She decides to spend her last day walking through the narrow streets of her city, slowly and deliberately. Each foot in a simple leather slipper, one after the other through dirt and mud, her gown becoming heavier with almost every step. She knows these streets inside out because they’ve kept her company since she was born: the pile-up of human life, the mush of activity, the shouts, the mud, the pigs; the smell of rotting food and shit that still clings to starched white linens hanging from upstairs windows. Several chickens scatter as she walks by the midden. [God wishes us to know that he safely protects us in both joy and sorrow.] She stares back at two fat old men outside an inn, the kind of men who gnaw gristle, and belch. She can’t remember now why she used to avert her gaze. [I was filled with eternal certainty, strongly anchored and without any fear.] By the evening, the cream hem of her dress will be dark brown with Norwich.
The plague crept through the city when she was a very young girl and for a time Norwich was quiet and still. Bells tolled for the dead and she was kept indoors, day in, day out, squinting from the upstairs window at the street below. A body was carried past on a stretcher. A stray dog picked at food scraps and trotted on, chewing. Months later, the carts piled high with bodies would trundle by. Inside, Julian’s mother burned sage and it drifted through the house, cloying their noses and eyes. Julian stood on her bed, tried to get her face closer to the window.
But today it is different. The putrid smells and the noise of the street can enter her body like music. [A supreme spiritual pleasure in my soul.] Norwich wraps around her like a cloak and when she stands on the bank by the river the wind alights under her linen wimple, bringing with it the scent of onion weed and river mud. Bobbing in the shallows, a duck preens underneath its wings. Goodbye river, Julian murmurs. The church is a stone’s throw from the Wendsum but her cell will face away from the water, toward the north.
I have read that Julian only just exists on the historical record, so people extrapolate from her two untitled theological writings—The Short Text and The Long Text—to draw conclusions about her life. They are two different versions of the same work, the Long being a revised version of the Short. Her writing is also sometimes titled after its subject matter, Revelations of Divine Love. Hers are the earliest works we can conclusively say were written by a woman in English.
Untethered to literal facts, Julian’s life still floats freely. She was born in 1342. She was born in 1343. She was taught by nuns. Girls weren’t educated. She was a mother. Her children died in the plague. She never had children. She was named for the church where she lived. Many women were called Julian in fourteenth-century England, actually.
Untethered to literal facts, my imagination wanders easily.
Julian’s first death was her rebirth. She died when she was [thirty and a half]. [I asked for this sickness in my youth, to have it when I was thirty years old.] It wasn’t an outbreak of the plague this time, but in the darkened bedroom she once shared with her mother, decay stole around her body like smoke. Pudgy demonic hands stroked her flushed face. Join us, they murmured into her hair. [My mother, who was standing with others watching me, lifted her hand up to my face to close my eyes, for she thought I was already dead.]
When the priest arrived to administer the last rites, he ducked through the doorway and paused because the room was very dim. Julian lay still in the bed and as he approached, he started chanting, waving the cross over her sweating face. The room darkened even further. The fire in the hearth turned black and only [an ordinary household light remained] emanating from the Priest’s cross.
And then: Christ on the cross wept blood onto her bed, fresh and vivid like herring scales and rust. [These revelations were shown to a simple, uneducated creature in the year of our Lord, 1373, on the eighth day of May.] At this, Julian’s suffering was hewn from her body. She arose.
Her second death would be her symbolic death. She died when she was 31. In St Julian’s church, she [the one-to-be-enclosed] rested in the Western corner. The clerks chanted [pray for her], while the choir replied [pray for her], resounding under the eaves. The priest placed a cross upon her body and paced around her three times, sprinkling holy water as he walked. After she was raised up, she trod barefoot down the aisle toward the altar, every step leading her further from earthly concerns, slowly, deliberately. Goodbye wind. Goodbye river. The leather slippers now belonged to a girl she’d met sitting in some hay outside her father’s workshop. Two burning candles were placed in Julian’s hands because [she should burn with love for God].
Enter into thy chamber, shut thy doors upon thee, until the indignation pass away, said the priest, and Julian kept her eyes shut. Her tears would not arrive, neither blood nor salt and water. She placed the candles in the altar.
Finally, Julian [the deceased] was led to her last rest. She stepped across the threshold and lay down in the shallow rectangle etched into her cell’s stone floor. She felt the damp dirt at her back. [Here shall be my repose for ever and ever; here shall I dwell for I have chosen it.] The priest cast holy water around the grave and sprinkled dust onto the body prone at his feet. He said in obedience see out the remainder of your life before touching a hand to Julian’s still closed eyes. He stepped out. The heavy wooden door swung shut behind him. Julian will barely hear the local masons when they start bricking over the cell. They will bring with them a reverent and unusual quietness, unused to working inside a church.
Inside her cell, Julian exhaled. Slowly the smell of candle smoke left her nostrils. She opened her eyes and looked at the ceiling.
Her third death would be her earthly death. Julian died when she was 77. Julian lived until her seventies.
Sometimes, I imagine what it would be like to become an anchoress and how truly impossible it feels to remove yourself from a world that hammers on your door in the middle of the night. What sickness did I ask for in my youth? I’m thirty-four and eight months old and if it were me, I would begin my last day by sitting down on the sofa and retrieving my phone from my pocket with a small deliberate flourish. In a matter of minutes all my apps would be gone: Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook.
I would then walk the streets of Wellington giving a single solemn nod to everything and everyone I passed: goodbye sea, goodbye pigeons. Finally, in the afternoon I would drive to Bunnings Lyall Bay to buy a thick sheet of plywood and a hammer. Goodbye shops. Goodbye surfers.
Once I got it home, I would nail the wood across the inside of my bedroom door, hitting each nail deliberately and slowly, one at a time. I would lie down on my bed and close my eyes. I would exhale.
Bragg, Melvyn. “Margery Kempe and English Mysticism.” June 2, 2016. In In Our Time, produced by Simon Tillotson. Podcast. MP3 audio, 45:00. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07cyfkg.
“Rite for the enclosing of an anchorite.” In Hermits and Anchorites in England, 1200-1550. Translated by E.A. Jones, 36–39. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019.
Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Translated by Elizabeth Spearing. London: Penguin Classics, 1998.