Advice for Surviving a Pandemic from Julian of Norwich

Anyone who spends time on this blog knows that I love Julian of Norwich; just as John Ruysbroeck was Evelyn Underhill’s favorite mystic, Julian is far and away my favorite. You can read a few of my previous posts about Julian here, here and here.

Today I was prepared to write something about St. Patrick, given that tomorrow is his feast day, but — since we are now dealing with the COVID-19 Pandemic, the first global pandemic in a decade (since the H1N1 “Swine Flu” pandemic of 2009-2010) — I thought maybe Julian deserves a bit more attention.

Julian lived from 1342 to approximately 1416; which means that she survived one of the most storied and terrifying pandemics of western history: the Great Pestilence, what we now call “the black death” — during which the bubonic plague ravaged England between 1348 and 1350. It would have come to Norwich when Julian was still a child; her older contemporary in the mystical tradition, Richard Rolle of Hampole, died young around the year 1349; scholars speculate that he may have been a casualty of the plague.

It is believed that approximately one-third of the population of England may have succumbed to the plague — and in Norwich, the death toll may have been even higher, claiming up to one-half of the city’s thirteen thousand inhabitants. And if that first devastating pandemic wasn’t bad enough, England suffered additional outbreaks of the plague at least four more times during Julian’s life.

If you want a detailed — and, frankly, terrifying — description of what the plague was like and the impact it had on medieval European society, read chapter four of Veronica Rolf’s Julian’s Gospel.

Julian herself does not mention the plague in her book of Showings. That, in itself, I find quite remarkable, but there is much about Julian’s own life that remains shrouded in mystery. Even her name is hidden from us; she is called Julian after her parish church in Norwich (it would be as if I were known as “Thomas More” because I’m a member of St. Thomas More Parish). Virtually all the personal details of her life were left unmentioned in her writing; she simply did not see the point of telling her own story.

A number of scholars and writers have done fascinating work speculating about the details of Julian’s life; two of my favorites are the aforementioned Julian’s Gospel and Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography by Amy Frykholm. But ultimately we must be content knowing that for the most part we simply don’t know about Julian’s life — all we have is her brilliant book detailing the spirituality of her “showings” or visions/revelations of divine love.

But while Julian may have chosen not to write directly about her experience surviving multiple outbreaks of the plague, we can still read between the lines and discern some advice from this medieval mystic about how to survive the uncertainty that comes with an infectious disease pandemic. Indeed, I see four ways that Julian speaks to us even here in the 21st century.

  1. Social Distancing is a good thing. While Julian does not write about her life circumstances, a colophon on her book, probably added by an unknown scribe, identifies her as a “recluse” or “anchoress” living in Norwich. In other words, she lived a life of intentional solitude, “anchored” to her parish church (St. Julian’s) by inhabiting an enclosed cell adjacent to the sanctuary. Julian very likely lived in such a hermit-like way for anywhere from 20 to 40 years, which means she probably survived at least two outbreaks of the plague by remaining in spiritual solitude. I don’t this means everyone is meant to be a solitary or a hermit! Clearly, for Julian, this was a religious vocation. But if 21st-century people have a hard time understanding why a healthy woman would have chosen a life of enforced isolation, perhaps “social distancing” is the clue that makes it easy to understand. Keeping a prudent distance from others helps to slow down the spread of the disease — and may well keep you alive.
  2. Keep your distance — but stay connected. Julian never mentions it, but we know from the autobiographical Book of Margery Kempe that Julian, even in solitude, worked as a spiritual director. In other words, she remained in relationship with others, even if behind the safety of a screen. For that matter, going to the trouble to write her book — the first book by a woman in the English language — was another way that she endeavored to keep “in touch” — if not physically, then spiritually. Julian knew that human beings are meant for relationship, and in the challenges of a pandemic, we must be creative about finding ways to keep our relatedness alive and well.
  3. Stay positive. Julian is renowned for her optimism and her faith in both God’s love and Christ’s saving acts. “All shall be well,” she proclaimed, earning her a spot in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotation and a shout-out in the luminous conclusion of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. But Julian’s soundbite is actually the cornerstone of her entire philosophical outlook — and what a positive outlook it was! She speaks repeatedly of not only God’s and Christ’s love, but also their joy, courtesy, and “homeliness” (what we might call their “down-t0-earth-ness.” Despite the fact that we live in a world marred by suffering, sin and death (infectious or otherwise), for Julian there was never a need to despair. Hope is the birthright of all people of faith. It sees us through the ordinary passage of our days, and it also is the beacon of light in difficult times as well.
  4. Pray. Prayer has become a bit of a political hot potato in our culture, since it can be bandied about as a glib or even dismissive response to tragedy — does anyone really believe that “thoughts and prayers” is the only appropriate response to mass shootings? So I was a little hesitant to include this as one of the ways Julian advises us. But in the end it seemed wrong not to mention this, for it’s the truth — Julian filtered everything in her life through a vivid and generous prayer life — and it’s also clear that Julian kept prayer as an integral part of an overall mindfully-lived life. Prayer does not render prudence unnecessary: I pray for God’s protection, and I still lock my doors. Both actually go together well: the locked door is an act of prudence, and the prayer is an act of trust. Without locking the door, prayer is a form of escapism; but without prayer, the locked doors can become an expression of paranoia. Julian, as a woman dedicated to prayer, understood that isolating herself from infectious disease by itself was not enough. She had to balance her prudent actions with the generous gesture of trust. In this way, she was able to preserve both her optimism and her faith.

I hope we can all balance prayer and prudent action to remain both safe and faith-full during this uncertain time when we are not yet sure how dangerous or widespread COVID-19 will prove to be. Let us all pray for good health, for comfort and healing for those afflicted, and for the many women and men who are working hard to develop vaccines and otherwise take measures that will keep all people safe.

Featured image: Miniature by Pierart dou Tielt illustrating the Tractatus quartus bu Gilles li Muisit (Tournai, c. 1353). The people of Tournai bury victims of the Black Death. ms. 13076 – 13077 fol. 24v. Julian of Norwich image: Stained glass at Norwich Cathedral; photo by Ian-S; used by permission.

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.