Of the world but cloistered
By Kristin Berkey-Abbott
On May 8, Lutherans celebrate the life of Julian of Norwich, an amazing woman. She was a 14th-century anchoress, a woman who lived in a small cell attached to a cathedral, in almost complete isolation, spending her time in contemplation. She had a series of visions, which she wrote down and spent her life elaborating upon. She is likely the first woman to write a book-length work in English.
And what a book it is; what visions she had. She wrote about Christ as a mother — what a bold move! After all, Christ is the only one of the Trinity with a definite gender. She also stressed God is both mother and father. Her visions showed her that God is love and compassion, an important message during the time of the Black Death.
Although she was a medieval mystic, her work seems fresh and current, even these many centuries later. How many writers can make such a claim?
I find myself thinking of her more and more frequently these days. In my younger years, I saw her as bizarre and strange. Who would willingly shut herself away in a small cell?
Now I find the idea attractive: a small room in complete stillness with meals slid through a slot in the door, very little in the way of human interaction. My yearning probably speaks to the nature of life in my own cell in the modern workplace.
My office is likely not much bigger than Julian’s room, but it’s much more chaotic, with people coming and going with a wide variety of problems and humans reacting to stress in a variety of difficult ways. My office is certainly not connected to a cathedral, which would lend a sense of peace, especially these days when cathedrals aren’t community centers the way they would have been in medieval times.
I often comfort myself by using one of Julian of Norwich’s most famous phrases as my workday mantra: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” Would Julian of Norwich be pleased that so many of us derive comfort by repeating those words? Or would she shake her head and be annoyed that we have missed what she considered to be the most important ideas?
Julian of Norwich would be astonished if she came back today and saw the importance that people like me have accorded her. She likely had no idea that her writings would survive. She was certainly not writing and saying, "I will be one of the earliest female writers in English history. I will depict a feminine face of God. I will create a theology that will still be important centuries after I'm dead."
I remind myself that she would have such a different outlook than I do. She was a medieval woman who served God; she likely would not even view her ideas as her own, but as visitations from the Divine. If I could adopt more of that kind of attitude, it could serve me well on some of my more stressful days at work when divesting situations of my ego could be the most helpful thing that I could do.
That's the frustration for people like me: We cannot know which work is going to be most important. That email that seems unimportant today will likely be unimportant hundreds of years from now, but who knows? Being kind to one's coworkers who cluck and fuss and flutter about matters that seem so terribly unimportant is no small accomplishment either.
And maybe I could do that by adopting more of the habits of the anchoress in my own modern cell. I can’t keep people from coming to my office, but when I don’t have people there, I could pray. Even when I do have people in my office, I could pray.
I don’t have cathedral bells nearby, but I could use the tools of the modern office to remind me to pray. I could use my calendar dings to remind me. I could even insert reminders into my electronic calendars to call me back to prayer and my better self.
By scheduling these retreat times into my daily schedule, perhaps I can return refreshed, much the way I feel when I return from longer pilgrimages. And maybe, thus refreshed, I can be a better beacon to illuminate the face of God in the modern world.
Kristin Berkey-Abbott is a lifelong Lutheran, a college teacher and department head. She has taught a variety of English and creative-writing classes for over 20 years.