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Julian of Norwich

A two-Christmas year?

Newsletter: November 2022

Greetings again and I write as particularly heavy wind and rain smashes at my window; as a morally-dubious World Cup in Qatar gets underway; as an illegal invasion of Ukraine continues to damage many millions of lives across the world, and as here in the UK, many face uncertainty over health care and money.

Why start with all that? Because I also write fresh from an evening in the beautiful village of Alfriston, where I spoke about Julian of Norwich, the 14th century cell-dweller, most famous for her line – you know what’s coming – ‘All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.’

So what does it mean, given my first paragraph? That question is the real reason for my novel about her, The Secret Testament of Julian, in which I put her words to work in the life beyond her and in her life within. Is this mere fridge-magnet spirituality, swivel-eyed positivity – or is there something more to it?

I was fascinated in the novel to bring Julian and John Ball together. Do you know John Ball? He was the radical priest who led the Peasant’s Revolt, the first organised political protest in English history, in 1380. It was the third poll tax rise in four years, to pay for meaningless wars and court excess, and had brought the poorest to their knees, and to starvation.

But the inspiration for this uprising was neither Karl Marx nor workers’ rights. No, the inspiration was the last place on earth you’d imagine to be political – the Garden of Eden. ‘When Adam dug and Eve she span, who was then the Gentleman?’ asked Ball. There were no hierarchies at the beginning, he said, no one lording it over another. That wasn’t God’s will. So why are there hierarchies now?

What could they do but protest? Order – the original order – needed restoring.

Yet you could read Julian and have absolutely no sense of any social injustice. It was a blistering scar across the face of England; but you’d know nothing of it from Julian’s observations about life. John Ball wished to feed people’s bellies; Julian wished to feed their souls. When it came to ‘making well’, they had very different visions. (Which is why I had to have them meet in the novel.)

Julian offered nurturing words concerning the kindness of God. John Ball delivered thundering challenges to the abusive powers that be; and I suppose somehow we need to find our own place in these varied responses to the world and its woes. One of these voices will probably feel the better way for you, the more helpful way. But we probably need them both, don’t we?

My sense with these two was always that while they agreed about nothing, they also agreed about everything. They agreed that every human is equal and every human is worth something. These are radical thoughts in any century. And each of us takes our place somewhere in that story with the responses we make.

And with the season in mind, maybe Julian and John remind us that we need not one Christmas but two. We need a secret Christmas for our soul, away from others people’s claims on us; and a public Christmas of open-armed good cheer and generosity to the world, however we encounter it. I’m not sure just one Christmas is enough. It would be missing something.

Meanwhile, there is breaking news of a retreat I’m leading on these very themes at Sheldon next August. It’s called Wellbeing… when nothing is well. If you’re interested, find it by following the link.

And, of course, as previously gossiped, the new Abbot Peter is out. It’s called An Inconvenient Convent, and is a fireside murder mystery read in every sense of the word. The story starts with a fire… and burns with the embers of intrigue from there on.

And now, as the rain abates a little, (but the bruising wind gives nothing) I wish you, wherever you find it, strength for your days, delight along the way… and maybe two Christmases.

Simon x

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