Oh the Places You’ll Go: Norwich

Reflections from Dr. Howell

I hesitate a little when talking about travel, as I’ve enjoyed the unusual privilege of going lots of places – and I know there are those in earshot who haven’t had the funds or the family or work circumstances that might have allowed them to go much of anywhere. At least some of them tell me they want to hear anyhow, as if they get to come along vicariously if I tell stories and show some photos.

It’s fun bumping into people who are from somewhere or another they think you’ve not heard of, or could not possibly have visited. We got in a taxi at LaGuardia Airport in New York, and I noticed the chatty driver had a thick French accent. I asked “Where are you from?” He laughed and replied “If you can guess correctly, I won’t charge you the fare.” I paused, then took a stab at it: “Côte d’Ivoire?” He moaned, uttered an expletive, and asked “How did you know?” I told him I’d been to the Ivory Coast – which shocked, and delighted him.

I encountered a receptionist in an office, whose accent betrayed her origins pretty clearly. “You’re from England?” “Yes.” “Where?” “Oh, a little town you’ve never heard of.” “Try me.” “It’s a couple of hours northeast of London, near the coast.” “Yes…?” “Okay, I’m from Norwich.” I gleefully said “I’ve been there! I love Norwich.” Flabbergasted, she asked me what on earth had taken me to Norwich.

Ten years ago, I was on one of several one parent / one child junkets that in some ways I’ve found to be easier than moving about with the five of us, although I always wish the others were with us. Sarah and I were on a driving tour, mostly nosing out cathedrals, stopping at Lincoln, Durham, Ely, Salisbury, Ripon, Liverpool – and Norwich. This great cathedral features massive, intricate, beautiful cloisters – two stories tall! You can’t help but gawk at the spire, 315 feet tall, the second tallest in all of England!

That spire, or rather its predecessor, was blown to the ground by high winds in the year 1362. Staggering to stand in the yard and ponder such an event befalling the citizens of this medieval town! – including the woman whom Sarah and I both felt attached to enough to come here in the first place: Julian of Norwich, one of the greatest mystics and theologians of the Middle Ages. She was just 20 years old when that spire tumbled. Everyone must have heard the crash, and wept over what must have felt like a sign from God. Not that horrors were new to them: when Julian was just 6 years old, the bubonic plague (the “Black Death”) killed almost one half of the city’s population.

There’s a statue of her in the cathedral, and 2 stained glass windows. But what we primarily came to Norwich to see was her cell. In her twenties, she moved into a 100 square foot cell with 3 windows, and lived there in seclusion until her death in 1416 at age 73. She devoted her life to prayer, and providing spiritual counsel to people who would appear at her window – as the plague raged on, and as the Peasants’ Revolt took the lives of what few young men remained.

We visited – and loved – her cell. A little depressing was the reality that her original cell was bombed and destroyed during World War II! And so the cell we visited was a reconstruction. This always depresses me a little. I recall visiting Peterhof and other buildings linked to Peter the Great in St. Petersburg, and learning they were all built after World War II and the devastating bombing by… yes, us, and our Allies.

And so it is with so many historic places we visit. Old buildings being refurbished: it’s what we do with our own homes, and churches. Can’t you envision what the original place was like because of the genius of reconstructors? Williamsburg is lovely – but only scattered smokehouses and out-buildings are original! Yet we get the feel of the Colonial place.

Is the reconstruction ever entirely false? The very fact that we think about Julian – or our American forefathers at Williamsburg – is reconstructive. Same for Jesus, his disciples, and all the saints through history, long gone, yet real to us.

I often spoke of Julian as the Patron Saint of the Pandemic. During a long season of plague, she was shut inside a small building. Her message? Or rather, the Message she heard from Jesus when she experienced a series of visions? With steeple stones piled on the ground, and fresh graves outnumbering the old ones, she found intimacy with Jesus as her security: “Thus will I love, thus do I love, thus I am safe.” “God wants us to know we are equally safe in woe as in well-being.” Julian’s most famous words were, “All shall be well, and all shall be well; all manner of things shall be well.” This is no sunny optimism about tomorrow being a more chipper day; this is hope, the vested confidence that when all is said and done, the love of God will triumph over plagues, storms, illness, a crumbled Church, political machinations, and even death itself.