These four walls

Natasha Moore ponders what 14th-century anchoress Julian of Norwich might teach us about holding onto hope in difficult times.

“All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Right, yeah. What do you have to be smoking to find that plausible? With the release of another calamitous IPCC report, the scenes unfolding in Kabul, neo-Nazis in our own backyard, Delta swamping efforts to contain it both here and abroad, and ever more agonistic clashes on social media, it’s glaringly obvious that all shall not be well.

The woman who wrote those words, Julian of Norwich, could be called the patron saint of lockdown. In 1373, at the age of 30, she chose the life of an anchoress – meaning she spent the following decades (perhaps as long as 60 years) walled up in a small cell attached to St Julian’s Church in Norwich, in the east of England.

No outdoor exercise or recreation, no 5km radius (try 9 square metres), no singles bubble (though she’s often depicted with a cat). She was not isolated, though, from the problems of others. The world came to her in the form of the locals, who sought counsel and comfort at her window. And, like other contemplatives down the ages, she came to the world by prayer.

We don’t know Julian’s real name, but her book The Revelations of Divine Love is the oldest surviving book in English written by a woman. What she was smoking, in other words, was the love of the God she spent most of her life in prayer to.

As the world got smaller – these four walls – and also impossibly big and chaotic, it was Julian’s experience of the presence of a God whose love is bigger still that somehow enabled her to say: All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.