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