During this pandemic, there’s been many an invocation of Julian of Norwich. She was a Christian mystic, who lived as an anchorite – someone (usually a woman) who would wall themselves off from the world in a literal sense, with prayers for the dead being said as they were bricked into rooms adjoining churches, to meditate upon God and pray for the rest of their days. With lockdown confining us to our homes, many have been quick to point out the similarities between our situation and that of the anchorite.
Her best-known idiom, too, seems to offer us hope in our troubled times – ‘All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well’. I have spent a good deal of time writing and thinking about Julian, and think that we can take so much more than a lesson about isolation and things being well from her writings.
The reason I like Julian so much, I suspect, is that I first read her as an undergraduate coming back to, and to terms with, his faith, having effectively ceased to practice my Catholicism in my teens. Her mystic experience mirrored my own sense that I didn’t need to understand my faith at the time, I didn’t need to rationalise it – ‘it is fitting for His servant out of obedience and respect, not to wish to know His counsels’ – I could simply accept it was there. It’s this acceptance that Catholics strive for, following the beauty of the Marian example expressed in the carol Gabriel’s Message: ‘Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head, “To me be as it pleaseth God,” she said.’
Thinking about Julian, for me, always ends in thinking about time. Her book is wonderful, and time is, in my view, in one of the underlying themes of Julian’s book; she grapples with it throughout. She struggles to place the Passion in time, and at points, God reveals parts of Himself to her, filling her with an ‘everlasting fulfilment’, but this, paradoxically, lasts ‘only a while’. She is distressed by her experience, mediated by her status as a temporal being, of a God outside of time. The eternal and the ephemeral have always had an uneasy relationship – we can’t wrap our heads around the idea of ‘forever’, try as we might. It’s even harder to imagine God becoming one of us, coming into time, and yet he does, as the Christ-child in the manger.
Christmas is perhaps the quintessential manifestation of this paradox. The true miracle of Christmas – yes, there is a virgin birth, wise men following stars, and angels charging lowly shepherds with witnessing the birth of their saviour – but more than anything, the true miracle is the moment that time itself is broken. God puts himself into the world. The eternal breaks into time. There’s no reason why it should, other than that God wills it. It’s an amazing, beautiful thought.
Liz Breunig has written about the revolutionary potential of such an event, noting Christianity’s tendency to ‘upend, reverse, and radically transform’. She’s not wrong, and more power to those who take heed of that message, and seek to – as Bruenig quotes from the Magnificat – ‘bring down the powerful from their thrones, lift up the lowly, fill the poor with good things and send the rich away hungry.’
I wrote in my Christmas piece last year about time in relation to Christmas. But this year, we haven’t seemed to have a time that works in accordance with linear, historical time. This has been the year of temporality – of ‘lived time’, time-as-experienced. For many, 2020 will have flown past, for many more, seemed interminable. Unshackled from school calendars, work calendars, and social calendars, forced to work long hours or perhaps not work at all, time seems to have stopped working as it should. There has been talk of people not counting 2020 in their age, or declaring that they’ve been with their partner of a year for twice as long, for that’s how long 2020 felt.
The historian Jacques Le Goff argued that the medieval understanding of time which Julian would have lived with as a contrast of ‘church time’, which meant that ‘Time belongs to God alone and is forbidden as a source of profit’, with ‘merchant’s time’. We make a similar distinction at Christmas, and this year more so than ever. Ordinarily, we break from merchant’s time – the shops shut, many of us cease to work. We lie in for the Christmas breakfast, or are awoken at first light by small children eager to get on with Christmas day. We prepare food that can take hours to prepare, and almost as long to eat. This year, we will break even further from merchant’s time – from ‘objective’ time. Many of us will be locked down, our gatherings will be smaller this year, for reasons both tragic and pragmatic. More shops and pubs will be shut. Many of our traditions – attending carol concerts, in my case – are not accessible.
Christmas is, perhaps, just what we need at such a moment. The Christmas story is the story of time breaking, and like Julian, we’re just forced to accept it. We don’t fully understand it, try as we might. As a result, Julian’s experience of God is contrasted with her lack of understanding, her lack of feeling fulfilled. This has been a year defined by lack, defined by what we cannot do, who we cannot see, who we will not see again. My hope is that this season, marked as it is by that miraculous break in time, will bring a sense of fulfilment to all of us. God might not come to us all in the way He did with Julian (and given her visions happened as she felt like she was dying, we might be grateful for that) but as we gather to celebrate the moment where time breaks, my hope is that we can put this dreadful year behind us, if only for a short while.