Living Like Julian

Living Like Julian
Rev. Josh Pawelek
Unitarian Universalist Society: East
Manchester, CT
December 13, 2020

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”—the most well-known words from the medieval, Christian mystic and anchoress, Julian of Norwich, the first known woman to write an English-language book, Revelations of Divine Love. We call her Julian after St. Julian’s Church in Norwich, England where she lived for much of her life. She was born in 1343, died in 1416. As a child she lived through the bubonic plague, a pandemic which killed between a third and a half of the people of Norwich, and which resurfaced continually for decades. She lived through famine. She lived in the era of the Hundred Years’ War when England was engaged in near-constant warfare in Europe. She lived through the Peasants’ Rebellion of 1381.  We can say with confidence: Julian was keenly aware of human suffering. Her words, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” offer comfort and consolation in response to physical, emotional and spiritual suffering.

I call this homily “Living Like Julian,” with the hope that, in response to suffering, we may be among those who do not shy away, but instead offer comfort, consolation and companionship. Having said that, I’m not suggesting we ought to live like Julian actually lived. As an anchoress her spiritual practice was extreme. Apparently, after the church admitted you into this select group, it held a funeral mass in your honor to proclaim your death to the physical world. After the mass you entered a tiny cell and the door was bricked up behind you. One historian referred to it as “irreversible enclosure.” For the rest of your life, you never left that cell.

The anchoress’ purpose was to be close to God and to pray constantly for the local people—for their health, well-being, safety, prosperity, their souls. The cell was often located along the street in front of the church, so the people would know someone was praying for them.  Servants brought food to the anchoress, emptied and cleaned her chamber pot, and offered companionship through small windows. As Gina pointed out in her story, an anchoress could keep a cat with her, though the cat could come and go through the windows. Wealthier members of the community donated money to support the anchoress, and were likely able to secure a few extra prayers for themselves.

 Although anchorites are usually defined as “religious recluses,” that isn’t quite accurate. The editor of a 2015 edition of her book said that, “as an anchoress living in the heart of an urban environment, Julian would not have led an entirely secluded life. She would have … enjoyed … the general affection of the population [and] would have in turn provided prayers, advice and counsel to the people.”[1] The anchoress was a street-based spiritual life coach. Julian’s contemporary, the Christian mystic, Margery Kempe – also from Norwich – wrote about visiting her at her cell. “Much was the holy conversation that the anchoress and [I] had,” she wrote, “communing in the love of our Lord Jesus Christ many days [we] were together.”[2]

When I refer to “Living Like Julian,” I don’t mean ‘irreversible enclosure.’ Cats, spiritual life coaching, stillness, quiet, meditation, prayer, isolation during a pandemic, yes. Voluntary, lifelong confinement, no.

At age thirty, Julian became gravely ill. She and those caring for her believed she was dying. A priest came to deliver last rites. As the ritual began, Julian had a series of sixteen mystical experiences—visions of Jesus, which she called shewings. She recovered from her illness and began writing about the shewings. She continued crafting the 65,000-word Revelations of Divine Love over the rest of her life. It was first published 300 years later.  

I realize that when I talk about Julian’s theology, it’s easy to make her sound like a UU, like a religious liberal. There is a latent universalism in her theology, but I want to be clear: Julian was a medieval, Catholic woman living in a repressive, theocracy. Heaven and Hell were very real to her. She lived centuries before the Protestant Reformation,  the Enlightenment, the discovery of Pompeii, and European colonial expansion. Medieval England was a closed, inward-looking, fearful society. The modern, liberal religious consciousness we take for granted did not exist.

Given plagues, famine and endless war, we can be confident Julian knew suffering. She longed for a compassionate response from God. She prayed for a sign that God loved her, cared for her, held her, tended to her pain and the pain of others. What seemed to get in the way of that compassionate response was sin. God was always angry about sin. She wrote: “I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well.” If God created everything, why didn’t God make it impossible for people to sin? A reasonable question.

The shewings provided an answer. “Jesus,” she said, “answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ These words were said most tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to any who shall be saved.”[3]  So, despite our sinfulness,  mistakes, flaws, pettiness, meanness, and in the midst of our suffering, we are still held in tenderness, still loved deeply. All shall be well.

Two features of her theology resonate with me and were likely dangerous for her to name  openly. First, she experienced Jesus as female, specifically as a mother. She wrote: “The mother can lay her child tenderly to her breast, but our tender Mother Jesus can lead us easily into his blessed breast through his sweet open side, and show us there a part of the godhead and of the joys of heaven, with inner certainty of endless bliss…. This fair lovely word ‘mother’ is so sweet and so kind in itself that it cannot truly be said of anyone or to anyone except of him and to him who is the true Mother of life and of all things. To the property of motherhood belong nature, love, wisdom, and knowledge, and this is God.” [4]

Jesus also had male attributes, but Julian clearly couldn’t accept a purely male God. Historians speculate that she either experienced her own mother as tender, gentle, nurturing, wise and loving, or that she herself was a mother who felt deep love for her children. God could not possibly be only male, a disciplinarian, wrathful. So she boldly asserted in her writing a female, Mother Jesus as the answer to her enduring prayer for compassion in the midst of suffering.

Methodist pastor, Jennifer Williamson, visited Julian’s cell in 2018. She says: “There I sat, in the cell of Julian of Norwich. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. As my feet rested and my spirit relaxed I looked for an image in my heart…. I saw … my breastfeeding child … a memory of sitting up in the middle of the night with my newborn and marveling at how his tiny jaw moved up and down, his body calmed, and his belly filled with what my body provided him. A memory of how it felt to be so connected and to be so satisfied in mutually fulfilling each other’s need. A memory of that mix of instinct, love, relationship, and human dependency.”[5]

A second theological notion that resonates with me is her deeper, non-binary conception of God. Julian continually erases distinctions between body and soul, between God and humanity, between God and all creation. God is in us; we are in God. Matthew Fox, the founder of creation spirituality, says for “Julian … we are always in a state of being in the womb of the Divine, a place of utter interdependence and compassion…. We leave the womb of our literal mothers to enter the world and [enter the] fray … but when it comes to the womb of God … we do not leave. We swim in it our whole lives long.”[6]

How might we live like Julian? Many recent articles suggest Julian chose to live in a cell as a way of isolating during a pandemic.[7] I think that’s false. Becoming an anchoress was a profound spiritual commitment, not a public health measure. Nevertheless, she did live in isolation at a time when pandemics were common. Perhaps in our own isolation we are already living like Julian. Many people are now finding comfort in her example—her faith, her endurance, her stillness, her tender, nurturing God, her confidence that “all will be well.”

Living like Julian means seeking out the sources of love in our lives—knowing them intimately, finding comfort and strength in them. She found her most profound source of love in Mother Jesus. Where do you find love? In the divine? The interdependent web? Family and friends? A pet? Our UUS:E Community? In the stillness of this season, search for your sources of love. Drop gently into them.

Living like Julian also means being spiritually and theologically creative. In the midst of our isolation, can we discard outdated, unbalanced, oppressive religious assumptions; open ourselves up to mystical experience, experiment with new spiritual practices, and generate theological ideas that speak directly to the realities of life?

Perhaps most importantly, living like Julian means discerning how to respond to the reality of suffering—our own and that of others; how to live with it without becoming overwhelmed. Julian tells us “[Jesus] did not say ‘You shall not be perturbed, you shall not be troubled, you shall not be distressed,’ but he said, ‘You shall not be overcome.’” I love the song Jenn sang from Rev. Meg Barnhouse which imagines a dialogue with Julian. She knows the suffering at the heart of the human condition. “No one does not know … about sorrow … pain… hunger … shame … loneliness … disease … cruelty. She said I know it’s too much. It brought me to my knees, where I heard: ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’”[8]

Sometimes we gaze out at the world and know it’s all too much. But when we pause to reflect deeply on our own experiences of suffering, as Julian surely did, it’s possible to recognize we didn’t come through it alone. Some power greater than ourselves—some source of love—held us, remained with us, mothered us – a spouse, a friend, a parent, a nurse, a pet, a spirit, an all-pervading silence, a still, small voice. And in such moments of recognition, some version of Julian’s words sing in our hearts. All shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.

Amen and blessed be.  

[1] Windeatt, Barry, ed. Revelations of Divine Love. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) pp. xii-xiii.
[2] “What Julian of Norwich Said to Margery Kempe,” Clerk of Oxford, May 13, 2012. See:
[3] Quoted from Graves, Dan, “Article 31: All Shall Be Well,” Christian History Institute. See:
[4] From Edmund Colledge, James Walsh, Jean Leclercq, eds, Julian of Norwich: Showings (The Classics of Western Spirituality) (Paulist Press, 1978), quoted in Williamson, Jennifer “Julian of Norwich’s Image of Mother Jesus, The Christian Century’s CCBlogs Network, August 7, 2018. See:
[5] Williamson, Jennifer “Julian of Norwich’s Image of Mother Jesus, The Christian Century’s CCBlogs Network, August 7, 2018. See:
[6] Fox, Matthew, “Julian of Norwich on Advent” Daily Meditations with Matthew Fox, December 9th, 2020. See:
[7] Check out: “All Shall Be Well; Reflections on Julian of Norwich,” St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA,; “Coronavirus: Advice from the Middle Ages on How to Deal With Self-Isolation,” The Conversation, March 29, 2020 at; Rigby, Nic, “Coronavirus: Mystic’s Relevance to a Self-Isolating World, BBC News, March 29, 2020 at
[8] Barnhouse, Meg, “All Shall Be Well.” See: