Yesterday, April 8, was the feast day of a saint: St. Julie Billiart. I’d not heard of St. Julie before: she’s not medieval, so one won’t find her in the Golden Legend or other well-known sources of ancient and medieval hagiography. In fact, she’s quite a modern saint, born in 1751 in a little village in the Picardy province of France. She died on April 8 in 1816, so that her feast (like that of all saints) is a celebration of her dies natalis, her “birthday” into a glorified life.
Her village, Cuvilly, was small and rural; today it still sits in a patchwork of fields, perhaps not much larger that it was two hundred years ago. Though one of the youngest in a large family, Julie stood out from a young age because of her enthusiasm for sacred knowledge and her diligent practice of all she learned. Still, her opportunities for education were limited to the catechism, a local grammar school, and the instruction of her parish priest. Julie’s world got even smaller when she was twenty-two: someone with a grudge against her father took a shot at him, and Julie’s legs were paralyzed by the shock. She spent the next twenty-two years confined in bed as a shut-in.
A tragedy, we say, and doubtless it was, too, in the eyes of her family and friends. Piously we might call it a hardship to be endured with patience. Certainly, she made good use of her time, catechizing to village children, crocheting lace for the altar, and praying for hours on end. We might consider such things a consoling diversion. But, privately, I feel my throat tighten at the thought of such enclosure. Already her life was unthinkably claustrophobic by our standards: a parochial existence of limited space and limited knowledge. Imagining myself in such a situation, my attitude settles naturally into stoicism and other consolations philosophical, but I do not smile.
But Julie did. That is what she’s called, the Smiling Saint. It’s a feature in all her portraits, her trademark: St. Catherine has her wheel, but St. Julie smiles.
St. Julie’s confinement and her joy remind me of another Julie: St. Julian of Norwich. Julian was medieval–ca. mid-to-late 1400s–and she was English. She wrote one of the masterpieces of medieval English mysticism, The Revelations of Divine Love, which ended up on my Middle English Lit comps list.
Julian’s story is an instance of the strangeness of medieval Christianity to 21st century Protestants. Desiring to understand Christ’s suffering, Julian prayed to be stricken ill. This God granted, and as Julian lay dying, she called for a priest.
My Curate was sent for to be at my ending, and by that time when he came I had set my eyes, and might not speak. He set the Cross before my face and said: I have brought thee the Image of thy Master and Saviour: look thereupon and comfort thee therewith. (III)
In that moment, her eyes fixed on the cross, Julian had visions–sixteen in all. And then she made a full recovery. In similar circumstances, I imagine I (and most people) would have rushed to share my revelations with everyone else: “Hear what God told me!” Julian did not. It is one thing to see a vision from God, but it is quite another to understand what one has seen. Julian, knowing herself to be a “simple creature unlettered”, did not trust her own meager knowledge to interpret the revelation properly. Instead, she waited, reading books and contemplating her memories of the visions, until she felt ready to explain them fully. This took twenty years.
What’s more, she did it as an anchoress: one who vows a life of contemplation and devotion in both seclusion and total enclosure, within a tiny cell in the wall of a church called an “anchorhold”. An anchoress kept a strict rule of life, though she was not cloistered in community: her authority was her father confessor, and all divergences from her prescribed routine–including fasting–required his permission. In fact, Julian’s name is a sign of her status: her anchorhold was in St. Julian’s Church in Norwich, so she adopted the church’s name as her own. No record remains of her identity prior to becoming the anchoress of St. Julian’s. Her physical location within that particular church became also the locus of her personal identity: as an anchoress, who could be visited but never seen, she was a voice speaking through a veiled window, almost the voice of the church itself. So she was Dame Julian of St. Julian’s: truly, without irony, the Church Lady.
Again, I shrink from such confinement. I often (too often!) complain about my office in the Park Hall dungeon. I’ve dubbed it my Chinese takeout box, because it is square and taller than it is wide. I’ve got no windows, no view of the world beyond the hall outside, which is itself a little-traveled backwater. But I do have a computer: my portal to the limitless frontiers of the Internet. And, more importantly, I can leave whenever I like. I don’t need the First-Year Comp office’s permission to go outdoors. The notion of an anchorhold is a bit terrifying, like being buried alive. In fact, that’s what it was:
Though there are a number of variations, the enclosure ceremony usually includes the following elements: an anchorite receives last rites, has the Office of the Dead said over her, enters her cell, and is bricked in, accompanied at each stage by various prayers. (“Ancrene Wisse, Introduction”)
The anchoress was dead to the world, dead to herself. Again, envisioning myself in such a state, I see austerity, self-discipline, and a zealous penitence. I do not see joy.
But look to Julian’s words, dear reader, and ask if such a thing could be written out of stoicism:
[…] there be deeds evil done in our sight, and so great harms taken, that it seemeth to us that it were impossible that ever it should come to good end. And upon this we look, sorrowing and mourning therefor, so that we cannot resign us unto the blissful beholding of God as we should do. And the cause of this is that the use of our reason is now so blind, so low, and so simple, that we cannot know that high marvellous Wisdom, the Might and the Goodness of the blissful Trinity. And thus signifieth He when He saith: thou shalt see thyself if all manner of things shall be well. As if He said: Take now heed faithfully and trustingly, and at the last end thou shalt verily see it in fulness of joy. (XXXII.)
This is Julian’s attitude: not teeth-gritting endurance, but “blissful beholding” and, in the end, “fulness of joy”. And how can she have such joy in such literally straitened circumstances? Because she trusts in the “Wisdom, the Might and the Goodness” of God that “all manner of things shall be well”: evil shall be resolved, even the little evils she knows and now experiences. This is what Christ speaks to her, even as He hangs on the cross, suffering Himself: “All shall be well.” Trust that it will be so, and then comes the joy that passes understanding. St. Julie Billiart had that joy too, I believe. Though she did not leave, so far as I know, the extensive theology that St. Julian did, there is one pet phrase of hers that is commonly cited: “Oh, qu’il est bon, le bon Dieu!”
Oh, how good He is, the Good God!