Thinking about how I might provide the Exeter College community with spiritual support, in my role as chaplain, has proven difficult at this unusual and challenging time. I propose to offer some reflections along with a piece of music from our choir. Here is my first piece, along with a recording (not yet fully edited) by the Exeter College Choir made in the Christmas vacation, which you can listen to by clicking on the play icon below. If you would like to receive more reflections by email please let me know by emailing me at email@example.com.
Some of you are self-isolating – either in college or at home. And, as this pandemic continues it seems that many of us might have to follow, and spend time alone in our rooms. There’s been many memes and gifs on Facebook and Instagram about how to cope with this, but I wanted to offer something a little bit different. None of us knows quite how to process the situation we find ourselves in, and the way that usually helps me – by going in to the Chapel and either sitting in the warmth and colour of the stained glass, or by taking a service – isn’t an option for me at the moment. And that is frustrating. But we need to process and express what we are feeling, and how we can respond to this current situation, and so as a spiritual offering to you are some thoughts on self-isolation based on the life of the medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich.
Although she is called Julian, we don’t know her real name: she is so called because she spent much of her life as an anchoress at the Church of St Julian in Norwich. Anchorites and anchoresses were people who eschewed society and lived a life of prayer, often in rooms attached to churches. Julian was born in either 1342 or 1343. We know this because in May 1373, aged 30 she had a series of visions. She had been prepared for death: the priest had prayed with her and anointed her, and as he held up a cross, she had a mystical experience. There are sixteen visions, or ‘shewings’ as she called them, which were concerned with God, the passion and death of Christ, and about how humanity is nurtured and protected by God.
When Julian recovered, she wrote these visions in what is the earliest known book in English written by a woman. She gave them the title Revelations of Divine Love, and is known as the Short Text of the Revelations of Divine Love; a later, augmented edition includes explanations of the visions, though scholars believe this has been edited.
The visions are experienced by an ill woman at the lowest point in her life. Yet they are full of hope. In one of the visions she sees a hazelnut held in the palm of her hand, and when looking in saw the whole created world:
Also in this He shewed a littil thing the quantitye of an
hesil nutt in the palme of my hand, and it was as round as a balle. I lokid there
upon with eye of my understondyng and thowte, What may this be? And it was
generally answered thus: It is all that is made.
I mervellid how it might lesten, for
methowte it might suddenly have fallen to nowte for littil. And I was answered
in my understondyng, It lesteth and ever shall, for God loveth it; and so all thing
hath the being be the love of God. [ll148 – 152]
[in modern English:
And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marvelled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.]
This image of the hazelnut can be comforting in that it shows the world in its context – of a much larger universe. At present it seems that there is nothing but COVID-19; it dominates the news, social media, our thoughts, conversations, meetings. There are, and have been, and will continue to be many meetings in College, across the University about how we deal with this situation. And, to be honest, it is extremely exhausting. But Julian’s image of the world in a hazelnut reminds me that there will be other things beyond this virus, and that our world will last beyond the current pandemic. She talks about finding peace in something so small, and perhaps that is one thing we can think about in this crisis. How do we find peace? How can be find peace when we are not in control, when exams might take place in a format we have not experienced, how can we find peace when we might have to do our research from home?
Perhaps one way is to anchor ourselves in the situation we find ourselves in. Of being open to the idea that we need to think, act, and be in ways which are different to what we normally do. To acknowledge that things are pretty crap; to allow ourselves more time to slow down because in this uncertainty we can’t function as we did a few weeks ago. And that is ok. Later in her visions, Julian returns to the idea of being at peace and rest, of being ‘without any painful dread’, something we all are yearning for. And that time will come.
Although on the surface there is very little to compare Julian’s experience of self-isolation with today’s – she chose to remove herself from society, and had a divine revelation – her life and writings can be of some help to us now. Our lives are usually very fast paced: this time apart is when we can’t work or be as frantic as usual. Perhaps taking time to listen to ourselves, to think of what is important to us can be a great luxury – so perhaps now is the time to indulge in that. Yes, exams are coming up, but you can’t spend every waking moment working; and, once exams are over, when theses are submitted there’s the next chapter of life to consider.
Julian’s writings are full of hope – a hope she derives from a love of God which is immeasurable and at some times overwhelming. I appreciate that many of you do not have a faith, but hope is a human need, whether it comes through the resurrection or meditation, or simply through nature or others, and this is a time to remind ourselves of hope.
Over the Christmas vacation the choir recorded a CD. It hasn’t been fully edited – partly delayed because of corona – so the recording I share with you (towards the top of this web page) is in its early stages of production. It is a piece of music – words from the Faire Queene, set by the 20th Century composer William Harris – Faire is the heaven. It talks about ‘full enjoyment of felicity’ and hope, and the idea that all will work out are integral to life. Julian of Norwich sums it up as follows, and this is my prayer for all of us at this time: ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’.
Andrew Allen 18/iii/20