IGHT YEARS have passed since Pope Benedict XVI participated in a rather ordinary, Wednesday general audience. The date was December 1, 2010, and the Holy Father offered a thoughtful catechesis on Julian of Norwich, the English mystic of the late-14th/early-15th centuries whose Revelations of Divine Love is counted among the spiritual classics.
At the time, the speech delivered at this audience seemed like a nice, albeit inconspicuous, reflection. At various points in his life as a cardinal and as the Roman Pontiff, after all, Benedict XVI had spoken admiringly of such notable Catholic women as Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Bridget of Sweden, Teresa of Avila, and Clare of Assisi.
In hindsight, however, his reflections upon Julian stand apart.
From our present vantage point—knowing that Benedict XVI would ultimately step down from the chair of Peter and become the Pope Emeritus—the 2010 catechesis on Julian of Norwich appears prescient. In that talk, the Holy Father made the following observations:
Inspired by divine love, Julian made a radical decision. Like an ancient anchoress, she decided to live in a cell located near the church called after St. Julian, in the city of Norwich—in her time an important urban center not far from London. . . .
This decision to live as a “recluse,” the term in her day, might surprise or even perplex us. But she was not the only one to make such a choice. In those centuries a considerable number of women opted for this form of life, adopting rules specially drawn up for them, such as the rule compiled by St. Aelred of Rievaulx.
The anchoresses, or “recluses,” in their cells, devoted themselves to prayer, meditation and study. In this way, they developed a highly refined human and religious sensitivity which earned them the veneration of the people. Men and women of every age and condition in need of advice and comfort, would devoutly seek them. It was not, therefore, an individualistic choice; precisely with this closeness to the Lord, Julian developed the ability to be a counsellor to a great many people and to help those who were going through difficulties in this life.
We also know that Julian received frequent visitors, as is attested by the autobiography of another fervent Christian of her time, Margery Kempe, who went to Norwich in 1413 to receive advice on her spiritual life. This is why, in her lifetime, Julian was called “Dame Julian,” as is engraved on the funeral monument that contains her remains. She had become a mother to many.
Men and women who withdraw to live in God’s company acquire by making this decision a great sense of compassion for the suffering and weakness of others. As friends of God, they have at their disposal a wisdom that the world—from which they have distanced themselves—does not possess, and they amiably share it with those who knock at their door.
The entire address is available on the Vatican website.
ITH THE PERSPECTIVE afforded by a few years’ distance from Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation, it is not unreasonable for us to believe that his reflections on the solitary life of Julian of Norwich might serve as a point of access into his own view of his present existence. Secluded in the near-silence of a former convent inside Vatican City, does the Pope Emeritus see his retirement as an entrance into the life of the “recluse,” poised for growth in compassion, wisdom, and holiness?