My Year With Julian of Norwich
Alice Lesperance 2019
Originally appeared in Catapult
In Norwich, England there sits a small church where, in the fourteenth century, a woman lived.
Her tiny cell had just two small windows: one that opened into the church, through which she
could receive Communion; the other, facing the outside world, through which she offered
spiritual advice to townspeople.
Julian of Norwich lived alone, and she wrote a book about what it felt like to see God and
survive death. Revelations of Divine Love is a theological treatise on the healing power of God’s
love. It’s also a remembering. Julian narrowly survives death after being read her Last Rites and
seeing a vision of Christ. It leaves a wound; she writes her book.
There’s a small split-level house in Brooklyn. It was probably a beautiful house once, with
hardwood floors and big windows overlooking a tree-lined street. When I moved in, during the
fall of 2015, it had chipping paint and carpet in the kitchen. I lived there for my first year of
graduate school, my first year in New York.
The room I rented was comfortless, so small that I could sit on my bed, cross-legged, and touch
all four falls without getting up. The door to my room only barely locked, and would easily pop
open with force. It came with mismatched old furniture and a desk with drawers that didn’t open.
I shared a closet down the hall with the other residents, mostly students like me. I lived next to
an opera singer who practiced scales at daybreak and made loud animal noises during sex. Down
the hall lived a white Middle Eastern Studies student who once lectured me, an Arab lesbian,
about queer Arab culture while he overcooked White Guy Curry (mushy rice, onions and peas,
and McCormick curry powder, dumped in a frying pan) in our carpeted kitchen.
I lived like a ghost with five strangers for a year and my mind pulled apart like gossamer,
clinging to walls that closed in on me a little more each day. I rarely spoke to anyone. But I had
Julian. Julian, who took the name of the saint her church was named for. Julian, who called
Christ her mother. Julian, who survived death so that she could write it down.
I went to sleep every night that year with a copy of Julian’s writing on my nightstand. She chose
to live as an anchoress in a cell attached the side of a church—just large enough for her to read,
eat, and sleep—so that she could provide spiritual guidance to her community and give glory to
God. I was living in an illegal “apartment” in Brooklyn so that I could spend $70,000 on a
graduate degree, a far less noble pursuit. Still, I lost my mind in that tiny room, and reading
Julian’s feverish words about her visions helped me feel sane. Here was another woman,
The word “enclosed,” or some form of it appears in Julian’s text nearly thirty times. She refers
to God as the one who “always encloses us.” Jesus, our “tender mother,” wraps Himself around
Her enclosure was rapturous, and it made her feel safe. My enclosure was torturous. My circling
was from nine a.m., when I would wake up for class, to ten p.m., when I would finally make it
home. Work, class, work, class. I went out into the city when I could, browsed shops and street
markets and bookstores. But most of that year was spent in a daze. I made the choice to bury
myself in debt and live alone at a time when my mental health was at an absolute low. New York
is both the best and the worst place to be crazy, and I spent most of my days crying on street
corners while people mercifully (or obliviously) looked the other way. It was the year I started
(and stopped) taking antidepressants, and it was the year I was finally officially diagnosed with
post-traumatic stress disorder.
And there, weaving through and circling around it all, was Julian. I read her for class, I read her
in my free time, and I committed to reading her in preparation for my thesis. Her book of
Shewings isn’t long, but I buried myself within in it.
Julian writes, “I desired a bodily sight wherein I might have more knowledge of the bodily
peynes of our Saviour.” She wishes and hopes for the visions to find her. She gets the chance
when she’s on her deathbed, when she’s praying to experience suffering as Christ has suffered.
She knows she’s going to die, and she wants to die like Christ died, with all of his pain. Imagine
being so sick that you’re going to die, and begging God to make the pain worse.
In October of 2015, I wrote, “I can’t trust my own mind, my own thoughts, and because of that,
I’m afraid.” I kept a record in my journal, a chart. I love lists and charts; I’m not the type to stay
organized in any consistent way, but when there’s chaos, lists help me. I titled this chart “First
Week on Meds,” and used it to list and organize the mental, emotional, and physical effects I
experienced for the week I was on antidepressants: panic attacks, no appetite, clenched teeth,
cold sweats, and hallucinations. It was a week that ended with me walking into traffic, catatonic.
The pages before and after the chart are filled with desperate sentences, fragmented lists, and
worrying doodles. There’s a page with writing so frantic I can’t make it out, except for a line that
reads, “(i have to stop isolating myself),” and another page that’s just the word “lonely” written
over and over.
I wrote and wrote while I lost my mind, and when I wasn’t writing in the park or at coffee shops,
I was writing in that room, in that house. Living in that room was like a haunting, but I was the
only one there.
Rereading those journals now is painful, like looking at someone I wronged right in the eye and
wanting so badly to look away. It’s me at my lowest, my most desperate. It’s remembering an
exercise in survival, every painful step. Reading it now, I wonder if Julian ever reread her
Revelations; if she ever paused over the part that briefly describes her near-death experience. Did
she draft her book, rearrange, restructure, and remember, again and again? Or did she write it out
and leave it, like an expulsion? Did she stop writing at the end of it all and tuck it away, like I
I wrote journal entries that are unbearable to revisit, but I can read the story of My Lonely Year
in the lines of Julian’s theology, even now. I can’t explain it, which is why I write about it
compulsively. At the end of the day, why does this fourteenth-century theological treatise feel so
crucial to me?
Julian lays on her bed, and she wishes to feel pain like Christ did. It’s more than that—she wants
to feel Christ’s pain: his and no one else’s, especially not her own. She’s dying in her own
painful, human way, and she asks God to show her how He felt. I get stuck on that, circling
within the truth of it. Revelations of Divine Love says to me, “I will give you my pain so that you
can feel it instead of your own, and that will heal you.” And it did. Julian did.