An anchoress was a woman vowed to chastity and stability of abode. She was enclosed in an anchorhold for life. There was no release from her cell until death, on pain of excommunication. The object of her life was contemplation, the unceasing concentration upon God in prayer.
In the fourteenth century, a woman named Julian was living the solitary life of an anchoress. Her cell, adjoining the parish Church of St Julian in Norwich, England, is estimated to have been only one hundred square feet It had three windows. A church window was for viewing the sacrament and taking communion. The house window was to be used by the anchoress and her servants in the course of their daily lives. (Julian had two servants, Sarah and Alice, who saw to her needs.) The parlor window looked outside and through it the anchoress communicated with the world. Through it she confessed to her priest, spoke to visitors, and dealt with business matters. All three windows were to be kept closed when not in use.
In her anchorhold, Julian lived and prayed, ate her meals and slept, worked at some simple task such as needlework, meditated on her revelations, wrote her book, and counseled people through her window. She spent twenty, thirty, perhaps forty years there, never going out.
Few factual details are known about Julian, apart from what she chose to tell us, and what can be deduced from the evidence furnished in her book, Revelations of Divine Love. We do not know where she was born, who her family members were, what her religious history was, or when she died.
Probably was born in Norwich in 1342, has been surmised that she lived to about eighty years. Her grave is without trace. We don’t even know her name, for it is generally assumed that she took the name Julian from the little church to which her cell was attached, a church then some four hundred years old.
She may have been from a merchant family, and probably attended school at the Benedictine convent at Carrow within a mile of her later anchorage. This convent held the benefice of St. Julian’s Church and would have had a voice in who lived in its anchorhold. Therefore, it is almost certain that she had dealings with the convent, although there is no evidence that she was a professed religious (one bound by vows).
A laywoman, as well as a nun, could choose the profession of anchoress. Julian would have gained a certain amount of freedom by becoming an anchoress: She could practice an independence in her religious life. The anchorhold was a spiritual retreat where Julian could pursue personal holiness. She could interpret religious ideas and practices in her own ways.
The anchorhold also was a refuge from the expectations of her family and society to marry and bear children. She was freed from family responsibilities to lead her own life.
To become a recluse was to gain enormous status. She would have been regarded as a future saint
Julian lived her solitary life encamped in the heart of the community: enclosed and yet exposed, hidden and yet visible. She prayed for others and interceded for them before God. She was available to offer care and counsel to those who came to her. This fact is documented by Margery Kempe, a pious woman of the fourteenth century, in her autobiography, The Book. She tells of visiting Dame Julian, who was well known to be an expert in spiritual guidance.
Life in the Anchorhold
Julian’s daily routine was probably modeled after the guidance given in the Ancrene Rywle, a popular guide book for anchoresses. It was suggested that the anchoress should begin the day with prayer by saying these words upon awakening and when getting dressed: “Jesus Christ Son of the living God, have mercy on us thou who didst deign to be born of a virgin, have mercy on us.”
Her schedule of prayer included these seven set times daily:
Matins – sometime after midnight
Lauds – just before dawn
Prime – soon after Lads, about 6 a.m.
Terce – about 9 a.m.
Sext – at noon
None – at 3 p.m.
Vespers – in early evening
Compline – at bedtime
Warnings were given so that her heart would not be drawn outward. Her life was to be lived within the cell. When her parlor window was open, a curtain hid the outsider from visual contact with the anchoress.Other rules from the Ancrene Rywle covered various subjects of interest to the anchoress. Her clothing was to be black or white, plain, warm, and well made. Her shoes should be soft, roomy, and warm in winter. She was not to wear a ring or brooch or striped girdle or gloves. A gown belted at the waist was advised for sleeping.
Therefore, my dear sisters, be as little fond of your windows as possible. Let them be small, those of the parlor smallest and narrowest. Have curtains made of two kinds of cloth, a black ground with a white cross showing both inside and outside…
Don’t peep out of your window. Keep your eyes at home…
She was not to send or receive letters. No animal was to be kept except a cat, which could go out and in unattended. She was warned against the easy temptation of becoming the town gossip. Many people would come to her window to seek counsel. She could not betray these confidences.
To help the anchoress avoid any sexual temptation, her conversation with members of the opposite sex was to be severely restricted. This advice was given:
If any man requests to see you, ask him what good might come of it; for I see many evils in it, and no good; and if he insists immoderately, believe him the less; and if any one becometh so mad and unreasonable that he puts forth his hand toward the window cloth, shut the window quickly and leave him.
Julian’s Experience of Christ
Through extremes of physical privation and endless spiritual exercise, a mystic was often blessed by the experience of direct communication with God. Julian’s encounter with God came through sixteen “showings” or “revelations” on May 13, 1373.
She had been ill. When her strength was failing, a priest, called to her bedside to administer the rites of the church, held up the crucifix before her face. She suddenly felt all pain cease, and it came to her mind to desire the wound of compassion for our Lord’s sufferings:
And at this, suddenly I saw the red blood trickling down from under the crown, all hot, flowing freely and copiously, a living stream, just as it seemed to me that it was at the time when the crown of thorns was thrust down upon his blessed head. Just so did he, both God and man, suffer for me.
(Revelations of Divine Love)
Henceforward the sixteen showings succeeded one another all through the day. In the showings, Julian was taught lessons concerning God’s love. The meaning of the revelations was love:
So I was taught that love is our Lord’s meaning. And I saw very certainly in this and in everything that before God made us he loved us, which love was never abated and never will be. And in this love he has done all his works, and in this love he has made all things profitable to us, and in this love our life is everlasting.
(Revelations of Divine Love)
Julian’s theology was one of hope and optimism, a hope is based on the goodness, love, and reliability of God. This is beautifully expressed by her through the surprising theme of the “Motherhood” of God. She wrote that we are to trust in God’s motherly love.
Julian saw Christ as giving birth: He brought us to birth in the first place by giving us life, by the act of creation. In Christ we are bom again. Christ is our Mother in the sense of having done everything that is necessary for our physical as well as our spiritual life. Jesus as Mother nourishes us by giving his own Body and Blood for our spiritual sustenance. The image includes the picture of Jesus protecting the child from harm, teaching, guiding, chastening, comforting, forgiving, binding up hurts, and above all, loving the child.
Julian’s Courage to Speak
Julian was confident that her experience with God was real and should be told to the world. At a time when misogyny was pervasive and the tradition of female subordination was powerful, Julian had a strong belief that her voice was important. “But because I am a woman, ought I therefore to believe that I should not tell you of the goodness of God, when I saw at that same time that it is his will that it be known?” (Revelations of Divine Love)
Her book is the first known book to be written by a woman in English.