When to be still, when to be stirred: what mystics can teach us about patience during COVID-19

Decades in a room with no way out was a choice for anchoresses like Julian of Norwich during the Middle Ages, but it doesn’t mean it was easy. Writers Paul Dafydd Jones and Kaya Oakes explore what it means to be patient in the time of a pandemic and what mystics like Julian of Norwich have to teach us.

The writings of 14th-century mystic Julian of Norwich are gaining new significance during pandemic isolation.

The statue of Julian of Norwich on the West Front of Norwich Cathedral, made by the sculptor David Holgate in 2014. (Shutterstock/Chris Dorney)

If you had to choose one virtue worth cultivating while tucked away in a room without a door, patience is certainly a contender.

It's easy to think of Julian of Norwich as a patient person. Born in 1343, she is one of the most treasured anchoresses of her time — a role that kept her closed off from the world for decades until her death.

Julian of Norwich was an anchoress and mystic of the Middle Ages. For much of her life she lived in a single room that was anchored against the wall of a church — the Church of Saint Julian in Norwich, England. Historians and scholars estimate that she lived for 75 years and spent more than half that time in the anchor-hold.

There were no doors in an anchoress' cell, but one window looked out into the village square and another window looked into the church. Though they lived as hermits, anchoresses were the centre of village life in many ways. There are accounts of anchoresses and anchorites (their male counterpart) acting as a modern day post office and providing spiritual counselling through their window.

Anchoresses and anchorites followed the liturgy of the hours. They prayed at specific times of day and took a vow of stability, which meant they would not leave their cell until they died.

Julian of Norwich is best known for a book called Revelations of Divine Love, which is the first book written by a woman in English. The book describes a series of visions that she had while sick and her encounters with God and Jesus. The book also contains what is perhaps her most celebrated message: that "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well," (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love)

"She was in some ways very similar to us looking out into the world through Zoom or Google Meet or whatever, and then looking into the church for her spiritual life," said writer and spiritual adviser, Kaya Oakes, in an interview with Tapestry host, Mary Hynes.

Kaya Oakes (Meg Alderton)

While our own isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic is motivated more from public health than a desire to sit alone with our thoughts, Julian's experience with seclusion can offer insight and wisdom for people today.

God is calling her to understand that there's something beyond that suffering and that there's a capacity for loving other people at a distance and caring for one another.- Kaya Oakes

"Where she's really resonating with a lot of people right now is in the idea that she went into the anchor-hold and she went into her spiritual journey thinking that all she was going to encounter was suffering and that all that would come out of this isolation was suffering," said Oakes.

"And what she found instead is that suffering is part of the experience, but that's not what God is calling her to. God is calling her to understand that there's something beyond that suffering and that there's a capacity for loving other people at a distance and caring for one another," she said. 

As a spiritual director, Oakes guides people through struggles brought on or exacerbated by the pandemic. With no certain end in sight, she says it can be difficult to lean into one Julian's best-known prayers which reads: "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love)

"I think when you read it out of context, it can sound kind of like 'live, laugh, love', you know? Like any kind of spiritual cliché," said Oakes of the prayer. 

"On the other hand, in context, she's saying that all shall be well after we move through collective suffering and individual suffering." 

Being still in suffering

Sitting with the hard stuff is part of Paul Dafydd Jones' definition of what it means to be patient. Jones explores the concept of patience in his forthcoming book, Patience: A Theological Exploration. Part 1: From Creation to Christ.

We need to practice a good deal of discernment and cultivate some wisdom as to when is the right time to be patient and when we ought to be impatient.- Paul Dafydd Jones

"Patience with respect to the pandemic is obviously a good thing. We need to wait it out. We need to be diligent. We need to persist with mask-wearing, physical distancing, all that stuff," Dafydd Jones said to Tapestry host Mary Hynes.

"But patience vis-à-vis the crisis of global heating? Patience vis-à-vis right wing extremism? That would be a bad idea. So we need to practice a good deal of discernment and cultivate some wisdom as to when is the right time to be patient and when we ought to be impatient," he said. 

Paul Dafydd Jones (Submitted by Paul Dafydd Jones)

Dafydd Jones is an associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He says the riots led by white nationalists in 2017 in that city are an instance when patience needed to make way for action. 

"There were activists of color, groups of radical Christians, who realized that standing back was not the way to go and needed to stand up and articulate an impatience against injustice. And very simply, the activists were right. When fascism rears its head, one shouldn't step aside. There needs to be straightforward opposition," said Dafydd Jones.

The opposition to white nationalism in Charlottesville, like many protest movements, was an attempt by the activists to correct a world they felt was damaged or flawed. This disappointment with the world is another way our 21st-century experience dovetails with 14th-century Julian of Norwich, who also was frustrated with the state of the world around her.

"She has to come to terms with what it means to be a finite, sinful human being. She has to come to terms with a world that does not conform to her wishes, that is far less satisfying than the kind of future with God she hopes to have. And I think she does that by trying to sort of attune herself with what I would call the slow pace of God's saving purposes," Dafydd Jones said.

"There's a patience with the fact that the bliss that she wants is not yet… And so her exercise of patience is sort of learning how to set the tempo of her life according to the slow rhythm of salvation. And for her, this is all tied up with a relationship with the dying Christ.".

Dafydd Jones says there are plenty of modern day examples of long-standing patience in service of a better world. He cites the work of conservationists who, for example, commit to the repopulation of a species or maintain a wilderness trail.

Dafydd Jones also points to grassroots activists. 

"The person who faithfully fills out forms, who readies circulars to go out week after week after week. That's sticking with it. That's waiting on a future that is not yet. And that I think that can tell us as much about patience as the life of a contemplative or a recluse," said Dafydd Jones.

Today's mystical experience

COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have brought the reality of a reclusive life a lot closer to home for many people. While 21st-century solitude may not lead to the religious mystical experiences Julian of Norwich wrote about, Oakes says simple acts — like growing a potted plant or culturing our own sourdough — can offer a profound connection with the greater mysteries of life.

"You slow down and look at things and sort of think, 'how is this happening? Why is this happening?' And that's really what a mystical experience is. It's also an encounter with anything that stops you in your tracks, and that, these days, includes art and music," said Oakes.

Oakes continues to contemplate the world through her own experiences with nature and is inspired by Julian of Norwich, whose words resonate beyond the idea that "all shall be well."

"Another thing she says that I like as much as [all shall be well] is, 'thou shalt not be overcome.' In other words, death is not the end of the story. We can continue to have relationship with one another after someone's passed. But I think it's just that sense of not being overcome, not giving into despair is really important right now." 

Written and produced by Kim Kaschor


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