The Black Plague, COVID-19, and Julian of Norwich

What do these three things have in common? Plenty! Julian was a Roman Catholic born about 1343 CE and lived during a time of upheaval. The people of Europe were full of anxiety due to the Black Plague, the Hundred Years’ War, and a papal schism. They were yearning for a personal, experiential faith that spawned a growth in Christian mysticism. Not her actual name (which remains a mystery), she is known as Julian because she lived (as a recluse) at St. Julian’s Church in Norwich, England. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on the parallels with our world today.

At the age of thirty she became gravely ill soon after Easter. A week later her parish priest visited her, bringing her a crucifix. “Look at it, and be strong,” he said as he gave her last rites. Although she was very weak, she was able to look at the figure of Jesus on the cross, receiving insight into his suffering and love for us. Later she described how the room seemed to go dark as she felt she was about to die, but no longer felt any pain. Over the next twelve hours she saw wonderful things in her mind, as clearly as if they were real. She soon got well and wrote about her fifteen visions (shewings) in what is now called Revelation of Divine Love.

“God is our clothing, that wraps, clasps and encloses us so as to never leave us.”

The Hazelnut

In one of her visions, Julian saw something very small, about the size of a hazelnut laying in the palm of her hand. “What can this be?” she asked. “It is all that is made,” was the answer. Julian worried: because it is so small, might not the hazelnut – a synecdoche of all creation – disappear or be obliterated? Again came the reassuring answer: “It lasts and ever shall last because God loves it” (Julian 292). This is representative of all God has made. She offers three main points in this vision: God made it. God loveth it. God keepeth it.

Years ago I knew an Episcopal priest who was a lover of creation care. He would carry hazelnuts in his pockets and hand them out to people, reminding them that they were children of God, loved beyond measure or size. How might putting something of God’s creation in your pocket to keep as a reminder be helpful to you in this day and time? When you have felt “small” as part of all God’s creation? How can your “smallness” be seen as wholeness and loved?

“All manner of things shall be well.”

Perhaps this is the line that Julian is most remembered. She reports Jesus telling her, “I may take all things well; I can make all things well, and I will make all things well; and you shall see for yourself that all manner of things shall be well.”

Things to Do

Centering Prayer: Take twenty minutes for prayer using a hazelnut in the closed palm of your hand or think of the phrase, “All shall be well.” With this sacred phrase or hazelnut as an object (or any phrase or object), sit comfortably and with your eyes closed. Settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word (or object) as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within. When distracted by your thoughts (including body sensations, feelings, images, and reflections), return ever-so-gently to the sacred word. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes. (You may want to set a soft timer on your cell phone in advance.) Finish with the Lord’s Prayer.

Make a Möbius Strip: Also called the twisted cylinder, this is a one-sided non-orientable surface with no limited boundaries that looks like an infinite loop. It is easily made by cutting a close band into a single strip, give one of the two ends thus produced a half twist, and then reattaching the two ends. This gives the appearance of a never-ending circle that has an inner and outer side. Up becomes down, in becomes out. Write Julian’s quote “All shall be well and all shall be well” on a slip of paper and turn it into a Mobius strip, reminding us that God’s love never ends and is always with us.

Create a Clothespin Crucifix: Obtain some wooden clothespins (those with metal pins in them). Remove the pins and assemble all the half-pieces into a cross, then place a figure on top of it. You can make the cross beams as wide or narrow as you want. You can add more detail if you want to Jesus’ body: a cloth over his torso, a halo behind his head, etc. or it can be left plain. (This is something I recall making many years ago as a church school project. I still have mine!)

When Julian was six years old, Norwich was visited by the pestilence known as the Black Death for the first time. Julian herself survived, but within a year three quarters of the population of the city was dead. It persisted for three years. The city itself came to a standstill. During our time of trial today facing COVID-19 with many of us isolated from family and friends, all ages can find some time away from the news, our screens, and devices. Find some quiet time to center yourself in the presence of God. This pandemic may very well be our “Black Plague;” we can wonder (and pray) that those among us will have visions from God that will provide us with sustenance and healing for living into the future. Like Mr. Roger’s is well known to say, “Look to the helpers.” Our helpers are in God too.

“God loved us before God made us; and God’s love has never diminished and never shall.”

These ideas come from my recent book, Faithful Celebrations: Making Time for God with the Saints (Church Publishing, 2019). You’ll find more crafts, prayers, recipes (hazelnut cookies!), and step-by-step directions for the above activities within the book as well as ideas to celebrate other saints: Absalom Jones, Patrick, Joan of Arc, Enmegahbowh, and Nicholas with your family. If you’ve used any of my books in this series, please write a review on Amazon or GoodReads. Thanks in advance!

UPDATE 3/20/2020: Robert Owens Scott of Trinity Church Wall Street offers this great mediation on Julian, All Shall Be Well. No, Really.

Image: The copyright on the image of the stained glass window from St. Julian’s in Norwich, England is owned by Evelyn Simak and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons.

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