A woman is walled into a small room, which is attached to the side of a church. In that room, there is not much she can do other than contemplate and pray. There are two small holes carved into the walls. One faces the outside, and people approach it to ask her for advice and prayers; the other faces inside, into the church. Through this window she can receive blessings and the Eucharist. She will never leave this room until she dies. Its bricks were laid to seal her in—to make her an anchoress, or a kind of religious hermit.
We do not know much about how she passes her days except for the writing she leaves behind. Wildly imaginative and sometimes hallucinatory, her recollection of the visions she had had during an illness in her previous life, titled Revelations of Divine Love, will survive the medieval era as the oldest extant book written by a woman in English. We do not know her real name or how she came to be named for the church to which her cell was attached and the city in which that church stood. We do not know why she chose that cell, except that women had few choices about their lives in her era. To us, she is known as Julian of Norwich, a solitary seeker of God, living through an era of sickness and fear. She is also a key to understanding the mystical experiences many people have experienced during our own era of sickness and fear.
Mysticism, broadly defined, is the transcendent experience of an encounter with God. For Catholic mystics like Julian, Hildegard von Bingen, St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, it takes the form of a vision. For others, it is akin to the “still, small voice,” a moment of encounter with the ineffable that becomes transformational to their spiritual lives.
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Kaya Oakes, a contributing writer for America, teaches writing at the University of California, Berkeley. Her fifth book, The Defiant Middle, will be released in the fall of 2021.
With thanks to America Magazine, and Kaya Oakes, where this article originally appeared.