"Let us hold fast"-A Sermon for St. Julian's Feast Day
This morning I am mainly just going to tell a story…a story of a pilgrimage…followed by what I hope is a fairly simple point…that might in some way root our life together as St. Julian’s…in Julian…in the life Julian lived and the message of God’s endless love that her writings have so graciously given to the world.
So, when St. Julian’s, meaning our church, was about 2 years old and my first daughter Amelia was about 18 months old…her little sister Mary Ellen still unborn, still just a hope and dream that Ashley and I shared…the three of us made a pilgrimage to Julian’s shrine in Norwich, England. We were already making the trip over the proverbial pond, in the summertime, to visit Ashley’s sister who lives in York...Old York, not New York…and, while there, we, again, planned a pilgrimage, just the three of us, to Norwich while in country.
So, toward the end of the trip we said our goodbye’s to our English family and made our way south to what was the second city in England during Julian’s days…it was, in those days, England’s primary port, second in importance and size only to London. And, what we found upon arrival, if no longer the second largest city in England, was a large-ish town that remains vibrant and fully alive. It boasts the most churches for any city in England of its size and is home to an excellent university and a thriving cultural, arts, and shopping scene. The cathedral that sits in the city center is among the loveliest in that country which is so full of lovely cathedrals. But that was not the epicenter of our family pilgrimage; instead, it was, of course, St. Julian’s Church…the church for which our Patron Saint is named. We don’t know her given name, she became known as Julian to history for the church in which she literally lived, in a small room or cell attached to the side of the church, which she never left for the second half of her life…about 30 years.
The day we arrived it was evening, so we saved our visit to St. Julian’s for the following morning and went straight to the B&B we had booked. We slept like kids on Christmas Eve, meaning very little, as we were all so filled with anticipation for the following days adventure…our final walk to see where our sweet Julian lived and loved and wrote and prayed. The next morning, we ate breakfast early and then went, just the three of us, into a little courtyard that was a part of our lodging to say Morning Prayer together, using the Book of Common Prayer we traveled with. So, before beginning our walk to Julian’s shrine, we invited God to join us on our journey and prayed that Jesus, our True Mother, to borrow a line from Julian, would lovingly prepare our hearts and minds for the experience that lay just ahead…and then we began.
We felt like, as pilgrims of old, that we needed to make our journey on foot…and noted on the map that it would be a real walk…several miles from our lodging…and that felt right and good. So, we set out and began to walk…and walk…first through the city center…a colorful market was just coming alive…and shops…high end boutiques and mom and pop types…were beginning to open their doors. We walked past the aforementioned cathedral, the Norwich Castle, fancy homes, museums, and quite a few bistros and bakeries with tempting smells beginning to waft from their kitchens. It was really all lovely…both a modern and ancient city…the two complementing each other perfectly…21stcentury England at its finest…just like a story book…just like you might imagine.
And we walked…through all of that…and things began to change. Well-kept ancient buildings and modern boutiques and Georgian flats…began to be replaced by concrete apartment buildings…a little more Soviet styled than English. Open air, flower filled markets became worn out convenient stores…trash started showing up on the sidewalks…weeds growing through cracks in the pavement. Giddy tourists and summer vacationers were replaced by people clad in mute colors hustling off to work with serious looks on their faces. The churches, though still dappling the streets, looked more care-worn and functional than the architectural delights of those back in the center of town. It all began to look a little more everyday…a little more like real-life…than a story book…a little grey and intimidating.
I hoped we would arrive soon…and more or less we did…but if not paying attention we would have easily missed our final turn down St. Julian Lane. There were no shiny signs or historical markers saying this way to Julian’s shrine. Just an ordinary street sign…like on every other corner we passed. But we found it…made the turn and walked another half a block and there it was. St. Julian’s Church…a very simple and fairly small, brown stone church…utterly unadorned…again…with little to no mention…of our sweet Julian who lived and loved and wrote and prayed in that very place…some seven centuries ago.
The church was entirely empty and, believe it or not, smaller than our own St. Julian’s. And, though it was not Sunday, I imagine far fewer people actually worship there than at our St. Julian’s. We decided we wanted to explore the outside of the church before going into the nave and then into Julian’s cell…her shrine…the single room she shared with a cat and, again, never left for the second half of her life. So, we went to the gate that led to the church yard…and found it locked. We peered over to see a small and fairly unadorned church yard by English standards…but still a little garden oasis in what had become a neighborhood that felt more and more like a concrete jungle.
Next to the church is a small retreat and study center dedicated to Julian…so we went there next to see if someone could let us in the gate of the church yard. The study center was also locked…but we were not going to give up that easily…we had traveled quite a way to be there…literally trains, planes and automobiles…and our own two feet…so we knocked. And, after a few moments the door was opened by elderly lady, an Anglican nun, who greeted us warmly. We explained who we were and told her we had come from the distant and wild land known as Texas, from St. Julian of Norwich Episcopal Church in the Austin area…of all places…which blew her away. She certainly had not heard of our budding church plant in Williamson County and was very interested to hear about our Julian inspired story and community…for she had given much of her life telling her own Julian inspired story to her own people. She was the lone, aging keeper of Julian’s shrine.
So, after chatting a bit, we asked if she could let us in the garden…and she paused…a sort of sorrowful look came over her face. She said yes…she would be happy to…and apologized that it was locked. She said that young people from the neighborhood would jump the garden walls at night to use drugs and that they often found used needles in the yard. The gate was locked not to keep people out…but keep people safe from accidently stepping on a needle, which could lead to being stabbed or worse. So, she gave us the key…but asked if we would keep a watchful eye on Amelia…so she did not accidentally run into one of those needles. We did enter the garden and did our best to keep an eye on Amelia…as her 18-month-old self…loved nothing more than to run and climb and explore.
The picture on the screen is of me knocking on Julian’s window from the church yard…just like the people of her own day would do…whether prince our pauper…lord or peasant…bishop or impoverished friar. The tradition is that Julian greeted her visitors at that window, or one somewhat like it, to serve each and all with kindness and wise council and prayer. She was known as a holy woman in her own day and was sought out for her spiritual wisdom by many…each visitor listened to and loved…each person who came to her window. The church garden was holy ground that held within it both the brokenness of the world that the needles reminded us of and, at the very same time, was an Eden like space for rest and peace…like Jesus…the one both crucified and raised.
After quite a bit of time in the garden, we ventured, at the last, into the church, which was plainly adorned, as simple and monochromatic on the inside as on the out. There was just a small plaque on the door in the church that led to Julian’s one room home…that read “Mother Julian’s Cell”. And we were the only people there for the entire time we walked the space and said our prayers and sat in contemplation…and watched Amelia run up and down the aisles and make castles from the small plastic votives left for pilgrims like us to light…and we were there hours…not minutes.
But don’t get me wrong…like the church garden the church itself and Julian’s shrine were holy ground…a liminal space…one of those places in the world were the natural and supernatural are almost indistinguishable. The peace of God which passes all understanding was in the very midst of that simple church, which sits in the very center of the real-life, care-worn world that we live in…a world that holds within it…both beauty and ugliness…connection and isolation…love and hate…care-giving and violence…celebration and sadness. I can’t wait to be there again with all of you some day.
And as I sat there lost in thought…among those I loved the very most in the world in that moment…my beloved wife and daughter…and most of all the God who loves me entirely and forever…the God I have yoked my life to…I settled on this thought…this is exactly where Julian would be…not on High Street…not next door to the Harrod’s outlet…not in a fancy Georgian flat…not even in the cathedral surrounded by all the pomp and circumstance that the church can muster…but right there in the real-life, care-worn world…full of both beauty and ugliness…connection and isolation…love and hate…care-giving and violence…celebration and sadness…all that makes up the world we really live in…where people shoot up to escape boredom and meaninglessness…where people work often just to makes ends meet…but, also, where people lean on each other…and celebrate the goodness in life together…find all sorts of amazing ways to remind each other that we belong to both God and one another.
You see, the Jesus that Julian saw in her visions and describes in her writings is not the ascendant Jesus…sitting at the right hand of God…clothed in celestial brightness…enthroned as a king. She saw a Jesus who was bloodied and broken, as he took on all the sin and pain in our world…even mine…even yours. She saw a suffering servant who knows our own suffering and is entirely with us in it…when we need him the very most. Julian writes, “If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love.” It is God, the great lover of our souls, who both holds us when we suffer and who lifts us up to a new day.
And, I believe this who we are to be as well, our own incarnation of Julian’s God-given life and visions that takes shape in this community…that is a community of people who name life for what it is, beautiful and broken…and who don’t ignore either. A community that holds each other when we suffer and lifts each other up to a new day, as we seek, like Julian, to welcome with God’s endless love, not at our window but into our life, all who God has entrusted into our care…within this church and well beyond. Trusting, faith-ing, believing that in doing so together…that God’s love, which sits at the very center of our life, whether suffering or celebrating…that God’s endless love…will…for us and for all…in the fullness of time...make all things well. Amen.