Thursday, October 13, 2016

Pilgrimage to Norwich: Finding A Little Room with Julian of Norwich

"He shewed a littil thing 
the quantitye of an hesil nutt...
What may this be? 
And it was generally answered thus: 
It is all that is made."

The Showings of Julian of Norwich

Shortly after moving to Maine, I was taking the kids for a walk and exploring our new town while the Reverend got some time alone in our new house. While going along the street towards the local businesses, a member of the church (one I had not yet met) slowed down and hailed us. Our conversation was brief but amounted to them interrogating me about where I was taking the kids. I said that we were just going for a walk. They looked me up and down. Okay, they said and drove away. Further down the road, another car stopped. This time it was a police car. They too also wanted to know what I was doing with the kids. I said we were going for a walk. Then they asked me who I was. I explained my relation to them and to the Reverend. The police officer took the kids aside and asked the same thing. Out stories matched (no surprise) but they still asked to speak with the Reverend. We called her and she confirmed that I was her partner and these were our kids. Although I did not get the full story, the officer apologized and explained that a member of the community had called and said a strange person was possibly kidnapping the new Pastor's children. When the officer felt sufficiently that I was indeed one of the children's parents and not a pervert after the children of this quiet Maine town, he let us go. The Reverend called me right away after the cop left and came to pick us up. At home, we got the kids settled. They were shaken but blissfully oblivious to most of what had gone down and why. Then I proceeded up to our bedroom. Not feeling comfortable even there, I went into our large closet and sat down. I began to cry. The Rev stood there for a while but did not ask me to come out or calm down. Instead, she slide into the closet next to me. We sat together for fifteen twenty minutes. Then she went downstairs to start dinner. A little while later I came out as well but during our time in Maine, we never quite left that closet.

The thing about closets that many don't understand: what makes them shameful for transgender and queer persons is not that they are so terrible in and of themselves but that the outside world is that much worse. As an introvert, and a hobbit, I have been drawn to small, soft, enclosed spaces for as long as I can remember. I need to go to my inner room (even if it is only in my mind) to recharge, even after time with pleasant company. As a transgender woman, my need for spaces where I can feel safe and comfortable is even greater. The event of my second week in Maine is just one example of conflict that I have to navigate on a daily basis. Most of these alienating experiences are small but a day out can contain a countless number of them. While most people who know me as a scholar, writing, activist, pastor's wife, or mother treat me with some basic currency of respect, most people don't know me. To 99.99% of folks I encounter on the street, I am a stranger who might be any number of things. Among the images of myself that strangers have indicated to me in one way or another are sex worker (why else am I walking home from the train in the evening, conveniently after work/school gets out?), pedophile (why else would I be sitting at a park bench watching two young children with the watchful eye of a parent?), and drag queen (although this usually comes with ideas on how I might improve my act by wearing more outrageous heels, make-up, and wigs - never mind that I don't wear wigs). People stare, take pictures, bring their children away from or around me in arcs that make it clear to me and others that I am perceived as a threat, or come up to me asking questions from "what are you?" to "how much?" I usually tell them, "a medieval studies professor and about $3,000 per credit hour." This is all to say: there are days in which I don't feel like dealing with that 99.99% of people. Even the library can be a bit much. So I work from home. In my home, I usually have a cozy office, an inner room, a cell, or closet in which I can let my defenses and witty retorts down and focus on other things like raising kids or writing an article. Even now, I am writing from my office/closet.

Finding room was a real concern - for myself as well as my partner and mother - when we were setting off on our pilgrimage. Our week long journey concluded with a trip from Lynn (the home of Margery Kempe) to the little cell which was the home of Julian of Norwich. By this time, visitings over half a dozen cities and half a dozen other sites, we were all a bit tired of the many people who shared space with us there and along the way. Indeed, our trip began in London and threw us into the deep end of dense crowds. As I left the  last New Chaucer Society event to meet my recently arrived travel companions, I had to wade through a marathon of runners cutting across every major direction I needed to pass to get to them. At one point, we had to wait as police officers signaled to my group as we one by one raced across and around runners trying not to collide with any of them. On both sides of the street were dense layers of onlookers watching the marathon or trying - like me - to figure out how to get across the river of humanity. Later on, my mother declared that the beginning of our pilgrimage, London, and the end, Norwich, could not have been more different in regards to crowdedness. "I almost wish we could have just spent the whole week here," she said after our first hour in Norwich. Life proceeded with less urgent and dense intensity in Julian's hometown. Our walk from our car to the Cathedral brought us along the river where our speed slowed and our hearts began first to settle. Agitated from the drive there, we decided at the river to stop for food at the little cafe by the bridge. There my mother ordered oatmeal, while the Reverend and I split a yummy salmon, egg, and wild green salad. The best part of the meal was that until a few minutes prior to leaving, we had the whole cafe to ourselves. Periods of our meal proceeded in silence as we chewed and just enjoyed the quiet. No worry about people staring or cars crashing.

The intensity of the trip had been such and Norwich was such a relief that at our arrival at the Cathedral, where stood a statue with the words of Julian, "All Shall Be Well," the Reverend stopped with a start and began weeping. For some time we stood there. No one asked anyone to move on or to calm down. My fiancee was locked into a private cell of her own heart where these words came to her like the first fingers of dawn. When she began to step back out, she turned to me and then my mother. Her tears turned to laughter. We took each other's hands and turned to go into the Cathedral. Unlike other Cathedrals that followed the more tradition cross shape, the Norwich Cathedral retains and extensively uses additional buildings off to one side which create an encirclement around a grove. Entering the grove requires an almost spiral motion through the exterior buildings, along the Cathedral proper, and back out again. Once in the grotto, one feels as though you are entering into an enclosed sacred space. At the center of the grass is a labrinth that continues the spiral motion towards its middle. Caught in its gravity, the Reverend and I followed the labrinth towards it epicenter. In a way, this path inward reflected the concluding motion of the pilgrimage as a whole. We were around people on all sides but drawn into the steps of the winding way were existed in our own solitary worlds. The labrinth ends at its center, a circle of rest and reflection. At this moment, we were ready to withdraw from the world and into ourselves. Standing there, at the center of my own journey and universe, I slowly began to scan around and see others still on their own journeys. Even my mother who sat on the outside of the grove found rounded indentations in the wall that formed tiny little chapels where she could hide away. Standing there, I could feel a mystery at the heart of Julian of Norwich's ministry and perhaps all pilgrimage as well: we all made this journey together and yet we all made this journey within the solitary cell of our own complexities, tiny labrinths within tiny cathedrals within our hearts all bundled together like a hazelnut. 



Julian of Norwich is an expert on the little things. In her Showings, or Revelations of Divine Love, Julian describes visions given to her by God. Over a series of showings, Julian sees the value of the little things in the light of the eternal. These visions are life changing for Julian, who later entered into a cell where she lived the remainder of her days, conversing through windows and contemplating God's wisdoms. Her visions were life changing for many others who point to her book as reframing the world and the divine, the changing and the everlasting, into scales that are able to be grasped. Time and space, existence and nothingness, value and grace are all rearranged in her mystic visions of all that is. Julian who lived in a small cell showed others how they might see and affect the great things within the little. Even time for Julian seems a small affair. A lifetime to her is nearly nothing. In chapter three, she writes of being near death at the tender age of thirty, "methought all the time that I had lived here so little and so short, in reward of that endlesse blisse, I thought, nothing" (Julian III.81-82). For a text chiefly concerned with suffering, to call the long duration of pain a "little" and "short" reframes the experience from the groaning expanse of the flesh to the closed affair of mortality in the eternity. Trauma theory has asserted the difference between pain as a thing physically sensed in the body and suffering as a thing understood in the mind. By changing the frame of reference, Julian reduces the body from a world of pleasure and pain into a mere cell in which a child might play at the victories and losses that really take place on a divine scale. In one sense, this is a relief. In another sense, it is too much of a relief. Julian's mindset in the early part of her life is as one who desires more life so that she might suffer more for the sake of God. Time feels almost too small. Compared to the divine temporality, she is but a child playing and worrying of childish things. She longs to be a woman just at an age and a moment when she fears that she may never live long enough to be a woman. 

The most famous little thing of Julian's Showings is her vision of everything. "He shewed a littil thing the quantitye of an hesil nutt in the palme of my hand," writes Julian (IV.144-154). The metaphor of hazelnut anchors her vision in something readers may have experience is life. Readers cannot have touched all that exists but may have touched a nut such as this. Following the metaphor symmetrically, this is a universe the size of a hazelnut, as it is also a hazelnut that contains the whole universe. In other words, by framing everything within the context of a small thing, she raises the honor of smallness. Considering her devotion to God through a life sealed within a cell of a church through the lens of hazelnut, it may be a mystery that she could see the whole universe from within the small room but a magnification of her lived reality to say that her little home contained the mysteries of the universe. Indeed, the universe does not look the same to Julian from the point of view of her flesh as it does from the scale of God. While remaining the same, the world seems of a different character. The known becomes the unknown again. In this way, by becoming small the world becomes more interesting. It begs questioning. "I lokid there upon with eye of my understondyng and thowte, What may this be? And it was generally answered thus: It is all that is made" (IV.144-154). A hazelnut for its size may seem simple yet it may contain mysteries and the thoughts it inspires that last a lifetime. So too if the universe could fit into one's hand, it would contain more than enough for many lifetimes of consideration because of the question it begs. Likewise, the shortness of life that Julian perceives does not make it any less full of suffering or love, truth or mystery. Nor does it assure that a long life comes any closer to truth nor arrives at a justification for the love and pain on receives. And all this might as well be contemplated in a small cell as well or better than in the largeness of the wider world. Small things demand focus. Looking into the depths of things can contain such an eternity as one may find in the vastness of space.

The precariousness of Julian's life at the time of the visions, quaking from the proximity to a near death experience, readers can better understand her anxiety at the vulnerable smallness of the world. She writes, "I mervellid how it might lesten, for methowte it might suddenly have fallen to nowte for littil" (IV.144-154). Traditional assumptions of scale places the largest things in association with everything and the smallest things in association with nothingness. As a small - or at least young - thing herself, Julian may feel that with closeness of death her existence may also be snuffed out. What is a hazelnut in the palm of a comparably large hand? What is she in relation to everything or to eternity? Yet the metaphor of the hazelnut gives some resistance against presumptions about size. The nut is able to be crushed by a larger force but is hard and persistent. In the palm of the hand, as Julian sees the universe, one cannot break a hazelnut merely by squeezing or pinching. The is strength and even power in such a small thing. Although Julian and every other created thing may be precarious in relation to the eternal absolutes, yet within the smallest things exist a seed of eternity, a part of God's being that is as fixed as the whole. "And I was answered in my understondyng," continues Julian, "It lesteth and ever shall, for God loveth it; and so all thing hath the being be the love of God" (IN.144-154). The glory of a thing is not its size or power, nor that it is loving or lovable. Rather, a thing is glorified because of the love given to it. The hazelnut is a small thing but contains the mystery of the universe. Any or all created things may be nothing in contrast to God but are glorified because God loves them. A cell may be a small thing but contains all the world of a saint, therefore turning the little room in a sacred site. A life may be short but is worthy because of the life it contains. 

While bigness serves to put littleness into perspective but as Julian frames it, this does not mean that the small thing is any less honorable. Offering herself as an example, Julian reflects on the effect of God's revelations on her, "This gretenes and this noblyth of the beholdyng of God fulfilled her of reverend drede, and with this she saw hirselfe so litil and so low, so simple and so pore" (VII.237-241). In an egotistical society, we might feel threatened by such remarks. We should want to be large, not small. We should want to be raised on high, not low. We should want to be rich, not wanting. But Julian inverts these values. We are but small things and our suffering is not so large as cannot be overcome. We are not at the top and other truths and authorities may yet intervene. We have less, so we have less over which to worry. Again and again, Julian drives home from the big open spaces with the message that it is in our small places that God comes to us. Julian writes of herself, "thus by this grounde she was fulfillid of grace and of al manner vertues and overpassyth all creatures" (VII.237-241). Not only do the little things not hold the troubles of the big but there are virtues present and concentrated in the small that are lost or diluted in the large. There is a grace that might not be sensed or touched if we do not attend to the small things. We might miss our own value if we gaze only on the big things and do not regard ourselves. Our suffering may be less but is not less valuable. Our suffering is only less when we take on suffering that is not for us to bear alone. At that moment our pain becomes ego. The little ones may be hurt by big pains but should consider them in their particularity. One cannot kill death although one may fight against a deadly disease. One cannot fix mutability although one can wade through change. By knowing the limits of our strength and virtues, we are better able to use them. This may mean that we must stand before the largeness of the world or else focus ourselves within the littleness of a cell or office. This does not ignore or surrender our connection to everything else but it locates us within the small links in the chain of causation. We have much to do and it will be done each little thing.



Compared to the rest of the pilgrimage, Norwich was a little place that contained precious gifts. Probably the most peaceful place in our whole pilgrimage was sitting in the Julian Center in Norwich. The building is formed around the little church and cell that was Julians home. Finding it drew us away from the granduer of the Cathedral with its shops, tours, and cafeteria. Journeying down a little cobblestone road, we had to search for parking amidst the pockets between trees, gardens, mail boxes, and street lights. This was an unassuming section of Norwich that seemed more like a regular residential block more than a sacred site for pilgrimage. The welcome sign was likewise dainty and bright. Stepping inside it felt like we were entering into our great aunt's parlor, rather than a museum or church. A young woman jumped up when she heard the creaking of our feet on the old floorboards. "Welcome!" she chirped as we began to look around at a wall of bobbles framing a large sitting space with tables and chairs. "Would you like some tea?" Um, was all we could get at out at first. Then uncertainly and some several moments later we added, sure. I began to finger through the books on display while my mother went to the far end of the room where light came streaming into the space. "A garden!" she exclaimed. Putting down a new printing of Julian's "Showings" I joined her before a large wooden door standing open upon a little grove of flowers. This green space was much smaller than the Cathedrals but less intimidating. Also, this time it really was just us. We stood for a while looking and breathing in the fragrant air until we were alerted by a clanking sound behind us. The young woman had returned with a tea set full of cups, saucers, biscuits, milk, sugar, tea bags, and steaming water. She invited us to sit down and enjoy as she took her seat back at the register. No sooner had we all taken our seats, however, than she began to excitedly question us about who we are and why of all the places we might have found ourselves on this morning we were here.

What made our tea time at the Julian Center so delightful was the sense of hospitality and being home in a strange place. Like the tea were were sipping and dipping biscuits into, this peace was steeped by the genuine care our host showed us. A student of a nearby University, she had once had other plans for her study until she traveled to Norwich and fell in love. Her attention on us carried with it that same enjoyment of new things and the curiosity of a student. She made no pretense of what she may have known about Julian, rather she was more interested in what we knew and could teach her about the mystic. She pushed for more information when the Reverend came in from parking the car (it had been tricky finding a place) then we both bought an icon of Julian and Margery Kempe for our offices. We told her about the two women, both mystics, but radically difference in sensibilities. Julian the quite and stationary introvert and Margery the loud and passionate extrovert. Their meeting, described in Kempe's Book, is a scene that could have inspired a medieval version of the odd couple. She wondered about my work in medieval studies. She wondered about the Reverend's work in ministry. She doted on my mother like she was her own. At no point was there a remark or stare about myself or my taking the Reverend's hand that would have suggested that a trans lesbian couple was anything but commonplace here in Norwich. More than our own hotel rooms, which had that comfortable yet professional sterility of a place for those just passing through, the Julian center felt like home. The conversation eased our tensions as the tea brought our enthusiasm back to life. My mother's remark that we should have started at Norwich and stayed there for the whole trip was a sign that we felt renewed, more like we were closer to the start than at the end of our pilgrimage. Compared to the roughness of our arrival in London, we felt more relaxed now than when we began.

The decision to leave the center and enter the place we had come so far to see happened so organically it felt as though the transition happened in silence without a word of interruption. We thanked our host as best we could, then wandered out the front door and down the hill to the chapel entrance. A large basin of holy water greeted us. Dipping my fingers in and dabbing myself in the sign of the cross, I enacted an age old tradition of washing away the dirt of the world in preparation for entrance into an other kind of space. Like the center where we had tea, the church was small and intimate. A few pews, each likely able to see a half dozen at most, lined the aisles. The door to Julian's cell was on the far end, meaning the three of us had to walk down the short length of the Church to get there. While brief, there was a sense of being received. We were entering into something held private and removed from the world. Coming to the door, I felt almost like I was back home at my little closet-office. Yet this is where Julian spent much of her life, receiving visitors from one window facing the garden and receiving mass from the other window (now the door where we stood) facing the chapel. Just off from the center of the room was a stone altar covered over by a white cloth, stationed in front of a hanging crucifix. This is where Julian sat and contemplated Christ's suffering and love. Now it is where visitors sit and contemplate with her. The cell was set up for about a dozen or so sitters. A wooden bench built into the wall ran along three of the four walls. On the wall without the bench, where the door now stood, also was installed a sculpture built into the wall featuring another cruciform and the inscription: Here Dwelt Mother Julian. In front of the sculpture was arrayed a number of blue, red, and purple candles. Interspaced around the candles in a random patten was hazelnuts, signifying Julian's vision of the universe. Like many who came before us down to Julian herself, we sat here for some time, holding and considering the hazelnuts.

This cell marked the end of our formal pilgrimage. Everything after this would be steps taking us back to London and eventually back to the United States. Pilgrimages are funny things. They combine the desire to see the bigness of the world and the desire to become intimate with them. Arriving at the end, we found ourselves in a little cell within a little church within a (relatively) little city and thinking on things as little and as common as hazelnuts. Yet in the spirit of Julian, I cannot minimize our conclusion by saying that it was more about the journey than the destination. Without a place like Norwich, there would have been no journal. There would be no big things without the little things. This little thing made us do a big thing in coming here. We had to leave our homes and our closets, push through crowds (which despite what one might hope was not much less transphobic and ableist than our home in the States) and unfamiliar territories in order to get to this home which is itself little more than a closet. Over the course of that journey, we let go of a lot of pain and anxiety. More pain and anxiety would doubtless come but it would be altered by our journey. Yet we were not eager to move on from this spot. Like we did when we reached the center of the labyrinth, we stayed a while in this spot not wanting to unwind the knot we tied in getting here. As like we did in the grove, we looked around at our fellow travelers. My mother who left family and pets, a job and a garden in Chicago to pack up with her daughter and daughter-in-law on a funny trip. My fiancee who dropped off our children in Chicago with their father (while I flew ahead to NCS), took a leave from work, and packed up her struggles with health in order to blaze ahead on an uncertain path around England. And myself, giving up my cell for the chance to sit in another's. What did this ending mean for each of us? Work, illness, and prejudice awaited us each at home. In ways, it never left our side. Yet we were each a little different. And what's more, our world was a little different. At very least, on a rainy day in July, a trans woman medievalist, her fiancee and queer pastor, and her mother (and soon to be god mother of at least one of her children) occupied the cell of Julian of Norwich. On this day, the history of the medieval mystic and us were bound together as it had become bound with Margery Kempe, the mad mystic from Lynn centuries before. This may be a little thing in comparison to the big events on the timeline but it is immensely valuable.



Follow us on our journey:

Pilgrimage to Oxford
Pilgrimage to the Kilns


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