by Margaret Ross
Today I would like to tell you about three people who have had some influence on my life. The first one I never met as she lived in the Middle ages, and the second and third are men who lived in the Twentieth Century, one of whom you may have heard.
When I was a teenager, I read a novel by Anya Seton. It was called Katherine. A sweeping historical romance based on real people and set in Medieval England. One of the characters in the book, called Mother Julian, intrigued me and I set out to find out more about her. Now this was over half a century ago and I could not just type her name into Google, so I spent many hours in the Central Reference Library in George IV Bridge learning what I could.
Mother Julian's real name is not known. We do not know if she was married or had children. We know she was born in Norwich in the 14th century and very little else. Norwich was visited by plague when she was six years old and again when she was nineteen years old. The Hundred Years War was raging in Europe and Norwich was the second biggest city in England at that time.
When she was thirty years old, for three days she lay dying and was given the last rites. On the fourth day her body developed a creeping paralysis and as the priest leaned over her, showing her a cross with an image of the crucified Christ, she experienced a revelation of what she described as divine love, where God spoke directly to her and told her that 'All would be well and all would be well and all manner of things would be well'. All together over the next few days she had sixteen visions and revelations in which God spoke directly to her.
She recovered and became a religious hermit called an anchoress at that time. She spent the remaining thirty years of her life walled up in a cell attached to St Julian's Church in Norwich. It is probable that she took the name of the church as her name when she took her religious vows and became known as Mother Julian. She spent her time telling pilgrims about her experiences, counselling them, and writing her book, which she called Revelations of Divine Love.
When we fall, He holds us lovingly, and graciously and swiftly raises us up. In all his work, He takes the part of the kindly nurse who has no other care but the welfare of her child. It is His responsibility to save us. It is His glory to do so, and it is His will that we should know it. Utterly at home, He lives in us forever.
She wrote her book in English and the text still exists, although it was hidden from the Church authorities of her day. At a time when the Church was all powerful and preached about a judgemental God who cast most people into Hell; and at a time when heretics were burned at the stake for reading the bible in English; Mother Julian of Norwich spoke and wrote about a God of unconditional love who cared for all humanity and looked upon sinners with pity not blame. She also wrote about the Motherhood of God. All contrary to the teachings of the Church of her day.
In 1970 I attended a lecture on some aspect of psychiatry by Professor Victor Frankl. I honestly forget what the lecture was about as I was much more interested in the man and his story.
Victor Frankl was born in Vienna in 1905 into a Jewish family of civil servants. He studied medicine and once qualified specialised in neurology and psychiatry. At the beginning of 1938 when the Nazis took over Austria, he was forbidden to treat non Jewish patients. In December 1941, he married Tilly Grosser. Less than a year later, Victor, his wife and his parents were deported to the Nazi Resienstadt ghetto. Here he worked as a GP, gave lectures organised suicide watches and tried to survive. Here his father died of pneumonia and malnutrition. In 1944, Victor and his wife were moved to Auschwitz concentration camp and later he was moved on to further camps before ending up in a satellite camp of Dachau, where he was eventually liberated by American soldiers.
For most of his time in the camps Victor was able to practice his profession among the inmates and give lectures. However he also spent five months in a labour camp where through a harsh winter with little food, clothing, footwear or rest he reached his lowest ebb. And it was here he had the experience I want to share with you. I will be happy to lend you my copy of his book. If you already have the book, please see Victor E Frankl, Man's Search For Meaning, published in 2004 by Rider, page 48.
After liberation, Victor Frankl discovered that only he and his sister were left alive. His wife and all the rest of their families had perished. Shortly after the War ended he published a book detailing his experience of surviving the concentration camps. Eventually in 1959 this book was published in English as Man's Search for Meaning and this is how I came to read it. In his book, he chronicled how he survived as a camp inmate, and how this experience led him to discover the importance of finding meaning in all forms of existence, even the most brutal ones, and thus find a reason to keep living. This discovery continued to shape both his therapeutic approach and his philosophical outlook for the rest of his life. He went on to have a distinguished career in psychiatry and published many books. He married again and had one daughter. He died aged ninety-one in 1997.
John was a man who lived in the North East of Scotland. I first met him because he had an acute fear of the sea. This was unfortunate in that he lived in a fishing village on the Moray Firth and worked on a ship. John was fifty years old. He had trained as a joiner, but many years before the lure of more money had persuaded him to take a job on a boat supplying the oil rigs in the North Sea. He was married with two grown up children who lived away from home. He had no religious convictions. A solitary man of few words, he enjoyed watching football and spent more time than was good for him in the pub.
A few months before we met, John was on a trip with supplies for a North Sea rig. Several hours from shore he was told to disentangle a cable on the side of the boat. While he was doing this he slipped and fell overboard. He was wearing his buoyancy aid so he floated and waited for the ship to turn 5 Mindfulness @ Lunchtime meets at St Mark’s at 12.15 on Tuesdays Interbeing Buddhist Meditation meets at St Mark’s every Thursday, usually at 19.15 For further information speak to Jon Bagust www.facebook.com/mindfulnessatlunchtime round and fish him out. But the ship went sailing on. In fact the ship sailed right out of sight. Now John was not wearing an immersion suit, and he knew he would not last very long in the sea without one. He grew very angry and bitter about the fact that no one had looked out for him as they should have, and no one missed him. He raged about this, cursing and swearing for some time. Then he was overcome by a feeling of profound love for his family, a love the likes of which he had never experienced before. He saw his wife and children, and an amazing white light the likes of which he could never explain. He felt at complete peace with his wife, his children and the world.
John was picked up by the supply ship. When it was realised he was missing, the ship returned to search for him. He was deeply unconscious when taken back on board, and winched up into a helicopter and flown to Aberdeen, where he was in a coma for three weeks.
John never returned to the sea but took up his old job as a joiner. He overcame his fear of the sea and would fish with friends in the Moray Firth. But at home he was a changed man. He no longer visited the pub, and drank a little alcohol only on social occasions. He paid attention to his wife and went out socially with her. He took an interest in his grown up children and visited them regularly. He often spoke about the feeling of overwhelming love he had experienced for his wife and family, and about the dazzling light. John felt he had experienced God, and said so. Although he never went to church except for wedding and funerals. John passed away peacefully in his sleep a few years ago. It was at the baptism of his first grandchild that this fairly inarticulate man first heard the words that meant so much to him. He kept them on a piece of paper in his wallet. These are the words from the Old Testament Chapter 6, verses 23-27.
The Lord bless thee and keep thee.
The Lord make his face to shine upon thee,
and be gracious unto thee.
The Lord lift up his countenance before thee,
and give thee peace.
Julian, Victor and John were facing death, starvation and hypothermia when they felt profound feelings of love which changed their lives forever. Today, Neurophysiologists would explain this phenomenon through changes in the chemistry of the brain. And who am I to disagree? All I would say is that 'Is it not wonderful that the human brain should be so arranged that it was love and not terror, anger and despair that they experienced.' I would suggest that these three people underwent a profound spiritual experience that changed their lives forever.
Copyright Margaret Ross used by permission given in St Mark’s on 15 January 2017
Margaret Ross is a member of Unitarians in Edinburgh.
If you would like to borrow Margaret Ross’ copies of Mother Julian’s book, Revelations of Divine Love, and also Victor Frankl’s book, Man's Search For Meaning, please email firstname.lastname@example.org