In the midst of terrible isolation, reading Julian’s feverish words about her visions helped me feel sane. Here was another woman, enclosed.
This is a columnin which Alice Lesperance considers our culture and her own experiences through the lens of Medieval literature.
Revelations of Divine Love
I wonder what it must have felt like, for Julian, to be enclosed not just physically, but spiritually. To be the middle part of the snake between the head and the tail, comforted by the endless circling and the lack of redirection or disruption. Her enclosure was rapturous, and it made her feel safe.
Julian writes, “I desired a bodily sight wherein I might have more knowledge of the bodily peynes of our Saviour.” She wishes and hopes for the visions to find her. She gets the chance when she’s on her deathbed, when she’s praying to experience suffering as Christ has suffered. She knows she’s going to die, and she wants to die like Christ died, with all of his pain. Imagine being so sick that you’re going to die, and begging God to make the pain worse.
Reading Julian’s feverish words about her visions helped me feel sane. Here was another woman, enclosed.
In October of 2015, I wrote, “I can’t trust my own mind, my own thoughts, and because of that, I’m afraid.” I kept a record in my journal, a chart. I love lists and charts; I’m not the type to stay organized in any consistent way, but when there’s chaos, lists help me. I titled this chart “First Week on Meds,” and used it to list and organize the mental, emotional, and physical effects I experienced for the week I was on antidepressants: panic attacks, no appetite, clenched teeth, cold sweats, and hallucinations. It was a week that ended with me walking into traffic, catatonic.
The pages before and after the chart are filled with desperate sentences, fragmented lists, and worrying doodles. There’s a page with writing so frantic I can’t make it out, except for a line that reads, “(i have to stop isolating myself),” and another page that’s just the word “lonely” written over and over.
I wrote and wrote while I lost my mind, and when I wasn’t writing in the park or at coffee shops, I was writing in that room, in that house. Living in that room was like a haunting, but I was the only one there.
Rereading those journals now is painful, like looking at someone I wronged right in the eye and wanting so badly to look away. It’s me at my lowest, my most desperate. It’s remembering an exercise in survival, every painful step. Reading it now, I wonder if Julian ever reread her Revelations; if she ever paused over the part that briefly describes her near-death experience. Did she draft her book, rearrange, restructure, and remember, again and again? Or did she write it out and leave it, like an expulsion? Did she stop writing at the end of it all and tuck it away, like I did?
My enclosure offered absolutely no comfort. Julian’s was rapturous, safe; unlike a haunting—and I envy her that. I’ve written the same essay again and again and again, to try to make sense of my year of isolation. Julian lived a lifetime of it, and though we have very little insight into how she felt about living alone, she had a sense of purpose that I lacked.
Because we know little about her and because I’m not bound by academic rigidity, I feel a sense of freedom imagining her in her cell, writing. Julian’s life is an open book filled with never-ending blank pages on which I project my worst thoughts and my own memories, and call it healing. I wrote journal entries that are unbearable to revisit, but I can read the story of My Lonely Year in the lines of Julian’s theology, even now. I can’t explain it, which is why I write about it compulsively. At the end of the day, why does this fourteenth-century theological treatise feel so crucial to me?
Julian lays on her bed, and she wishes to feel pain like Christ did. It’s more than that—she wants to feel Christ’s pain: his and no one else’s, especially not her own. She’s dying in her own painful, human way, and she asks God to show her how He felt. I get stuck on that, circling within the truth of it. Revelations of Divine Love says to me, “I will give you my pain so that you can feel it instead of your own, and that will heal you.” And it did. Julian did.
Alice Lesperance is a 27-year-old writer based in North Carolina, where she lives with her wife and their cat, Stevie Nicks. She writes about trauma, (pop)culture and politics. Find her at alicelesperance.com and on twitter @ayelesperance.