A monk lives in a community of monks. A hermit lives alone but may still make contact and be of influence on his society. But women lived as anchoresses, whose only contact with the outside world was through a small hole.
Lady Julian was an anchoress, one of many medieval women who enclosed themselves from the outside world, locked in small editions to local churches called “anchor holds”. There was only one window through which people could ask for advice or tell news, pass waste and food in and out, and another hole that the anchoress could observe the priest performing the eucharist ritual. It was here in this anchor hold that the anchoress was betrothed not to a human husband, but to her Lord. Julian would have read a Guide for Anchoresses, published in the twelfth century to instruct anchoresses in their new lives, which reads:
“When the priest has consecrated the host, forget all the world. Be out of your body. Embrace, in shining love, your lover, who has lighted into the bower of your heart from heaven, and hold him tight until he has gratified all you have ever asked.”
“But what place is there in me that my God may dwell? Who will grant that you will come into my heart and make it drunk, That I may embrace you? The house of my soul is too narrow for you. So that you may enter it, let it be made large by you. It is rude, repair it, it contains what offense in your eyes, I know and confess, but who will cleanse it? Or to who else but you should we cry?”
Julian would have meditated on her role as the bride of Christ as described in the prayer book The Wooing of Our Lord:
“Jesus, sweet Jesus, my beloved darling, my Lord, my savior, my drop of honey, my balm. Sweeter is the memory of you than honey in the mouth. Your lovely face, you’re all shiny and moist. To look into your face is life itself to the angels.”
The Wife of Bath and the Holy Maidenhood is a treatise against marriage written by women. This is also something quite interesting. It doesn’t outright say that women should be wed to God, not a man. It seems concerned only with marriage as a social institution, and it even analyzes religious authorities in a negative light. Amid much of the anti-marriage treatises from men at the time, we find this treatise which is from a woman’s perspective. Perhaps writings like this could have influenced women like Julian to live alone, away from the world and away from husbands. But this would not have been enough. The sexual impulse seems subservient to the spiritual impulse driving her thoughts.
Why did women like Julian wish to be outside of the world, and wished to be outside of their bodies? There is certainly a part of myself that would like to live away from communities, away from society, in a small place just for myself. I believe this instinct is shared by many other people. Something about other people disgusts us. But I feel that to genuinely do this, one must have some sort of faith, because living alone without a God would be perhaps too disturbing. But if one is truly religious, man is already alone when he is without God, so what makes the difference if he has no other men around him? It seems easier to live alone with God, than live alone without. For an atheist like myself, being without other men is the closest to solitude one can find. One is still bombarded with images of the world, yet this is the place where man and the universe must reconcile. The universe, however, is a cold, unloving place.
Julian’s anchoritic cell is enclosed from her own will. She must have felt this impulse because of her God. And she began, defying prayer books like the ones she was given, talking about Jesus as the “mother”. Of course, she spoke of this in the context of talking about the Church as mother. But it was a big step nonetheless.
Julian’s theology about sin is that there’s a part of the soul that would never knowingly consent to sin. Jesus, if he came back to save us from our sins, would not have thrown anyone into hell since there is that part of us that does not want to sin knowingly.
Julian’s theology is certainly interesting, solving problems like the one about evil. Or at least it solves half of the problem. The most interesting thing about Julian is her solitude. Like Nietzsche I yearn for that, my creativity comes from that. We’re not away from the world and on our own all that often, it seems. Whether we’re talked to by other people, or bombarded with signs of the economy and the media, we’re never really left in solitude. This is something I have longed for. And yet I receive my inspiration and ideas from films, it appears. To think of a space like Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own where your thoughts are your own, and your space is your own, is very attractive.