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A counselling centre ahead of its time

· Julian of Norwich recounted by Ferdinando Cancelli ·

For anyone who visits the medieval town of Norwich in the south-east region of England known as East Anglia, not far from the North Sea coast, the place is certainly not immediately visible. No tourist map indicates it and ordinary guide books devote to it at the most one line at the bottom of the page.

We arrive on foot, setting out from the magnificent cathedral which dominates the centre of the town. It takes about 20 minutes to cross a modern and not very attractive suburb, very different from the residential districts to which tourists in England are quickly becoming accustomed.

Julian and her book “The Revelations of Divine Love”

Nonetheless this place, although modest and rebuilt after the destructions of the Reformation first, and then of the last World War, is still today visited by many. What do today’s tourists seek, pausing in front of a small window of what seems to be a little church in King Street?

In all likelihood, even if sometimes unbeknown to them, they are seeking what the pilgrims who came from far and wide were seeking 600 years ago: to be listened to by a simple, courageous woman, a hermit and yet open to the world, just like the small window which made her discreetly accessible.

We know extremely little about Julian of Norwich and we don’t even know her real name. She was born perhaps in 1342, she died perhaps in 1429 and she lived for many years as a hermit in a cell annexed to the Church of St Julian in the environs of Norwich. She wrote a book in the English of her time that was so widely disseminated and read in the following centuries in the United Kingdom that it accompanied one of the nurses who made history, Florence Nightingale, when she was treating the wounded of the Crimean War.

Sheila Upjohn, a modern biographer of Julian of Norwich, emphasizes that in her time Julian’s Norwich was far from being of secondary importance. It became England’s second city because of its successful farming and wool trade and had a population of about 10,000.

It would therefore be erroneous to think of Julian – Upjohn writes further – as a figure relegated to the contemplative peace of an ideal medieval countryside: her cell is to be imagined rather as a counselling centre, almost a consulting room ante litteram [ahead of its time] in one of our modern cities.

Pilgrims, women on their own, men wounded in mind and in body, merchants in difficulty, religious: where did Julian find the strength to listen to and advise them all? Her strength, according to the testimony of Margery Kempe who met her in 1413 and who left an account of that meeting which was discovered in the 1930s, drew it from three windows. The first opened on to the church and from this window she could hear Mass and receive the sacraments. The second window connected her with an internal room and through it she probably received food for her physical sustenance; and the third window was the very one which enabled her to give the world her support.

Epidemics of plague infections of livestock and famines (the harvest in 1369 was the worst in 50 years) on several occasions struck the region of Norwich at that time, and yet Julian kept a vision full of hope.

On 8 May 1373, at death’s door because of a mysterious affliction from which equally mysteriously she recovered, Julian had the visions that strengthened her in her faith and are the basis of her book, The Revelations of Divine Love, which today has been translated into many languages. She had a realistic vision of Christ’s Passion full of physical details of Our Lord’s suffering. She saw with certainty God who “creates, loves and heals” his creatures with fatherly and, something very modern for the time, motherly love. She understood that here on earth “we seek rest in things so insignificant that they will never be able to give it to us” and that man and God are so closely bound to each other that they make the understanding of one excluding the other impossible. Her vision, despite the coloratura of her time, was serene: the only anger we can find in God, Julian wrote, is a projection of our own, since in him there is only love.

It has been suggested that Julian may have been a widow whose children had died, someone who received an education from the women Benedictines of the area at the Monastery of Carrow; others have said that she was helped in writing her book because she was completely illiterate. Her relics have never been found, no tomb holds her body. It may be this impalpability which makes Julian of Norwich so close to us; “in spiritual terms she is everywhere”, Sheila Upjohn wrote.

She was a simple and very profound woman who appeared at a small window in the outskirts of town to give us her secret.

Born in Turin in 1969, after studying classics Ferdinando Cancelli hesitated between literature, history and medicine. Having become a doctor he obtained a post-graduate diploma in palliative medicine at the Claude Bernard University in Lyons, France, and a specialization in bioethics at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart. Having worked for a period as Head of the Clinic at the Hôpital de Bellerive, Geneva, he exercised his profession as a palliative physician in Turin for the non profit organization f.a.r.o. Married to Clara since 1997, he shared with her the process of becoming a secular oblate of Mater Ecclesiae Abbey on the Island of San Giulio and is deeply indebted to his monastic family.

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