Mary Beth Writes

I first encountered Julian of Norwich in a seminary class on mysticism when I was in my 20’s –back when I could read for hours without falling asleep. I had been raised in such a religiously patriarchal culture; that reading Julian for that first time was as if someone had turned a light on in the room. Here was a woman, 600 years before me, who when she turned inward found spirituality, endurance, and love.  What she wrote became some of the most poetical theology ever written; she wrote “Revelations of Divine Love” in 1393 - although she wouldn’t be read widely until the 20th century. 

Her language - let me say right here from this Unitarian Universalist pulpit - is squarely Trinitarian Christian, which of course, was the only language allowed in the 1300’s. But how she saw that and how she said it was surprisingly inviting and inclusive. When she examined her interior world what she described is similar to what contemplatives of all faiths and world-views have wondered and written.


So: Background history. Because if there was anything I learned in seminary it’s that the more you understand the context of a message the more you understand the message.

England (all of Europe) in the 1300’s - was an awful place and time. If you occasionally time-travel, don’t go there.

In 1300 the population of England was 5 million and the average life span of their royals - the only people for whom there are records - was 35 years.  By 1400 the population was 2 million and average life was 17 years.

The chaos started with climate change. Scientists think a volcanic eruption in New Zealand in 1315 changed the amount of sunlight hitting earth - meaning the next two growing seasons were too cold and rainy for crops to grow.  When one sees those charming photos of ancient stone towers in Europe – many of them were built as grain storage silos AFTER the famines of the 1300’s.  Tech meets needs.

There would be famines again in 1321, 1351, and 1369 - FOUR major famines. People died; people committed crimes, people abandoned their kids because they couldn’t feed them. The story of Hansel and Gretel comes from this century. 

Next - in 1348 Black Death plague swept through Europe; Black Death starts with a headache and fever. Then dark blood-filled pustules appear on and under the skin; they erupt internally and externally; death generally comes within one agonizing week.  Half of Europe died in 1348.

Plague reappeared two more times that century. 

You’ve probably heard of the Hundred Years War - battles between the English and French lasting from 1337 until well into the 1400’s.  More than a hundred years of exhausting, decimating war - 3.5 million soldiers and civilians died.

The only acceptable religion in England was an often brutal Catholicism. People who opposed it were harassed and sometimes executed. John Wycliffe and the Lollards – predecessors of Protestantism – were increasing in bustling cities like Norwich – to the point there was a site in Norwich called the “Lolly-Pit” where Lollards were tortured and sometimes killed. (Burned alive)

Priests preached sin, sin, and more sin - as if threatening people with eternal damnation would make them more moral. God was angry at you. Christ was the one who had suffered to make you grateful enough to live a pure life so if you weren’t pure – say you were poaching animals because your family was starving - you were sinning so – good luck in hell. 

In 1349, following the first outbreak of Black Death, 600 men – called Flagellants which Len warned me sounds too much like what you think you just heard – these were were desperate religious fanatics who believed they could appease God. These wandered England as beggars wearing only pants, hats with crosses sewn into them, and no shirts – not even in winter – while carrying whips to whip themselves with every step. This was the mindset of that century - the logical response to pain and loss is self-torture.

This was Julian’s world.

Yet – this is what she says, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,"

How did she get from loss and brutality to a spirituality of comfort, solace, wellness and love?

(She was six when Black Death first ravaged England. She may have played the then modern children’s game of “Ring around the Rosy.” -- “Ring around the rosy, pockets full of posies – posies were the black buboes that looked like flowers blooming across people’s skin … ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”

That kind of childhood.

1% of women were literate. That fact that she could read and write says either her family could afford to educate her - or she joined a convent as a novitiate.  If she didn’t become a nun then she was probably married by 15 - which would mean she was 19 when round #2 of plague hit England. She could have witnessed her husband and children die.  All we can be sure of is that this woman, like all English citizens at that time, suffered grief and loss.)

What we do know is that when she was 30, she became so ill that a priest administered last rites to her.

When the priest held the crucifix over her she opened her eyes, looked on the cross and fell into visions. Over the next few days she would have 16 visions that she called “Shewings of Divine Love”

After she recovered she went to the local church to become an anchoress –a person who chooses to live their entire life in single room built off the side of the church, the door was bricked shut. The room would have small windows; one for food and firewood. The other through which to talk with people who came to her with spiritual questions and requests for prayers.  There were very few books at that time; rarely even Bibles. She would have spent her life in prayer and contemplation.

If this seems extreme, let me invite you to consider what your life felt like in the year following great illness and/or great loss.

In 1373, the year she became sick, she first wrote down her 16 visions. By 20 years later she had added theological explications about what she thought her visions illustrated of the nature of spiritual life – her theology that evolved from her years of contemplation and prayer.

She made points we still struggle with.

One is the role of sin. Remember, this was in a world where God turned away from “sinful” humans; priests were the ones “qualified” to say what and wasn’t sinful; and rich people of the upper classes collaborated with the church to ensure the message remained – Repent, don’t think, don’t ask questions, don’t do anything differently than we allow.

Terrifying people by preaching sin has always been about power.  Still is.

Yet Julian wrote. “Sin is behovely.“ Behovely was a medieval word meaning “useful or necessary”. "Sin is useful.” It is not the blackness that dooms us to hell. Rather, the mistakes we make and the wrong paths we knowingly or unknowingly choose can propel us into our spiritual lives.

In Julian’s time (and often now) people pronounced everything human as tainted, sinful, and decaying – only the things of the spirit have value. To this she says no – We are made of human flesh and live in a world set in motion by the divine so this world AND our lives have holiness and value in them. 

To lift up ordinary life as holy because it can lead us into spirituality – this was a radical thing to say.

This positive value for human life is close to heresy in medieval Christianity – claiming that “sin” could be a path to God was courting disaster from powerful men who were burning Lollards for less.  It was probably a good thing that she was, in her own words – “A lowly woman”. No one important was paying attention to her.

In the Soul Matters packet for February there is a link to a video of a recited rap-poem by Ahlaam Lala Abduljalil. (ab-dul-ja-lil)  The name of the poem is “Open Hearted Beauty” and you can visit the five minute recitation on YouTube at the address on the bottom of your bulletin insert.

She recalls tutoring a little girl who said to her, “You are so beautiful Miss Lala.”  She explores what that statement means to her; what she wants to say back to that little girl.

Here are some of the lines her poem.

“”This beauty you see I wasn’t born with. There are battle scars embedded in my skin from the wars I have fought.

This light and beauty (that you see in me) takes looking into a broken mirror and seeing yourself whole. It takes nights of persistently finding every reason to complement your reflection after days of people pointing out your flaws.  It takes an entire childhood of bullying and teenaged years of misplaced trust

It takes lies and more lies and so many lies that you lie to yourself so much you forget your own truth.

Til the day you realize Allah made only one you.

It takes mistakes and watching your mother cry

It takes afternoons of walking around like someone stole your pride

It takes consequences and every second chance that changed its mind. It takes prayer, it takes crying, it takes foolishness and stubbornness and breaking and learning

It takes creating reasons to be alive.

This beauty is a war cry that finally claimed its worth.”

Julian contemplated love, joy, and compassion. She didn’t see suffering as punishment, but a means of being drawn into spirituality and love. She does not give us freezing men slogging through the snow – but a quiet life in a tiny home, at the beck and call of hurting people who would stop at her window to talk.

She wrote that this is our calling:  

“It is God’s will that we be occupied in knowing and loving, until the time come that we shall be full filled in heaven.”

Loving and knowing.  Loving and learning. That is her faith statement and is ours, too.

Heather Heyer was the woman killed last August in Charlottesville when a white-nationalist drove his car into a crowd.

Heather Heyer was Julian’s age – early 30’s.

This is what her friend said, who was with her that day:

"This is our city. We work here. We live here. And we didn't want neo-Nazis and racists to come into our city and think they could spread their hate. We wanted to let them know that we were about love... that's what Heather stood for. That's why she was out there, that's why we were out there.”

Heather worked as a paralegal for a law firm, assisting clients through the bankruptcy filing process.

A co-worker said Heyer didn’t take vacations and often ate lunch at her desk because she was dedicated to her clients. Clerical people who put themselves at your service. They are amazing, aren’t they!  One more “lowly woman” serving and loving the people in front of her.

The friend said Heyer worried the day before the protest that there would be gun violence at the Nazi rally.

"Heather said, I want to go so badly but I don't want to get shot. I don't want to die."

But then she went because she wanted to stand up for what she believed.

Heather’s mother, Susan Bro, talked about her daughter at the funeral. When Heather had first talked to her mom about white privilege, her mom says she responded, "Honey, I don't have white privilege. If there's white privilege out there, I'd sure like to have some of it."

But then, Heather dated a black man. Heather’s mom says she began then to notice the dirty looks they received when they went out. She realized they got slow service in restaurants and food with hair in it that had to be sent back.

Her mom said, at her funeral - "Heather said I was 'woke' because I understood white privilege,"

Her mother continued, "Heather didn't start the civil rights movement, and Heather didn't create it. But somehow her death touched a match to the kindling of a fire that was already laid. And that fire is - people want to make the world a better place. It seems her death has been a pivotal point to understand - you show up. You show up and be counted.”


Julian says love is where we came from, it the path on which we must choose to live, its where we are going. This is her faith statement. 

Heather Heyer was a Julian, 645 years later, showing us what a life about love look like. In her small job - not much fancier than a bricked-in room off a no-name church – in that job Heather helped others, doing her job with love.  The day she died wasn’t her first protest; she had been active in efforts to combat racism in her community.  She lived a life of serving, “woke” love.

There is so much to do, as ever. We have our lives to run. We have a new round of calls and emails to make to our reps. We have protests to attend, conversations to join, children to raise and comfort, friends to support, jobs to do, errands to check off the to-list. The regular round of our lives.

Through it all remember this from Julian: 

“The ground of mercy is love, and the working of mercy is persevering in love.

And all shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be exceeding well.”






What a lovely sermon--and right on target. I did my dissertation on her at the University of Iowa, many more years ago than I will confess. A women of miracles and deep humility, and my personal saint. I had left the church for the terrible things it has done in God's name, and she brought me back to a kind of spirituality that is clear-headed and life-affirming in all the ways you indicate. Anyone who reads her will find the same if they seek the spirit and love with which she shared her extraordinary revelations. Thank you!
Mary Beth's picture

Ah. How affirming and lovely to read this from you. Thanks you! (One of my kids has the middle name of Julian.)

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Love, Communicate, Show Up, & Love.

Our congregation is United Unitarian Universalist in Waukesha, WI. I only preach a couple times a year; it is the one of the hardest things it is my privilege to do. 

Sunday I preached to my congregation. The topic evolved as I was working on it during the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, and as we learned more about the life and gentleness of George Floyd.

Here is my sermon in two forms. 

This is the service on YouTube: 

Sanctuary: Safety or Invitation? 10/7/2018

Sanctuary is Our Claim that Hope Can Become Truth  

 Sanctuary is more than a concept. Sanctuary is our claim that the realm of God and goodness is here, now, in this time and place. Sanctuary isn’t the room where we wait for things to get better. Sanctuary is the space where we claim peace and justice, hope and love right now, among us.

In sanctuary - hope becomes truth.


A Path of Integrity - Sermon

 I recently preached on the topic of Integrity. I had this sermon completed before Christmas because I wanted to not stress about it. Good for me. 

The day after Christmas I realized it wasn't "right."  I wasn't sure what was wrong, but as I do when I'm looking for more than I have, I delved into quotes by people I think know what I'm trying to figure out.  James Baldwin amazed me.  

Then I watched the movies I reference in the sermon. 

Then I wrote the sermon that is here. 

Sermon - Servants of the Quest

The park ranger described the paths one could choose to hike across the island. I picked the that one he said was the easiest.  When he was done talking, I walked to get a drink at a building that was a distance away, behind some trees. When I came back out, I couldn’t quite see what was a path and what was the field, so I walked back to where some people seemed to be hanging out. However, they were photographers and they weren’t going anywhere.

And that is how I got myself separated from all other humans who were going to be hiking across Bonaventure Island that day.

Where & What is Beauty?

This was this last Sunday’s service in the United Unitarian Universalist congregation in my town.  This was entirely written by five of us - the “United We Writers.” I told friends that I would post this on my website. The service was wonderfully received.

"No Felons Here"

I preached this sermon at United Unitarian Universalist /23/2019.

The photo is of the sanctuary of Grace United Methodist in Chicago. It's the church in which Len and I met and then married. We happened to be driving by earlier this year on a Sunday morning. They were voting that day on what to do with their building. I took this single picture with my phone, capturing the affection we all feel for our friends and fellow-journeyers in our congregations. 


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