one to use in scholarship, literature and, naturally, theological discourse. Thus her having written her great work of theology in her native language was remarkable not only because it was written by a woman but also because at the time of its writing, writing in English was outlawed and even owning a Bible scribed in English was a capital offense.
Believed to have been born in 1342, Julian was six years old when the plague hit Norfolk area in the northeast part of England and it wiped out 80 percent of the population. In 1361, when Julian was 19, another plague descended and killed 80 percent of the children. No details of this era of Julian's life are available but it alongside her visions of Jesus at age thirty while laying in bed thinking she was going to die made obvious to Frykholm that Julian's interpretation of her visions was all the more remarkable because instead of death and destruction and judgment, Julian came out the other side of tragedy and her own harrowing brush with death with an understanding of God and Jesus as one of a loving deity and one in whom one can find an inner peace -- a "rest in soul" as Frickholme mentioned in her talk. Not unlike the philosophy of the Epicureans that influenced early Christian thinking in which an inner calm is cultivated as a center from which to draw whether times are tumultuous or peaceful. Much more St. Francis of Assisi than John of the Book of Revelation.
Frykholm had experienced a time of trouble and uncertainty in her own life when she, as an avowed skeptic, encountered the work of Julian and the simplicity, grace and wisdom of Julian's words resonated with her like few other things ever had. And it was this experience that inspired her to write her own book about the ancient mystic. In doing so, Frickholme discovered that so little was directly known about Julian except her directness and uniqueness of language coming across six centuries to us. Drawing from scant personal details and the account of Margery Kempe who wrote about her own talk with Julian in her own book, Frickholme had to use some imagination backed by rigorous scholarship to illuminate the life of Julian of Norwich for modern readers.
No one had read Julian in her lifetime because she had become an anchoress in the last part of her life and had more or less written her book without necessarily intending for it to be published. But editions of the book were preserved even when the Reformation brought about a burning down of the cathedral where Julian had lived out the end of her life and most copies of Julian's work were destroyed. Bits and pieces of Julian's writing appeared in a 16th century anthology and then she was all but forgotten until the late 19th century when her work was rediscovered and popularized by modern thinkers as resonant with modern theology more so than what was common in the Middle Ages when Julian was living.
Frykholm's informed and lively presentation of the information really made Julian's words and her ideas come to life because it clearly had a personal resonance for the author. With our current global cultural climate of turmoil, war, uncertainty and fear, Julian's words speak across centuries to us as a reminder to cultivate an inner calm and love in the face of these trials and adversity. Frykholm humanized what might have been an abstract figure of history and made her words relevant to us today. It was a small gathering of people in Pomegranate place but it's doubtful anyone left without a strong impression of Julian of Norwich and how someone having had what they believed to be a brush with the divine can lead to a body of wisdom benefiting believers and non-believers alike.
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