Claire Gilbert, ‘Miles to go before I sleep: Letters on hope, death, and learning to live’ London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2021, £16.99
Claire Gilbert, who is to give the Julian Lecture in 2022, has myeloma, an incurable cancer of the blood. As a consequence of this diagnosis, Claire asked her siblings and a small group of friends if she may write to them, an excellent therapy, externalising and journaling her feelings. She writes with complete honesty and luminosity what she is going through as she goes through it and the result is not only a beautiful piece of writing but a book that can, I feel, bring solace to her readers. The letters chart Claire’s journey through diagnosis, chemotherapy, stem cell treatment, and, of course, the pandemic.
Claire writes about the restorative part nature, politics, poetry, and humour play, alongside a deep and abiding exploration of the spiritual dimension of death and dying, and part of that restoration, part of that exploration, are the writings of Julian of Norwich read and remembered by Claire.
Director of Westminster Abbey Institute, Claire is not only a profoundly spiritual person but she is also a deeply gifted academic, speaker, and writer. At some point I had invited folk to donate their theses and dissertations to the Julian Library, and Claire, on a visit to Norwich, gave us a bound copy of her PhD, 'Restoring Porosity and the Ecological Crisis: A Post-Ricoeurian Reading of the Julian of Norwich Texts'.
'Miles to go' is rich in its quotations from the Revelations of Divine Love and Claire’s responses to them, so much so that it is obvious that Claire has fully integrated Julian’s writings into the deepest places of her soul. Two quotations stand out, one from Claire’s early days of diagnosis: ‘The place that Jesu taketh in our soul he shall never remove without end, as to my sight, for in us is his homeliest home and his endless dwelling’ (p22); and one from much later on during the third part of Claire’s treatment: ‘even Julian cries out for her pain to stop when she experiences in her own body Christ’s pains as he is dying on the cross … And now I feel I am not alone,’ writes Claire, ‘and I am comforted’ (p179). Oh, that we could all say this in our many and various illnesses.
As Rowan Williams writes, ‘This is not and is not meant to be easy reading … it is about the way faith has to be sensed in body and spirit together.’ Indeed, as Claire herself writes, ‘Pain like love, has to be experienced if it is to be known. That is Julian’s vision’ (p7).
Seemingly indefatigable, Claire is currently writing a book focused on Julian. Meanwhile, I for one cannot wait to hear Claire next May.
Rev. Dr Luke Penkett, CJN, ObJN