An­chored in quiet

James dis­cov­ers the peace­ful world of the fa­mous an­chorite Mother Julian of Nor­wich


Nor­wich was once hailed as ‘the city of pubs and churches’, fa­mously boast­ing a church for ev­ery week and a pub for ev­ery day of the year. While I’ve done my best to visit as many of Nor­wich’s pubs as I can over the years, I can’t re­call step­ping foot in more than a cou­ple of our city’s churches.

Sure, our two grand cathe­drals war­rant a visit ev­ery now and again, espe­cially when vis­i­tors de­scend, but the lit­tle churches dot­ted around our streets so eas­ily go un­no­ticed. Un­til last week. As I passed a lit­tle An­glo-Nor­man church just off King Street on my way home from work, some invit­ing lights flick­er­ing on the other side of the open door caught my at­ten­tion.

With a bit of time to kill I de­cided to en­ter the church I’d so of­ten passed. I perched on a pew for a mo­ment to take in my serene sur­round­ings and no­ticed the noise of the city’s even­ing rush hour had all but dis­ap­peared. It was de­light­fully peace­ful.

To my right was a lit­tle shrine to Julian of Nor­wich, which I could only as­sume meant I was in Julian’s church. And Julian (or Mother Julian, as she was also known), it turns out, lived quite the life – or I should prob­a­bly say, lived the quiet life – as an an­choress in the 14th cen­tury.

For those who don’t know (and I didn’t), an an­choress, or

an­chorite in the male case, is a per­son who chooses to with­draw from so­ci­ety to lead an iso­lated life of re­li­gious con­tem­pla­tion in a her­mitage, or ‘cell’. Many of these cells are at­tached to churches.

And Julian’s cell – a cell also used by an­chorites and an­choresses both be­fore and after St Julian called it home – was through a door in front of me. I walked in and took a seat in the small room Julian spent much of her life in.

Ap­par­ently, be­cause of the re­li­gious ded­i­ca­tion of Julian, the peo­ple of Nor­wich would have re­garded her as a wise, holy woman and queued up out­side the church to seek her coun­sel. This paints quite the pic­ture when you con­sider she lived in a time when Nor­wich would have been rav­aged by plague and poverty. As­ton­ish­ingly, Julian wrote the ear­li­est sur­viv­ing book in the English lan­guage to be writ­ten by a woman, Rev­e­la­tions of Divine Love, pre­sum­ably from the very cell in which I sat.

Re­garded as a clas­sic on spir­i­tu­al­ity, po­ets and writ­ers as di­verse as T.S. Eliot and Iris Mur­doch have ref­er­enced her text in their writ­ing.

It turned out I wasn’t ac­tu­ally in Julian’s cell after all. Fol­low­ing bomb­ing in the Sec­ond World War, the church needed to be re­built. At that time Nor­wich didn’t need an­other parish church, but Julian’s legacy en­sured it was re-erected, now in­clud­ing a shrine and a pre­served ‘cell’ to al­low fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to learn her story.

Next time you’re seek­ing a mo­men­tary es­cape from the pace of mod­ern life why not walk through the door of a church you’ve passed count­less times. Like Julian’s, who knows what other sto­ries lie be­hind the doors of our city?

‘The peo­ple of Nor­wich would have re­garded her as a wise, holy woman and queued up out­side the church to seek her coun­sel’

ABOVE: The lit­tle church of St Julian, nes­tled in Nor­wich’s busy streets

BE­LOW: The in­side of the church Pho­tos: Antony Kelly

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