Lessons for Today from the 14th Century

What can a 14th century woman of faith teach us about today's pandemic? Aubrey Sampson shows us that we actually have been here before.


Lessons from the 14th Century for Today's Quarantine

By Aubrey Sampson

I confess: I am hesitant to declare and decree any hot-takes right now on what God is doing in this unprecedented moment. We have never faced a global pandemic quite like this, one that shuts us in for the good of our neighbors, one that ravages our economy, our stability, and all life as we know it. Of course, as God's children we can certainly hear our Father's voice and see his hand at work in this present moment. But I also believe that in the face of such tragedy, our best understanding about what God is doing will come years from now - when we look back and see God's hand with a clearer perspective. For now, I think I better just close my mouth and be still, remembering that he is God.

But I am not hesitant to look back, to learn from those long-sufferers who have gone before us - those who have lived through seasons of lament and have come out the other side, not unscathed, but still proclaiming God's goodness in the midst of suffering's reality.

Julian of Norwich was a 14th century anchoress and mystic theologian (and interestingly, one of the first female Christian writers to be published in the English vernacular of the time). Julian had an unusual call from God; she anchored herself to a church, to be its 24-hour prayer warrior.

And I mean that literally and figuratively.

Julian was actually walled into her church's "anchor hold"- a small room, with no doors. She received her last rites on the way in; if the church burned down, Julian vowed to go down with it. Hers was a lifetime commitment to prayer and social distancing.

Julian had three windows - one to hear the Word and receive the sacraments, another for food and waste, and a third which faced outside, so she could pray and counsel those who walked by. Perhaps most famously, Julian had cats - lot and lots of cats. She was the first "Cat Lady." A friend recently remarked, "Sure, she had cats. But she didn't have kids doing e-school, so her social distancing might have been easier than ours."  

Julian watched from her anchor hold as recurrences of the Black Death ravaged her community. And from her sheltered-in position, what did Julian do? She prayed. And prayed. And prayed some more.

Having lived through a season such as ours - without the benefit of Zoom, Netflix, Instacart, or advancements in medication, we have much to learn from Julian's example of steadfastness and longsuffering through prayer.

Julian asserted that our entire life is made of "weal and woe" of "sweetness and distress." We live in this mixed state all the days of our life, she writes, "But [God] wants us to have faith that he is unfailingly with us, and in three ways."

  • "He is with us in heaven ... drawing us upwards."

  • "He is with is on earth, leading us."

  • "He is with us in our souls, dwelling there forever, guiding and caring for us."

In our own season of social distancing and sheltering-in, while we do not have many answers - we do have the with-ness of the Father, Son, and Spirit, never letting us go. And even as we grow more weary, we are invited to rest in God's Trinitarian Presence. Like Julian, we can pray constantly, we can lament, we can cry out - not necessarily to find answers - but in order to cling more deeply to the certainty of God in this, our uncertain season.

"For as the body is clad in cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the chest, so are we, soul and body, clad in the goodness of God and enclosed in it; yes, and more inwardly, because all these may waste and wear away, but God's goodness is always strong, and incomparably near to us; for truly our loving God wants our souls to cling to him with all their might, and wants us to cling to his goodness forever." - St. Julian of Norwich

Aubrey Sampson is the author of The Louder Song: Listening for Hope in the Midst of Lament (NavPress, 2019) and Overcomer: Breaking Down the Walls of Shame and Rebuilding Your Soul (Zondervan, 2015). She is a regular contributor to Propel Women and speaks at churches and ministry events around the country. She and her husband are church planters in the Chicago area, where Aubrey is also earning her MA in Evangelism and Leadership at Wheaton College. Find out more about Aubrey at www.aubreysampson.com, or follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter: @aubsamp.

Quotes from Revelations of Divine Love by Julian or Norwich, translated by Elizabeth Spearing, Penguin Books, Random House, 1998.

© Elisa Morgan 2020

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