The following reflection has been provided by Martha Keller from Victoria BC. Martha was one of 100 people who participated in the recent virtual event with Matthew Wright, where he offered his heartful and profound insights, teaching, and practices on the theme of “Julian of Norwich…A Voice for Our Times.”
Thank you so much Martha, for sharing your experience, and Matthew for guiding the event so beautifully!
In August, with a global pandemic in full swing, I signed in to an online Zoom retreat sponsored by The Contemplative Society. I felt a certain amount of trepidation. It was titled, “Julian of Norwich…A Voice for Our Times”. I knew little of the Christian mystic, Julian, and had never attended a virtual retreat. Needless to say, I felt a little out of my depth. One by one, others from as far away as Australia joined the Zoom gallery of attendees, some perhaps feeling apprehensive as I did.
Soon Matthew Wright, the retreat leader, appeared and filled the screen with his generous spirit of grace and good will. He welcomed us to the retreat against an image of the church in Norwich where Julian spent much of her life. I knew he was a gifted teacher and spiritual leader and suddenly felt I was in a sacred space. As he led our first silent meditation, doubts about a Zoom retreat began to dissolve.
But I still wondered about spending 3 days with a Christian mystic I had barely heard of. Who was she, and why was she being lauded as “a voice for our time”? Matthew helped us understand: Julian was a woman who lived through waves of the plague that swept through Europe in the 1300’s. As many as half the inhabitants of her own town of Norwich died. At the age of 30, she had her own health crisis. Near death, she had a series of revelations, or “showings”, that fueled her lifelong passion to share her mystical vision and minister to the spiritual needs of others.
In mid-life, she became an anchorite, voluntarily secluding herself in an “anchorhold”, a sealed cell, attached to the local church. She lived as an anchoress for the rest of her life, meditating, praying, writing, and giving spiritual counsel to townspeople through a window in her cell. It was in this period of her life that she found the greatest sense of joy and freedom.
Oh!…I was beginning to see why Julian might have something to say to us as we sheltered-in-place during our own pandemic. Peering out from the Zoom gallery, we appeared to be in cells of our own, isolated from one another, but still connecting through a window into the retreat community of around 100 participants.
What followed were three days of Matthew’s deeply engaging teaching about Julian’s words, along with periods of silent meditation and restful Taize music. I cannot do justice to this special time in a blog post, but here are some of the words and thoughts that offer spiritual sustenance for the days ahead:
- Essentially, Julian reset the dial from a wrathful, punitive God she had known as a child, to one of Divine Love– a love that was expansive, generous, and endless. All the “fruits of the spirit” flowed from this Source.
- She spoke of the “falls” that we all suffer in life as “behovely”, an archaic term meaning “necessary or advantageous”. Through the parable of the Lord and the Servant, she illustrated that faults and failure can be helpful for greater connection and spiritual deepening.
- She counseled that life’s repeating cycle of “weal” and “woe”, joy and pain, is education for the soul, a way of learning to trust a Divine Love that is deeper than everything. We were challenged with the question: How would your life be different if you learned to trust the Source who called you into being?
Matthew reminded us that the contemplative Prayer of the Heart practice is essential for cultivating the “fruits of the spirit” — hope, faith, love, kindness, compassion, and trust. It is what allows us to work on ourselves so we can serve from within and engage with healing in the world. As Julian wrote, “Prayer soothes the soul and shapes us for grace”.
In this retreat Matthew opened a path forward for us with a comforting and hopeful message:
“Julian brings us back to trust, coherence, love, and meaning in a bewildering time.”
Gratitude to Matthew Wright for his exquisite blend of scholarly teaching and heart wisdom. And gratitude to The Contemplative Society for trusting that even Zoom could create a sacred retreat space!