Living through lockdown: Julian of Norwich, TS Eliot and the life-shaped hole in our hearts

For those who don’t feel inclined to watch the film I made for A Bit Lit on life during lockdown, here’s a rough transcript.

My name is Mathew Lyons, and I am a freelance writer and historian.

In practice, that means I am lucky enough to mostly work from home. Sometimes I work on the sofa in the living room. Sometimes I work on my bed.

And sometimes I work in my daughter’s bedroom when she’s not here, which I like because being in the room reminds me of my childrens’ childhoods, a connectedness to our shared past and their futures, which stretch out beyond my own lifespan.

I also like it because the room connects me to my own childhood, because it has my mum’s dressing table in it, which is the only item of furniture I have from my parents’ house. I used to love that dressing table when I was a child myself: the central mirror pivots horizontally, and with both the side-mirrors on hinges, you could lean in close, fold the two side panels in, and see endless versions of yourself refracting away into this strange kind of interior distance.

But mostly I work on what I sometimes call the kitchen table, sometimes the dining table and sometimes just the table, because it really sits in a kind of no-mans-land on the landing of my flat – a space entirely defined by how I choose to use it.

As I say, I am lucky to have the freedom to work as I do – so lucky in fact that I rarely stop to reflect on my good fortune. Except now, when I no longer have any choice in the matter, and my experience of the same spaces has changed. What once was a liberty is now a confinement.

It’s a version of something we all are feeling right now. Most of us have lost the freedom to leave our flats and houses at will. I know from talking to people, on social media and elsewhere, how difficult many of us are finding that. Meanwhile, some of us, those in the NHS and the food industry and other essential civil functions, are being denied the freedom to keep themselves safe at home. Two different constrictions, two different kinds of confinement, each mirroring the other.

I’ve been thinking a lot, on and off, about confined spaces and how we use them because for a good few years now I’ve been working on the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when in the latter half of the 1530s, Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell engineered the destruction of some 850 religious houses across England and Wales, and ended some 1,000 years of history.

It’s been quite a learning curve for me, not least because I was raised an atheist. My parents would have said I was raised to make up my own mind.

I don’t really think that was true, but these things are less simple and straightfoward than I used to think. My mother was raised a Catholic by her own mother, who loathed the Catholic church and the wealth and power it represented.

So I think more often than I did about Salman Rushdie’s description of himself as an atheist with a god-shaped hole in his heart. Which itself reminds of the poem Questions About Angels by the American poet Billy Collins, which asks

“If an angel fell off a cloud, would he leave a hole
in a river and would the hole float along endlessly
filled with the silent letters of every angelic word?”

The poem is itself an extended riff on medieval theology, caracatured as solely obsessed with the idea of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Which is, of course, grossly unfair.

Learning more about the Dissolution – and more so about the history of monasticism in Britain – I have become fascinated by the desire among large numbers of men and women to retreat from the world, into the kind of confinement we want to escape from, and into the depth of contemplation we can only reach towards with contemporary ideas of mindfulness.

What kind of choice is it, to choose confinement – or greater confinement than our fellow citizens – over some kind of liberty? What is it that is being affirmed through that kind of self-denial?

I used to think that all monasteries – and all monastics, a generic term for both monks and nuns – were alike in their retreat from the world.

I now know that is not the case. I know, for example, that Benedictine communities, not least because they encompass pretty much all those founded between the retreat of Rome and the Norman Conquest, tended to be found in cities and towns.

And often, when they weren’t founded in such places, towns grew up around them anyway, people gravitating towards them as centres of spiritual and economic life, as if their very denial of earthly, material matters had its own pull, its own weight, its own power.

So you get this strange antithetical relationship, where the everyday, civil and profane life of the world – and the small world within monastic walls created expressly to deny that life – reflect and balance, nourish and support one another.

By way of comparison, when the Cistercians arrived in the 12th century they sought out wilderness, desert places, going so far as to purge villages from the lands around them to pursue their vocation. In so doing they freed themselves of the constraints of certain kinds of duty to the world around them – while at the same time ensuring they were free to constrain themselves in the way most suited to their calling.

Isolation comes in different forms, then, even among monastic orders. And I find it fascinating how these two things, freedom and confinement, freedom and constraint, pull at each other in so many different ways.

But even behind a monastery’s walls there are levels of retreat. Some monastics in positions of authority could barely retreat from the world at all: abbots and abbesses had to deal with local, national and – through the church – international politics. Some, like the cellarers, dealt with the selling and buying of food; some with land management; some, like the almoners, with looking after the elderly, the poor and the sick in their local communities, with schooling, and so on.

The demands of civil profane life, the thing they sought to reject, meant they were constrained from pursuing to the full the spiritual and contemplative calling that had led them to retreat behind a monastery wall in the first place.

Others had more time to accompany the rituals of the daily offices and prayers for the dead and so on, and for contemplation and study of the Bible, of the church fathers, of every kind of learning and philosophy available to them.

And a few became what were known as anchorites and anchoresses – or solitaries, to use a non-gendered term.

Theirs was more than simple isolation within the already self-imposed isolation of the religious house. Solitaries were walled into cells, often built into or alongside their churches, for life. Death rites were said for them. They no longer belonged among the living. They were unmoored from all human, civil life.

The cells they were in became, in effect, void spaces, while they too sought a kind of holy emptiness. They chose to retreat for the rest of their lives into pure contemplation, into interior space, entirely, seeking to find God in the denial of their selves, filling their emptiness with the light of eternity.

They sought, if you like, to turn the small spaces they lived in inside out, to welcome all of God’s love – the light of creation, the unfallen world of Eden – – to empty all that into themselves. They sought a great reckoning in a little room, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare.

The 14th-century Augustinian monastic Walter Hilton, writing in a widely circulated manuscript called the Scale of Perfection, addressed to an unnamed anchoress, refers to her as his ‘ghostly sister’.

Wilton means ‘spiritual’, but the other meaning of ghostly also hangs in the air: immaterial, not of this world, dead-but-alive. From that vantage-point, anchorites and anchoresses were closer to the truth of the world than anyone else. Some of them were sought-after for that wisdom, and would offer counsel and comfort through the small apertures through which they observed the rituals of the church.

The best known solitary is probably Julian of Norwich, the 14th century mystic, a woman whose own birth name is lost to us. We know of her not least because TS Eliot quotes her in Little Gidding, the last of his Four Quartets, written in part during the air raids on Britain in the summer of 1941.

Eliot was searching for meaning amidst the destruction of war and death’s eternal certainty – a moment when, he says “the intersection of the timeless moment / Is England and nowhere” – searching for light and language to fill his own emptiness, the hole that gnawed away at his own certainties, at his sense of self.

And the lines he borrows from Julian of Norwich are:

“All shall be well, and /
All manner of thing shall be well.”

What I wonder, made Eliot reach back to the words of a 14th century anchoress to comfort his deepest fears? What about her isolation, her search for God, allowed her to find the words to offer peace of mind to a troubled soul over 500 years later?

What did he see of himself reflected in her thoughts – reflected but made whole – the perfect light to his imperfect shadow?

Thinking about these questions makes me think of the Benedictine historian David Knowles who must have been working on what has become the definitive history of monasticism in England at the same time as Eliot was working on the Four Quartets. Knowles, writing about why those in search of all kinds of wisdom, and not merely solace, sought advice from monastics, says in a lovely phrase that monastics offered not just their own counsel, but also had “the long memory of an undying family” to draw upon.

The dreads and confinements we are experiencing now may be new to us, but echoes and traces of them are surely there for us to find in our deeper cultural memory – just as what we do now will be there for our descendants, facing privations and crises we can’t imagine, hundreds of years from now.

We might be isolated in space, but we are not isolated in time.

Lots of us, right now, have life-shaped holes in our hearts – to go with other losses and griefs, sorrows and defeats we may accrued over the years, and which we carry still within us.

And perhaps, with so much of the world in a kind of silence, we have a chance to contemplate the meaning of these absences floating through us, and to share those meanings, like an anchorite, through whatever windows are for the moment open to us.

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